You’ve set your sights on the next big fishing challenge: catching the biggest tarpon fish in Florida!
So what do you need to know to succeed?
Read on to learn bout tarpon fish, their movements around Florida, when to head out on an excursion, and how you bag yourself the biggest one in your next catch.
The Silver King: What Is a Prehistoric Tarpon Fish?
The so-called silver king of the waters, the tarpon fish, is a prehistoric Megalops. Much like the ancestor of the great white shark Megalodon, Megalops is so-called because of its impressive size and the lightning-like flash its scales create.
In Florida, they have weighed in at a whopping 243 lbs – the heaviest on record. But many non-recorded catches live on in local lore.
Tarpon fish were swimming in the waters of Earth 113 million years ago – thriving during the Cretaceous period, during its Albian stage to be precise. This means tarpon predate even some of the dinosaurs.
There are in fact two types of tarpon fish – one species comes from the Atlantic, the other from the Indo-Pacific Oceans such as the tropical waters of India, Indonesia, and the central Pacific.
The Atlantic Tarpon In Florida
Atlantic tarpon swims on the western Atlantic coast from Virginia to Brazil, migrating from the Caribbean islands and to the Gulf of Mexico. They are also found on the eastern Atlantic coast from Senegal to South Angola.
Like their Indo-Pacific counterparts, they swim in both freshwater and saltwater habitats. They can thrive in water with little oxygen, brackish water, and among varying PH levels. Tarpons also swim to the surface to take the air above the water.
Freshwater tarpons are mostly found in Florida rivers that are dark, shallow, and warm. The fish in these areas are likely to be juvenile or newly-adult. Once fully grown, they often migrate back to the seas, but some still stay in the rivers. This means you’re likely to catch an adult when fishing in Florida.
Despite their hardy nature, the temperature is an issue. They thrive in waters of between 72 and 82 °F. Anything below 60 °F will slow them down completely and anything under 40 °F will likely kill them.
Florida-based scientists have been studying tarpon fish more in recent years, with the Florida Marine Research Institute working on a track and release study on select specimens.
They are often hunted by other fish when they are smaller, or birds. Birds target them when they leap or roll near the surface of the waters. In Florida, alligators and crocodiles will hunt them too. They make a mean feast for sharks and porpoises also.
Because tarpons surface regularly, Florida fishermen or women are more likely to make a catch. They are easy to spot when they break out from underneath the waves and make an appearance, with their silvery scales easily identifiable.
They often rise in groups of 20 or 30 fish, rolling and splashing around. This is why they are such easy targets for birds and sharks.
Size, Weight, and Features
On record thus far, Florida-based tarpons weigh in at 243 lbs. But larger tarpon fish exist elsewhere. The largest to date is 280lbs. Females can be as big as 300 lbs. They grow to 1.2m to 2.4m.
The oldest tarpon on record, in captivity, lived until it was 63 years old. But typically females live to 50 years while males die around 30 years old.
Mostly displaying a silvery hue, their scales are also blue/green on the backs of their bodies. Their lower-jaws jut out below their mouths, which are broad. They also feature large eyes.
They do not have teeth and swallow their prey all at once. This means a fisherman needs a hard hook to capture a tarpon successfully. This is another reason for their trophy fish status.
Female tarpons can lay up to 12 million eggs at once, meaning they are in large supply.
Tarpon fish use their bladder to swim. This means their bladder acts as an airway, like a lung, enabling them to breathe raw air. They also breathe through their gills, meaning they’ve got many ways to inhale oxygen.
This unique feature proves tarpons are adept at fighting once caught – they can survive out of the water and when distressed a lot more resiliently than certain other fish.
Tarpon and Game Fishing
Tarpon fish are some of the most coveted species for fishermen and women. Not only are they impressively large, but they also are very active and leap and thrash energetically. Especially when caught.
The tarpon fish will always put up a fight against someone trying to catch it, so to catch one is a feat. You can compete in tarpon fishing for who can bag the largest catch.
The good news for tarpons is that, despite their size, they are not good enough for eating. This means fishing for tarpons is more a sport, and they are usually released back to the water. In Florida, it is mostly compulsory to throw a tarpon fish back once hooked. This is what our fishing company on Marco Island recommends.
Species found around Panama and Africa sell at markets for eating, however, considered local delicacies in these areas and enjoyed often by local populations.
Tarpon Season in Florida
Tarpons are mostly fished close to the shores. It is illegal to catch a tarpon in Florida and not release it back to the waters.
The only instance you can keep the catch is if you are competing for an IGFA world record and have purchased a $50 Tarpon tag. This is only permitted for one person per year.
The excellent thing about tarpon fishing at Marco Island is that there is no closed season. The high season is between May and July. The low season is January to February and then again from October to December. But you can fish here all year round.
The beautiful area is a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico off Southwest Florida, linked to the mainland by bridges south of the city of Naples. It’s ideal for fishing due to having a network of inland waterways.
Upper, Middle, and Lower Keys
Near the Florida Keys, tarpon fish are present all year. But peak season in the Upper and Middle Keys runs mid-March until mid-July. In the spring, you will find them on the Bay side, but they move to the Atlantic side as the summer approaches.
In the Upper Keys and Middle Keys, the best spots are:
- Channel Bridges
- Tom’s Harbor
- Seven Mile Bridge
- Long Key
- Jack Bank (Marathon)
- Buchanan Bank (Islamorada Key)
May until late July are also best in the Lower Keys, but Key West Harbor is best for fishing in January through March.
In the Lower Keys, the best spots are:
- Key West Harbor
- Bahia Honda Bridge
- Marquesas Keys
Specifically in Miami, deep cuts with rushing water attract tarpon shoals. Miami’s port is an excellent spot for tarpon catching, from Miami Beach from Fisher Island.
Best to aim for the end half of the day – later in the afternoon and the early evenings. This is where the tarpon flees the hot sunshine. When the moon is full in the spring, tarpons are found here most of all.
In the fall, mullets are rife in this area as they migrate along the beaches. The best spots here are:
- Haulover Inlet
- Bear Cut
- Biscayne Bay
- Key Largo
Everglades National Park and the Ten Thousand Islands
In the Everglades and Ten Thousand Island, tarpons can be caught all year but the peak seasons are March through July, during the receding tide. The best spots are:
- The Sandy Key
- Rabbit Key Basins
- Lake Ingraham
- Lostman River
- Harney Rivers
- Turner River at Chokoloskee
Florida’s West Coast
The tarpon fishing season stars later around the West Coast of Florida, from May. It is also cut short in June. However, it then continues throughout the remainder of the summer season around Apalachicola Bay.
The best spots are:
- Boca Grande
- The flats surrounding Homosassa Bay
- Crystal River
- Apalachicola Bay
The fishing season is earlier in the year on the Atlantic Coast of Florida. It is from January to June. The best spots are the ports and inlets south of Biscayne Bay, such as Government Cut and Port Everglades.
Bait for Catching Tarpon Fish
You are only allowed to use a hook and line when tarpon fishing in Florida. Here are the preferred methods of baiting: fish, shrimp, and artificial bait.
Bait – Fish
To catch tarpon fish, the most popular bait are pinfish.
This natural method is best when fishing during the ebb tide when fishing up-current. The bait is used to naturally drift over to the tarpon.
Pilchards and mullet are also effective in live baiting. These are best hooked at the fins (anal or dorsal) so they this doesn’t kill them. They will then be able to swim still and capture the attention of the tarpon.
You can also use dead fish as bait.
Bait – Shrimp
Threading or hooking a large shrimp under its horn and free lining it will be the best way to catch a tarpon.
With this method, using a float is not recommended. It stops the live shrimp from swimming along naturally and attracting the tarpon fish. The movement is what will attract the attention of the tarpon.
Chumming the water with smaller pieces of shrimp will also help.
Bait – Artificial
Try gator spoons, natural Rapala magnums, mirrolure (65M or 77M in size, 18 or 21 in color), or green, black or red plastic worms.
These are better used on the flats of Florida. They should be used with a light line. Cast the line close enough to fish so that they can see them. Spinning lures and plugs should be allowed to sink, retrieved at a gentle pace, and allowed to intermittently pull at the rod tip.
Rapalas, Rebels, and round-headed crappie jigs should be used in canals and rivers which lead to saltwater flats. You will be fined if you use a weighted lure for tarpon fishing.
This is determined by the river bottom. Take an orange, yellow, and red fly with you if the bottom is sandy. Gray, blue, and green in a lighter shade will be better if there is grass along the bottom.
Use flies that are white, or dark stripes, when you are hunting tarpon feeding on live fish bait, specifically mullet. Use black for dirty water, and avoid fly fishing for tarpon around bridges.
As mentioned earlier, tarpon fish have bony mouths and can be tricky to hook. Because they are active and feisty, this also adds to the challenge.
The answer: circle hooks!
Connect your live bait to the circle hook and free-line it so it moves with the current. This means the tarpon will too, causing them less desire to panic. Alternatively, tie the line a few feet above the bait to a balloon. This will break away when the tarpon strikes.
Remove slack when a strike occurs and the circle hook will connect to the jaw of the tarpon. Apply a medium to heavy spin and a sturdy measure of fluorocarbon leader. Rember, these fish are big.
Be aware that you will throw the fish back. If you battle with one for too long and it gets away, it will be exhausted and less savvy when it comes to escaping natural hunters out there. The point of tarpon fishing in Florida is to keep things humane and to release your catch.
Also, single hooks will make sure the jaw is not permanently damaged.
The hooked fish will try and swim away and, if you’re in a boat, follow it. Apply pressure and make sure you have a lot of line to work with.
The fish will likely throw itself up into the air, at which point you need to bow. Point your rod at the tarpon, lean forward, and create a line slack. Be wary that the line could break when this happens.
Book Your Florida Tarpon Fishing Trip Now
Now you know all about how, where, and when to catch tarpon fish in Florida, be sure to book your excursion with us.
We have fishing charters in Marco Island – and area popular for massive tarpons. We’ll take you out on a tour of between 4-8 hours and, along with 18 years of expertise, be sure to treat you to the best tarpon fishing of your life.
Don’t hesitate in contacting us for more information and to plan your trip. Call the captain to book a tour at (239) 301-8913.