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Taming the Silver King: Advice on Catching a Tarpon

tarpon jumping

By Sam White, Editor-in-Chief of Marlin Magazine

Tarpon are known by a variety of nicknames, but the Silver King is perhaps the most fitting. After all, anyone who’s ever witnessed one of these game fish—appearing to have been dipped from snout to tail in liquid chrome—take to the air in a furious series of gill-rattling, head-shaking jumps will understand the sheer power and awe they bring to the table. I distinctly remember my first one, even though it’s been more than three decades ago; I was so shocked by the violence of the strike and the jumps that followed that my jaw gaped wide, and I literally took two steps back and nearly fell from the skiff’s casting platform. Silver King? Sure.

Range and Biology

There are two species of tarpon, one in the Atlantic Ocean and one in the Indo-Pacific, although both are virtually indistinguishable from one another. In the Atlantic, they range from roughly the Virginia/North Carolina border south into the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean and as far south as the mouth of the Amazon River. One of the most interesting aspects of tarpon is their ability to tolerate brackish and even fresh water. This is thanks to their biological development and life cycle; as they spend considerable time as juveniles in the marshes, mangroves and even freshwater creeks and rivers, tarpon have adapted a swim bladder which also allows them to breathe air from the surface to supplement areas of low dissolved oxygen in the water. Anglers will frequently see (and hear) tarpon as they come to the surface to gulp air before submerging again; this behavior is called “rolling” and is a dead giveaway to tarpon schools passing through the area. While we always want to fish where the fish are, it’s also critical to not spook a school as it moves through. Stealth is key—take note of the position and water depth and then reposition yourself or the boat well ahead. Let the fish come to you, rather than vice versa. Even trolling motors can spook wary tarpon.


casting for tarpon

Because of their wide range of habitats—everything from freshwater creeks and mangrove-lined marshes to beach passes and inlets and even out beyond the reef line into the depths—tarpon can be caught using a very wide variety of angling methods. However, one of the most reliable is also one of the easiest: simply soaking a chunk of fresh baitfish on the bottom. Start with reasonably heavy tackle, matched to the size of the fish you’re targeting, but 50- to 80-pound-test braid loaded into a large spinning or conventional reel with a smooth drag and matched to a stout rod are a good place to start. A monofilament top shot connects to a fluorocarbon leader of appropriate size, terminating in a Carolina or knocker rig setup with a sliding sinker. Circle hooks are the hands-down choice for this kind of fishing for several reasons: First, they greatly reduce gill- or gut-hooked fish, which is important in a fishery where the quarry is to be released anyway. They also work well with the rod in the holder; simply allow the fish to move off with the bait and as the rod loads up, the hook slides to the corner of the mouth and a solid hookup is virtually assured without any assistance from the angler. And third, a tarpon is much less likely to throw a circle hook during its wild acrobatics compared to a J-hook. Popular chunk baits depend largely on regional preferences but it’s hard to beat a juicy piece of mullet, menhaden or especially ladyfish. All three emit an oily scent trail that can lead tarpon right to the bait. Mix things up with a lively pinfish or menhaden, one fished on the bottom and another on the surface suspended beneath a float, and the spread is complete.

Tarpon can also be targeted by anglers casting artificial lures, with hard baits including Mirrolures and Crystal Minnows proving exceptionally effective, along with the old standby combo of a white bucktail with long plastic curly tail. Casting is an effective tactic around creek mouths and other areas where fish are actively transiting a specific area. A third technique is slow-trolling live baits: a three- or four-rod spread of live mullet or menhaden has produced many a tarpon bite. And finally, drift-fishing through inlets or passes is another regional favorite, especially in Florida. As small crustaceans known as pass crabs are being flushed out of the mangroves on the high falling tides, tarpon line up to feast so match the hatch with either dip-netted crabs or artificial imitations and be ready for some fast action.

Bow to the King


One unique part about fighting a big tarpon is considering the fish’s typically violent aerobatics. Once hooked, these fish are apt to spend nearly as much time in the air as they do in the water, and when they are closer to the boat the angler must “bow,” or drop the rod tip and point it at the fish as it become airborne. This helps reduce thrown hooks or broken lines; remember that braided line has no shock-absorbing stretch as monofilament does, so it’s much easier for a big fish to escape if the angler does not react accordingly. This is also especially true when fly fishing—one must bow to the king to be successful. It’s also important to use plenty of drag and appropriately sized tackle for these fish, as they are often shadowed by enormous hammerhead and bull sharks looking for an easy meal. Catch and release the fish quickly and keep a sharp eye out for finned marauders. If you see a shark homing in on a hooked tarpon, it’s best to quickly lock down the drag to either straighten the hook or break off the fish at the knot to allow it to escape predation unharmed.

Powerful, hard-fighting, and memorable from start to finish, it’s no wonder tarpon are held in such high esteem by fishing enthusiasts from around the world. Long live the Silver King.

Read More: Bonefish and Tarpon Trust: A Study in Conservation Success

Listen Now: Mossy Oak Gamekeeper Podcast Talks with Legendary Tarpon Guide Craig Brewer


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