Whether you are brand new to fishing or a seasoned angler, fishing for tarpon is a thrill unlike any other. Fisherman come from all over to the warm waters of the Florida Keys to catch these prehistoric beasts. One of the most exciting game fish to hook: tarpon put up an incredible, aerobatic fight that certainly gives fishermen a run for their money!
Tarpon, also known as the “Silver King” range between the sizes of 4 and 8 feet typically, although some have been caught measuring over 9 feet! They can weigh between 60 and 250 pounds thus having the poundage to put up a good fight. Females are larger than the males and live longer. Males generally live to be 30 years old while females can live up to 50 years!
Tarpon have the unique ability to control the air in their swim bladder and use some of the air for respiration. They are also able to “breath” air from the surface unlike any other fish; they can “roll” for an extra air gulped by mouth. This extra bit of oxygen gives them a burst of energy. These giant game fish put up such a thrilling fight because while they are fighting they are jumping and taking in more oxygen, giving them more energy to fight longer. This “rolling” of the tarpon also makes them easy for anglers to spot since they breach the surface so often. They are especially easy to spot in big groups.
From March to October the warm waters of the Florida Keys draw tarpon south to feed and spawn. Tarpon grow slowly and do not mature sexually until about 7 years of age. The first few years of life they are small and defenseless and spend their time in shallow estuaries for protection from large predators. Tarpon are able to live in less oxygenated waters because of their ability to gulp air allowing them to live where other fish aren’t able.
Tarpon are mainly opportunistic eaters. They are toothless and swallow their prey whole. At younger ages they feed on crustaceans, shrimp, crabs, sardines, and easy prey and adopt fish into their diet when they are bigger. When fishing for tarpon the best bait is live mullet which is hooked through the lip and dragged behind the boat.
Got one on the line!
When a tarpon is hooked it immediately starts jumping, thrashing and pulling violently. At this time, depending on location, some anglers hook their anchor to a buoy and free-float letting the tarpon run with the boat and tire itself out. This is the exhilarating fight that fisherman are seeking! The explosive, airborne moves of the tarpon are thrilling to watch and even more exciting to fight against! In Key West, the best location to catch a monster tarpon is close to shore: in the shallow flats or close to bridges with a fast moving current.
After a long fight, the tarpon although seemingly full of energy is actually tired, weak and delicate at this time. While it is ill-advised to take a tarpon out of the water at all, many anglers want a photo with the catch-of-the-day. If this is the case, the only safe way to do so is quickly (15 seconds or less) and holding the fish horizontally; a tarpons’ body is not used to gravity and holding it vertically may shift its’ internal organs.
The Release is Key
The release of the fish is also very important in its tired state, if done improperly the fish may die. It is important that the fish swims away horizontally. This is ensured by supporting the tarpons’ stomach and giving it a forward thrust so that it can swim away naturally. If the tarpon is too tired and begins sinking it will sink to the bottom and die. If the simple forward thrust doesn’t work the next option is to slowly idle the boat forward holding the fish parallel to the boat until it is ready to swim on its own. Releasing the fish safely is important so the fish can live to be caught again!