Ask a veteran tarpon fisherman his favorite size silverking to catch and the answer may surprise you. Quite a few will say they like the small ones best. On light tackle these miniature tarpon are just as challenging as their adult counterparts and put up a great fight. Best of all, they do not require hours of exhaustive labor to bring in.
Where to find them
During the late summer months juvenile tarpon from 5 to 25 pounds become a common sight at a variety of locations in Hernando, Pasco and Pinellas counties. The Anclote and Cotee rivers hold good numbers of them.
The key to finding these river tarpon is being on the water at first light. They roll frequently from daybreak until about 10 a.m. After that they move to the bottom and become difficult to find, particularly since the water is heavily tannic stained. Heavy rainfall and outgoing freshwater seem to move the fish from the upper stretches of these rivers closer to the mouths.
Other places to look are the upper stretches of canals and creeks, especially if there are brackish lakes at the headwaters.
When tarpon are born they begin life as free-floating organisms. These larval creatures float with the currents and winds, often ending up in ditches and ponds that are far from the open gulf. Here they mature into tiny tarpon that remain in the backwaters until they grow large enough to survive in open water.
Finding their nursery locations can be challenging. When I was a teenager my fishing buddy and I spent a lot of time scouring the backwater canals and lakes looking for juvenile tarpon. This often involved hiking through dense woods or paddling his old jon boat with the leaky rivets way back into the woods. There, under overhanging trees in extremely dense weeds, or even at the stinky outfall of sewage treatment plants, we found our quarry.
Peculiar feeding habits
There are few fish as picky about what and when they eat as a juvenile tarpon. Some days they are happy to pounce on a topwater plug; other days they run from it. As far as artificial baits, one of the most reliable is a soft plastic jerkbait. The subtle action of these lures is enough to entice a strike but not so bright or noisy that it will scare fish that are lying still on the surface or just plain nervous. Neutrally weighted hard plastic plugs are another good choice.
Another reason small tarpon are so popular with aficionados is their willingness to take a fly. There are days that they will bite a fly better than just about anything.
Live bait works well for small tarpon, too, provided you have found them in an area where carrying live bait is feasible. If the water is too fresh, scaled sardines will struggle to survive in your bait well. In such areas small live mullet, known to many as finger mullet, are the next best thing.
My favorite outfit for catching tarpon in the 10- to 30-pound class is an 8 weight fly rod rigged with a floating line. On the terminal end I use 9 feet of 30-pound test fluorocarbon leader. Fly size should be matched to fit the size fish you are seeing. For the smaller ones a bend-back pattern tied on a 1/0 hook works well.
As the weight of the fish gets into double digits, a 2/0 or 3/0 may be called for. On the larger size hook a deceiver pattern with some flashy mylar is one of the best.
Spinning gear can be as light as you care to fish it. Line as thin as 6- or 8-pound test will work, provided you keep your drag fairly light and remember to bow the rod toward the fish with each jump. If the fish falls away and the line stretches tight in midair it will probably break.
Tarpon do not have teeth but their rough jaws do wear on your leader. Be sure to use at least 25-pound test leader with 30 the preferred choice. Even 30 will be worn through on occasion but stepping up to 40-pound will cause a reduction in the number of strikes.
At the boat
Handling juvenile tarpon should be done carefully. Their mouth structures are paper thin in some parts and can be easily damaged with fish holding devices or even your fingers. It is best to simply put a thumb into their mouth and put the "bass hold" on their lower lip while leaving them in the water.
Once the hook is removed, give them a shove away from the boat and let them go. If you happen to see one roll over or float belly-up, grab him and give him a little revival. Sometimes they go into a state of shock but can be easily woken up with a bit of help.