Tarpon Fishing Rigs
Frequent jumps and long runs are all part of tarpon fishing.
The key to catching tarpon today is using wide-gap circle hooks. Don't pick the offset variety, which is slightly twisted from a true circle. For big tarpon, go with 14/0 or 16/0 circle hooks, since these fish have a mouth like a 5-gallon bucket. Gibson, who pioneered tarpon fishing with big circle hooks in the 1970s, favored a big, lightly rusted (tarnished) 16/0 circle hook that settled fully over a tarpon's lip before digging in "like a can opener," as he called it. Keep in mind you have to refrain from setting a circle hook. This usually isn't a problem; the freight-train strike of a big tarpon can be so sudden, so shocking, you're more inclined to hang on for dear life rather than "raring back" like they do on the Saturday TV fishing shows.
Start with 80-pound leader and work up to 200. Ande offers 50-yard spools in a variety of sizes. A long, drawn-out fight with a big tarpon can easily result in 80-pound leader giving way, chewed through by a tarpon's huge raspy sandpaper lips. In the open Gulf, we've seen 200-pound leader frazzled and well-chewed by tarpon, but it always held — unless a cruel blacktip shark chomped down on it.
Instead of knots we use metal crimps that match the leader's diameter. Captain Curtiss Cash, our favorite tarpon guide in Texas, ties a strong loop knot to his hooks. A snell knot works as well on lighter leader for smaller tarpon. At the other end of the leader, forget using snap swivels, use a barrel swivel — a strong smallish black swivel of 200-pound strength.
Fishing Lures for Tarpon
Tarpon eat surprisingly small critters, which is why they're caught on fly tackle. The most effective tarpon lure used by regular fishermen are popular Coon Pops, which are really just worm jigs, though dwarfed by the big circle hook attached on top. They capitalize on the fact that tarpon eat small wiggly critters. Set out five CPs of different colors behind the boat, bump-troll slowly or cast them at a rolling tarpon school and watch what happens — Louisiana anglers (where these lures originated) have been earning multiple hookups with huge tarpon for more than 20 years. To build Coon Pops, cut off the curve of the jig's hook with bolt cutters. Then, attach the big circle hook to the jig's hook eye, using wire or a plastic tie-wrap. Small, orange 4-inch tie-wraps seem ideal for Coon-Popping.
Live Fishing Bait
Somehow the majority of coastal fishermen, and even some tarpon anglers, haven't figured out the basics of throwing a cast net. It's almost a lost art, with marina frozen bait so easily available. Unfortunately marinas will never offer live 8-inch mullet because they bruise and become listless within a few hours. The tarpon angler is well-advised to learn how to spin a cast net, rounding up live bait that no marina can offer. It's easy. Buy a 5-foot radius cast net and practice throwing at targets in your back yard — a paper plate, perhaps. Soon enough, mind and cas tnet become one and the net sails with great accuracy exactly where you want it. Even a smallish net thrown accurately will catch up to 20 sizeable mullet that most tarpon crave.
A tarpon chomps down on bait.
Mullet and most baitfish often remain hidden, however, but watch for ripples and jumps. That's when simple blind throws along shorelines, in boat harbors, canals or even off the beach will suffice. Concentrate on throwing perfect circles, instead of "bananas" where the net doesn't open. Mullet, menhaden, croaker, ribbonfish and sand trout are kept in the live well. Stock up, because bull redfish, jacks, blacktip sharks and even ***-rustling gafftop catfish may clean out your bait supply.
Basic Boat Tips
Tarpon schools offshore generally do not like outboard motors. Serious tarpon anglers use a strong electric trolling motor to stay mobile around moving tarpon schools; that certainly worked for us. Super-serious tarpon guys use inboard motors, because the exhaust exits above water, making these boats far more stealthy in open water, especially when slow-trolling Coon Pops. Jetty tarpon seem more acclimated to engine noise. A roomy 22-foot boat or bigger certainly helps in choppy weather. If you fish with small kids, a cabin offers them nap space and shelter from the elements. And regardless of boat design, adding strong, extra rod holders in the gunnels will help present a bigger spread of baits.
When to Fish Tarpon
Except South Florida, August and September are considered prime months. Tarpon migrate south in autumn, though their pace varies according to severity of cold fronts. We always ended our tarpon crusades by Halloween, ready for other pursuits.
Catch a big tarpon, and you'll be a fan forever. There's nothing like this fish. But do the tarpon population a favor — don't drag them into the boat for a hero picture. Take a photo when he's alongside, twist that circle hook out, and let him go. For taxidermy, measure the length and girth while in the water, release it and order a fiberglass mount that will last decades. Much better than a skin mount whose oil content later turns rancid, turning the entire fish an oily brown color.
Check out Tarpon Fishing Basics Part 1 for information on fishing reels, line and what got me hooked on fishing tarpon.
Written by Captain Joe Richardson for Bass Pro Shops