Warning: once you hook a giant tarpon, you’ll never be the same. If you’ve done it, you know what I mean—the world looks differently afterwards. If you haven’t, you’ve probably heard tarpon-addicted fishing buddies rant about it after a couple beers. Who can blame them? It’s been said that jumping a tarpon is like mainlining a powerful drug. Tarpon addiction has led to divorce, fist fights and mysteriously sunken skiffs. Writers have described the experience as akin to electrocution without the harmful side effects; the transfer of energy from fish to angler provides a mind-altering jolt.

With all due respect to your 15-inch brown trout, your keeper walleye, your surf-sniped striper, tarpon are just different. One can try to describe their best attributes: heart-stopping leaps, blistering runs, incredible stamina, shocking size, but words fall short. Their bite and the ensuing mayhem is ineffable—you have to hook one to understand.

And you can. It’s surprisingly easy to do (to hook one, I mean; landing one is a different story). I’m here to break down unnecessary barriers between you and one of the most sought-after game fish in the world. In this three-part series, I’ll lay out what you need to know for a successful DIY tarpon trip, from choosing a destination, to finding a suitable rental boat, to appropriate tackle and rigging, to hooking, fighting and releasing tarpon. What you do with your new addiction is up to you. Consider yourself warned.

Timing and Location
Despite global warming, there are still no tarpon in my home state of Maine, so each May I travel south to Islamorada in the Florida Keys for a family tarpon trip. Most of the fish we encounter are part of the annual spring migration, big tarpon in the 80- to 140-pound range. While tarpon fishing in Florida Bay can be spectacular on calm, warm days in February or March, it’s highly weather-dependent and a risky time of year to plan your trip. By late April and early May, however, Keys’ water temperatures stabilize to within tarpon’s optimal range. Cold fronts become rare and prevailing easterlies summon pleasant weather. Tarpon push steadily through the channels and along oceanside flats. June is also a great month to target Keys tarpon; the weather is often sultry with lighter winds—perfect for tarpon fishing.

The Keys are famous for their bridges and you’ll often see boats fishing near them, anchored with live mullet or drifting live crabs beneath floats in the morning and evening. These channels are tarpon thoroughfares.

Google Earth is a smart resource when planning your tarpon trip: look for large ocean-to-bay channels where tidal push flushes bait, like channels two and five in lower Islamorada, or the larger bridges of the Middle Keys. Scout the edges of flats, which can be productive tarpon zones with easy access to deeper channels.

Rentals
With the advent of Airbnb, rentals in the Keys have become surprisingly affordable. Look for places with docks or moorage and access to the tarpon grounds. Just type in Islamorada or Big Pine or Key West into the site’s search engine and you’ll get a map of your options, from expensive condos to house boats. Split with two or three fishing buddies, lodging for your Keys tarpon trip becomes reasonable.

There are several rental boat companies from Key Largo to Key West, and a quick internet search will lead you to customer reviews, including some real horror stories. My experience has been mixed: there are usually minor issues with each boat, like broken running lights or hiccups trimming the motor or an unreliable gas gauge. We’ve figured out ways to deal with the issues. In 15 years of renting, I’ve never had a break down or felt unsafe on a rental boat.

Rental companies and their employees are often on island time: if they plan to meet you at 9 a.m. to drop off your boat, it’s safe to tack on an hour or two to that estimate. It’s frustrating to wait around when you’ve traveled far and saved up money to be there and you’re all rigged and ready, but it’s an unfortunate reality in the Keys.

If you’re fishing with one or two other anglers, consider renting a flats skiff. Learning to pole is not easy, but can be done with practice and will immediately give you more tarpon fishing options. This May, I poled our rental skiff to a group of daisy-chaining tarpon, while boats around us drifted unsuccessfully. My 74-year-old father chucked a live crab on a medium-heavy spinning rod, jumping a tarpon every bit of 160 pounds. Shallow-drafting skiffs allow anglers to navigate skinny water or stake out at the edge of flats where tarpon travel, places a bay boat isn’t able to go.

That said, there are advantages to larger boats. A 22-foot bay boat, for example, can handle rougher seas, while providing more space and comfort for anglers. If your group is three or more, it might make sense to rent a bay boat for your tarpon trip.

Look at reviews, call rental companies and make sure to ask about a boat’s history. A functioning live well is a must if you’re fishing bait (to keep your crabs alive). An on-board GPS system is also helpful, but handheld systems can work well too. Garmin-style GPS systems help tremendously when navigating the flats, hummocks and channels of the Keys. Plus, you can create breadcrumb trails and markers in spots you want to return to. Real-time, location-based GPS tide charts are essential for success. Moving water moves bait, and tarpon respond. When you pick up the boat, make sure the gas tank is full, the oil level topped off, and ask for a quick GPS tutorial.

In Part Two of this DIY tarpon series, I’ll discuss the specifics of rigging for tarpon: knots, leaders, hooks and bait selection to get you in the game. I’ll describe the basics of drifting: boat maintenance and positioning, etiquette when fishing near other boats, best times of day to fish, and what to do when the silver king takes your bait.

Feature image via Tosh Brown.