No fish are more game than tarpon. They jump like crazed banshees; are remarkably strong; readily strike bass-size plugs, flies and bait; are abundant in many places; and grow to enormous size. Fish in the 80 to 100 pound class are common, ones over 150 pounds are caught regularly, and “baby” tarpon under 25 pounds often spend more time in the air than in the water after they’re hooked.
Best of all, you don’t need a passport to have great tarpon fishing. Much of the world’s best silver king angling is available right at home, in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Here are a couple outstanding locations for great domestic tarpon action.
Boca Grande Pass, Florida
Located at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor near the town of Fort Myers, Florida, Boca Grande Pass has the largest known concentration of tarpon in the world. Historically May and June are tops, but in recent years outstanding fishing has gotten underway as early as late April when there are comparatively few fishermen around.
Fishing for silver kings is practiced several ways, with fly-rodders enjoying superb sight-casting sport on beach flats and at times for offshore “rolling” fish. In the pass, dozens of boats vertical jig or fish live crabs deep for tarpon. It’s crowded, but fishing is superb and crossed lines are surprisingly rare.
Full and new moon phases offer best pass tarpon fishing. During a good falling tide, jig fishermen can jump as many as a dozen fish. Tarpon run big, with 80 to 130 pounders not uncommon. This is no place for a swim, either, as huge sharks (mainly hammerheads, some record-size fish weighing well over 1,000 pounds) mass to feed on tarpon. And it takes quite a shark to munch a 100-pound fish.
One late April I had a banner day on Boca tarpon with guide Phil O’Bannon. We caught 13 fish from 60 to 150 pounds, lost many others, including some to sharks. In the process the fish broke lines, hooks, two rods, and we were exhausted at the end of the day, in 90-degree heat.
While this fishing can be done on-your-own, it’s smart to hire a guide, at least initially to learn the ropes. For fly rodders, one of the best is Phil O’Bannon (www.obannonscharter.com; phone 941-964-0359); for jiggers, Captain Dave Markett (phone 813-962-1435) is a top choice. Captain Joel Brandenburg (phone 813-645-8795/813-267-4401) is another good one.
Lots of motels and restaurants abound, but during the height of the season it’s crowded, so plan accordingly. One of the most unique and beautiful places to headquarter is Cabbage Key (www.cabbagekey.com; phone 239-283-2278). It’s a private island, offering on-the-water cottages with docks for visitor boats, and a unique restaurant in an old Florida setting, plus vast unspoiled beaches nearby and jungle-like mangrove creeks full of fish and bird life. It’s a place not to be missed, and it’s just a short run to Boca Grande Pass.
Marathon/Islamorada, Florida Keys
February and March is the time tarpon can begin to show in good numbers in the Middle Keys, most notably near the towns of Marathon and Islamorada. When water temperature reaches 74 degrees, anglers using live silver mullet work around Seven-Mile Bridge, south of Marathon. They anchor or drift in channels around the bridge early and late in the day, and on a good outing can “jump” 10 to 12 fish. This is the best time to hook a truly big tarpon weighing in the 150-pound class, though most weigh 80-to-100 pounds.
In April, tarpon swarm around the bridge connecting Bahia Honda Key with West Summerland Key. Anglers fishing with mullet, in the channel, enjoy peak fishing from mid-May to mid-June.
During the full moon in May and the first full moon in June, there is a unique event that concentrates tarpon (plus grouper, snapper, sharks, cudas and other fish) around the west side of the Bahia Honda Bridge channel. There is a run of small 1 1/2-inch palolo worms, and tarpon by the thousands mass to feed on them when they’re running. The worms are red with a small white head, and anything that looks even remotely like that draws strikes. It’s an excellent opportunity to catch tarpon on red-colored flies.
Tarpon fishing remains good throughout the Middle Keys to the end of July. Through summer and early fall plenty of small “resident” tarpon in the 30-to-60 pound class can be found around bridges at night, passes, and in canals.
Flats fishing is done primarily by fly rodders who stalk fish from poled boats, or by “staking out” and ambushing them as they parade by with a tide. Fishing is prime in May and June, but excellent flats action can be had a few weeks before and after those two famed Middle Keys months, depending on weather and water conditions.
Many gifted tarpon guides work the Middle Keys. Some of the best are: Lenny Moffo (phone 305-872-4683, 305-395-1537); Bus Bergman (phone 305-743-3436); Dave Denkert (phone 305-852-1425); Tadd Van Demark (phone 305-522-5576); and Rich Tudor(phone 305-393-3461). Figure about $600 per day for a charter handling two or three anglers.
Banana Bay Resort (www.bananabay.com; phone 305-743-3500/888-689-4217) is a relaxing family spot, with boat rentals and a marina at Marathon that’s close to great tarpon action.