One of the best inshore light-tackle fishing options available to anglers during August and September is stalking small tarpon. These 5- to 40-pound silverkings provide one of the most thrilling battles to be encountered anywhere in Florida. Spectacular leaps and long, drag-ripping runs are the norm once these fish feel the point of a hook. But finding them and coaxing them into biting can be tricky. The following are a few tips that I have put together from years of looking for them and trying to figure them out.
Where to look
Finding the fish is perhaps the most difficult part of catching juvenile tarpon. They can be found in a wide variety of places, many of which are far from where flats fishermen are likely to look. These areas include brackish and even fresh water miles from the Gulf of Mexico.
High school buddy Ken Krysko and I spent a great deal of our teen years delving deep into the woods, weeds and other inhospitable places following tiny creeks and canals in search of new tarpon holes. We often found them in spots such as stagnant landlocked freshwater ponds, creeks that were almost completely overgrown with hydrilla and duckweed, golf course lakes and even sewage treatment plant effluents. In all of these spots, the fish were often more gold than their trademark silver.
One of the lessons we learned was that these particular fish preferred to be as far from people and fishing pressure as they could.
Many times we would find them rolling in a small open section of water after pulling our leaky johnboat through dense brush for a great distance. In some of the really tight spots, we could not even use our fly rods because there was no room to swing a backcast. Other times we would have to make roll casts into 20-foot-wide openings in the weeds. In such spots it was relatively common to have the 10-pound tarpon jump into overhanging trees or bushes and break out lines or land on a mat of muck and flop around for a moment before wiggling back into the dark water.
Those spots were usually at the very end of where tributary creeks ended inland, so that is where we would look most often.
Closer to the gulf, small tarpon can often be found in deep residential canals and river bends. They will spend most of the day at the bottom usually out of sight. The best time to look for them is from daybreak until 9 a.m., when they will actively roll at the surface, and this is when you will have your best chance at catching them. Once the surface water becomes heated, the fish remain submerged.
On occasion, small summer tarpon will congregate along channel edges bordering the outside grassflats or mangroves overhanging deep water beneath them.
The fish are likely to be found where there is an unusual abundance of baitfish, the favorite being glass minnows. When the bait leaves these places, so do the tarpon — once again making them hard to track.
How well small tarpon bite is often determined by where you find them.
Those found in residential canals and busy areas can be remarkably frustrating to catch. If they are used to people casting at them, they will simply ignore nearly all baits that are offered.
While I have yet to find a great trick to catching those fish, we have had some success by switching from scaled sardines to less common baits such as finger mullet.
Tarpon found in remote backwater locations are much more likely to bite. Small live tilapia worked well for live bait and were usually readily available nearby.
The small tarpon found feeding on glass minnows are always the easiest to hook. Because they are actively feeding, a 3-inch live sardine will usually be inhaled quickly.
For live baitfishing, we use a 2/0 or 3/0 Mutu circle hook exclusively. This hook design is far superior to "J" hooks in its ability to hold once the fish goes airborne. The circle hook also reduces the likelihood of gut-hooking the fish.
Leader size is directly dependent of the size of the tarpon. The smallest fish can be caught on 20-pound test leader. For 10- to 20-pounders, 30-pound test fluorocarbon is usually sufficient. If there are 20- to 40-pounders around, you will want to use 40 or they will often chew through it.
The thrill of discovering your own secret tarpon hole is topped only by hooking and landing one of these great fish with no one else around.