MeatEater Guide to DIY Tarpon: Part Two, Getting It Done with Live Bait

MeatEater Guide to DIY Tarpon: Part Two, Getting It Done with Live Bait

This is the second article in a three-part series that explains how to catch Florida tarpon without hiring guides or staying in expensive lodges. In case you missed it, read part one of the series first.

The first tarpon I ever hooked nearly knocked me into Florida Bay. My father and I were drifting live crabs beneath floats on an incoming tide when the tarpon ate my crab and leapt over our outboard like a pole vaulter, two feet from my head. Thankfully, tarpon have exceptional vertical leaps, and this one managed to clear both me and the boat. Upon landing, it peeled line as though my reel were in free-spool. Monofilament wrapped the propeller, my hook straightened, and the line went slack.

Welcome to tarpon fishing.

Later that evening, I hooked a second, slightly smaller fish. With a little help from my father, I managed to land that feisty, 70-pound male by the light of a full moon. Thus began the addiction.

There’s nothing easy about tarpon fishing. Many would-be tarpon anglers are intimidated by the level of difficulty and the cost. Catching a tarpon, especially in the Florida Keys, is an achievement to be savored no matter what method you use.

This article focuses on live bait, because live bait offers less experienced, DIY anglers a legitimate opportunity at success without breaking the bank. Catching these fish on artificial lures or even flies can be great fun, but it’s much harder to pull off. If you want to catch tarpon on lures or flies, I recommend hiring a guide, just know that you’ll be paying upwards of $800 a day.

I suggest starting your DIY tarpon journey as a bait fisherman. Once you’ve broken the ice, you might decide you want to increase the challenge.

Rigging for Success
Like all great gamefish, tarpon exploit every mistake you make. The weakest point between angler and fish is usually a sloppy knot. Double check your knots. Better to re-tie multiple times before casting a line than to blow your only shot at a fish because you were in a hurry.

I fish 30-pound monofilament (30- to 50-pound braid is also common), with a Bimini twist tied at the end. The Bimini tests around 100 percent of the line strength—a great addition to your saltwater arsenal.

To the Bimini’s loop I use an Albright knot to attach a 3-foot, 60-pound fluorocarbon leader (Seaguar Pink Label, for its stealth and abrasion resistance). Make sure to lubricate the Albright before tightening, and leave a small tag to avoid slippage.

When drifting bait, consider a natural cork float, about two and a half feet north of the hook. The cork keeps bait out of the grass and in the path of patrolling tarpon. Natural cork looks like debris or flotsam, while hi-vis fluorescent floats look like, well, hi-vis fluorescent floats. The unassuming profile of natural cork is particularly useful when targeting wary tarpon in shallow water.

At the end of the leader I attach a 3/0 J-hook with a non-slip loop knot, a simple yet strong connection that allows maximum range of motion for the bait. Snelling the hook is a good alternative, but often cants the hook unnaturally if it doesn’t have an offset eye. The non-slip loop knot is trusted by tarpon guides and has helped me land dozens of tarpon over 100 pounds.

Circle hooks in the 4/0 to 7/0 range are also effective. Circle hooks are designed to set themselves—just let the line get tight and then start reeling—which can be helpful for novices. I prefer traditional J-hooks (Gamakatsu 3/0 Octopus, or the 1/0 SL12S Short), because I’m conditioned to set the hook on a strike. Plus, it’s more fun that way.

Even with the stickiest hooks on the market, some tarpon will inevitably come unbuttoned. Their mouths are hard, and they’re adept at shaking hooks during their signature leaps. Remember, the smaller the hook gauge, the better its penetration; you don’t need a giant hook to catch a tarpon. This past May I had success with the 1/0 SL12S Short, a small but sturdy fly hook that doubled as a deadly crab-drifting weapon.

Heavy-action rods paired with a large-capacity spinning or bait casting reel are best for battling big tarpon. Thicker rods are particularly helpful for novice tarpon anglers, especially since you’re often fishing around bridges or other obstructions. I’ve caught 80-pound tarpon on medium-heavy spinning gear, but lighter gear often lengthens fight time and puts unnecessary strain on the fish and angler.

Tarpon, like the one that nearly jumped into our boat, are opportunistic feeders. In the Keys they eat mullet, pinfish, pipefish, palolo worms, pilchards, shrimp and crabs, among other morsels.

Fishing live mullet under a cork is a tried-and-true Keys’ method, especially around bridges, but doing so requires you to acquire live mullet. If you happen to be skilled with a cast net, that won’t be a problem, but this isn’t the time to learn to throw a net. Trust me, it’s more difficult than it looks. A few Keys’ vendors sell live mullet, but they’re difficult to keep alive. Mullet need well-oxygenated water to survive, so they suffocate quickly in a typical rental boat live well. Fresh dead mullet on the bottom works sometimes, as does a fresh mahi mahi carcass—tarpon can be lazy scavengers, especially during the heat of the day. But for my money, there’s no better tarpon bait than a live pass crab.

Many tackle shops sell live crabs. At more than $3 each they’re not cheap, but think of crabs as a worthwhile investment. Pass crabs—around 3 inches in carapace width—are the equivalent of tarpon candy. These crustaceans hide in sargassum mats that drift in and out on the tides.

Novice tarpon anglers mistakenly believe they need the largest crab in the tank. Smaller crabs actually get more bites because they fit the profile Keys’ tarpon are used to seeing.

Perhaps most importantly, make sure your crabs are males. To verify, flip the crab over and look at the shape of its apron (the flap on the underbelly). Males have a narrow, pointy-shaped apron, tight to their belly, while females have a rounded apron that often protrudes from their underside (sometimes with orange or yellow sacks). Male crabs are hardier on the hook, while female crabs sometimes open their apron, scuttling uselessly at the surface.

Show up early to the bait shop to get your crabs or you’ll have to pick through the daily delivery to find males. Ten to 12 crabs should get you through a few days of fishing, and the ones that avoid tarpon will hold over in a refreshed live well.

The Drift
A wonderful thing happens each evening in the Keys around supper time: most boats head for the docks. With the dimming light and less boat traffic, it’s prime time for an evening tarpon session, the perfect window to fish live crabs.

When I encounter boats drifting where I want to fish, I give them a wide berth, never running over their drift path. Once I’ve determined where I want to drift (factoring tide and wind direction), I turn the boat sideways to the drift and kill the engine. This allows us to comfortably drift bait from the bow and stern with plenty of room between offerings.

Hook the crab at the color change (dark to light) near the pointy end of the carapace, and drift it behind the boat, 80 or more feet away. Set the drag tight but don’t lock it down. I leave the GPS on so I can replicate the drift if we hook a tarpon. And just like that, we’re fishing.

The Bite
As the sun dips toward the horizon, Florida Bay shimmers in a bronze glow. Such beautiful evenings can lull you into a state of reverie, but stay alert, good things are about to happen.

When a tarpon takes the crab, you’ll feel a distinctive tap. The tap is produced when the tarpon opens its bucket mouth and sucks in both crab and the water surrounding it. You’ll never forget the sensation. After the tap, your line will tighten—sometimes with excruciating slowness. The tarpon has taken your crab and, still unalarmed, turned to rejoin its buddies.

Wait until the line is absolutely tight. If you strike at the initial tap, you’ll pull the hook from the tarpon’s mouth. Let the fish turn and allow its weight to help you bury the hook.

When the line tightens, set the hook with a sideways sweep, rod tip parallel to the water. Nothing can prepare you for the chaotic euphoria that comes next. The tarpon boils and runs; it leaps, hangs in the air, gills shaking. Yes, that massive fish is on your line and, if you’ve gotten this far, you have a decent chance at landing it.

In Part Three of my DIY tarpon series, I’ll discuss techniques for fighting tarpon quickly and effectively to maximize their chance at survival and to minimize stress on the angler. I’ll discuss boat management during the fight and alternatives to the face-grab. By the end, you’ll be ready to head south and do battle on your own.

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