Any day now, long lines of large silver gamefish with glittering scales can be seen making their way along Miami Beach from Haulover Inlet to Government Cut, and throughout Florida Bay and the Atlantic side of the Florida Keys. It’s Tarpon Time–that bewitching season when local anglers and those from all over flock to South Florida in hopes of engaging in glorious battle with one of the hardest-fighting and most enigmatic fish in the world.
From now through about the end of June, wherever coastal water temperatures hit that magical 75-degree mark, schools of tarpon will aggregate in the annual marine version of the singles bar, looking to hook up, and then later head off to deeper water to spawn. If tide and weather conditions are favorable, they might just hook up with you too– tempted by your offerings of live shrimp, crabs or mullet, or maybe a realistic fly pattern or swimming plug. But catching and releasing a tarpon is NEVER a given.
“Remember– tarpon are a mystery,” said veteran light-tackle guide Captain Joe Gonzalez of Miami, who fishes customers in his 18-foot Hells Bay skiff, “Funny Bone”.
According to Gonzalez, March through May is prime time for pursuing tarpon in Biscayne Bay. In early winter, he said, the fish key on shrimp migrating through passes and channels on the outgoing tide at night.
In March, he said, “they’re already moving inside the bay– in the inlets, basins, channels, and around the bridges. If the weather gets nasty, they move offshore and go south, then you get another push of fish.”
Daytime fishing gets better, and as the waters warm and flush swarms of swimming crabs, it’s time to use those silver-dollar-sized crustaceans for bait.
Gonzalez likes to fly fish for tarpon on the ocean side of the Biscayne Bay barrier islands all the way south to Key Largo.
“They’re rolling and you can sight-fish for them in the basins and areas where they stage,” he said.
There is nothing quite like sight-fishing for tarpon– especially with a fly rod, since it’s always a challenge to entice a wild animal to eat a man-made creation of fur and feathers.
You have to cast your bait very near the tarpon’s mouth because it doesn’t want to work very hard to catch a meal. Once the fish engulfs the offering, you must set the hook before it can spit it out– a tricky business that goes wrong more than it goes right. When the tarpon realizes it has a hook in its jaw, it almost always jumps out of the water, and you have to see it coming and perform the maneuver of ‘bowing to the silver king’– pointing the rod down and toward the fish. If all goes well and you are still connected, you’ll probably be engaged in battle for quite some time–either until you bring the fish up to the gunwales to be released or it breaks your line. Good luck.
Biscayne Bay doesn’t harbor as many tarpon during the spring as the Keys, Gonzalez says, because the waters of the island chain are a convergence zone for tarpon migrating from both the Gulf and Atlantic. But you might find Biscayne Bay to be less crowded with anglers than the busy flats of the Keys, and the fish tend to hang out in the bay into July– after they’ve gone AWOL in the Keys.
In the Keys, you’ll find tarpon in the channels beneath the U.S. 1 bridges; on the flats and channels in the vast back country; along the edges of ocean side flats; and there’s usually big school right in busy Key West Harbor. Baits include pilchards, mullet, crabs, and pinfish.
One phenomenon peculiar to the Keys is the palolo worm hatch which usually occurs on the full and new moons of May and June during a falling tide in late afternoon.
When these magenta-colored marine worms start popping to the surface, tarpon gobble them to the exclusion of everything else. One Key West guide describes the fish as acting like they’re on LSD. Double-digit releases on fly patterns that imitate the worms are common. Even if you miss all your strikes, it’s a marvel to observe.
Tarpon charter openings are filling up fast. To book a trip with any Outfitter Click Here or call the Travel Desk at 800-513-5257.
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