In May, the tarpon are migrating north up the Gulf Coast along the beaches from south to north and will be in anywhere from eight feet of water to 15 feet. These fish are pouring out of the keys and traveling, so they’re schooled up and competitive and very hungry because they’re burning a lot of energy.
What we do is run the beach either north or south looking for schools of fish. The average school of tarpon can be anywhere from 80 to 200 fish and when you find one, shut down the motor at least 200 yards away and approach the school on your trolling motor or let them come to you so that you don’t spook them or make them aware of your presence so they won’t bite. Early morning and late afternoon/dusk are going to be when the fish feed best because of the lack of boat traffic and fishing pressure during those times.
Position your boat ahead of the school and off to one side so the school doesn’t just swim right up to the boat and spook. By staying off to one side, you can use your trolling motor to position the boat for your anglers to cast in front of the school and let the fish swim up to the baits like they would naturally. Do not bomb the tarpon by throwing baits right on their heads! Gifts from God do not fall out of the sky, and the fish know this and will spook or shut down if a crab or threadfin suddenly splats in the water on top of them. You’ll know when the school is spooked because they’ll slap their tails on the surface. If that happens, you should back away from the school, and either run up ahead of them several hundred yards or use your trolling motor to stay ahead of them until they calm down. If you chase them, they’ll just speed up and stop biting.
The baits of choice for these fish are live crabs or threadfin herring or pinfish on 60 pound fluorocarbon leader and a 6/0 circle hook. You can freeline the baits or put them on a float—I like the float because we always know where out baits are in conjunction with the tarpon school. A lot of times a threadfin will see the tarpon approaching and swim out of their path, and because your line is in the water, you can’t tell where the bait is.
I like to fish them on 30-pound spinning tackle and an eight-foot rod with a 50 or 60-pound leader depending on the clarity of the water or if the fish are swimming by baits and not eating them. You’ll want the longer rod for making long casts with a live crab or threadfin. If the water is super clear or your baits are getting denied, you’ll want to drop to the lighter leader to get the bite. You may lose a fish or two, but at least you got the bite.
Our average fish is around 80 pounds, with fish pushing 140 pounds at times.
There’s an etiquette to fishing the tarpon on the beach that should be followed at all times. The first boat to find the school gets to fish it until they hook up. Stay a couple of hundred yards away from them at all times so you don’t spook the fish. Once they hook up and pull their fish away from the school, let the school move a couple of hundred yards to calm down and then move in and fish them.
Once you hook up, move away from the school so you pull your fish out of it. If your fish stays with the school, it’ll be harder to land, and also the next boat won’t be able to fish them. Try to stay close to the beach and don’t follow the fish out to deeper water if it tries to run to the west, as that will also prolong the fight. When you get the fish to the side of the boat, grab the leader and pull it to you, grab its mouth, remove the hook and pose it for a photo while in the water. Be sure to spend a few minutes reviving the fish before you let it go, so that you know it will survive. The fish you release today, may be the bigger fish you catch next year!