Tarpon. The name is almost mystical, spoken about in hushed tones by those in the know. Highly sought after by sportfisherman yet rarely caught these leaping silver demons visit the seaway every year from March through to August, sometimes in big numbers. The average size of Seaway Tarpon is big, around 60cm with occasional fish nudging the 70cm mark. Yet the amount of people that specialise in catching them in the Seaway can be counted on one hand. There is a couple of reason's for that.
Firstly, Tarpon are hard to catch in the Seaway consistently. It requires hours of casting, casting and more casting.... did I mention you'll have to do alot of casting? Sure sometimes you'll turn up and the fish will be on the bite from the first cast, but most of the time the fish move around and you'll have to locate where they are holding on the day...and that means lots of casting. Secondly, consistently catching Tarpon means fishing at night around the walls and some people are not comfortable with that which is fair enough, it should not be attempted anyway except for those with a long history of fishing the seaway during the day. Knowledge of how the Seaway's currents and wind directions affect your boats drift is essential for safety. Good night vision is also essential. Between 9pm and 5am you are on your own and there is noone to help if you get into difficulty. You should always be wearing a lifejacket fishing at night around the seaway walls.
At the moment Tarpon are easier to catch than ever in the Seaway, you can even do it during the day. All you have to do is turn up halfway during a runout tide any time of day and fish the bottom of the Northern Y(see Map 1) with plastics. Just cast out, let it sink and slow roll it back. Simple.. Well hooking them is simple, landing them can be quite difficult(understatement of the year there).
This article is not about this abberration of behaviour, this is not likely to last very long and I want to concentrate on proven longer term methods. That means fishing at night around the edges of the seaway walls. Now , the one thing I'm not going to do is put down exact locations on where to look. That would be pointless anyway as they move around from day to day and where they were yesterday is not where they will be today. Sometimes they will be tightly packed in one small area, others they will be spread out over the entire wall. Some nights they'll be right in close to the rocks in a metre or so of water, others they'll be sitting near the bottom in 20 metres of water. Just concentrate on casting your plastics at the edges of the seaway walls, as close as possible while keeping an eye on your sounder and soon enough you'll be hooking Tarpon.
Tarpon prefer to feed at night or in low light conditions, those massive eye's have a superior edge over anything else in the water and makes it easy to hunt the baitfish they are after. They will feed during the day but prefer dirty or discoloured water. Tarpon will feed whether the moon is up or down, if it is calm or it is blowing 30kts, if it's raining or not, at any stage of the tide or in any swell size. Of course just because they can feed during all of those doesn't mean they will. The one thing that can be said about Tarpon is that they are lazy, you won't find them in places of strong current, chances are they will be close by though, in an eddy close to the current that brings them the food. They wan't maximum return for smallest effort. On the smaller tides they will be closer to the ends of the walls, on larger tides further back down the walls where there is still places for them to sit and grab food without expending too much energy.
If you've been paying attention then you will know that my favourite plastic is the CCM(Chika Chika Muroran) Ecogear Grass Minnow M on a 3/8oz head. This little plastic has accounted for hundreds of Tarpon(and lots of GT's,Tailor, Bigeyes) and is my go to lure when they are fussy. Other plastics that get an honourable mention are the 70 & 85mm Dropbear Slick Rigs and Zman 2.5" Pearl curl tails. Most plastics will work if they are in the mood and I've even caught quite a few on shallow running minnows like the Lucky Strike King Hunter and others up to 14cm in length. Make sure your jigheads are up to the task as well, heavy duty jigheads are a must. I prefer TT 3/8 or 1/2oz 3/0H in the the plain or headlockz varieties.
Any light spinning outfit can handle Tarpon, as long as it has a decent drag. They don't fight dirty, thier runs are short and most of the time is spent in the air not in the water. Most fights are over in minutes. What you do need however is a decent leader, 30lb minimum. Tarpon are quite capable of wearing through 20lb leader in a single fight but 30 seems to be able to handle a couple of fish without changing. Keep an eye on that leader though, if you are hooking alot it will need cutting and retieing every few fish. If you don't you'll end up losing lures. For this reason I usually start with a longer leader than usual, around 1.5 metres. A standard jighead rigged plastic works fine but if you find yourself looking for a rig that has a slightly higher retention rate after the first jump, look at the Texas rig. Thats just a running sinker straight down to a straight hook, I use a gamakatsu SST 15 in size 1/0. The running sinker gives the tarpon much less leverage to throw the hook on its jumps. It's not perfect but then no rig is when it comes to these fish.
When casting the edges for Tarpon with plastics, there are two techniques you need to learn, The Slow Roll and Deadsticking. Don't jig it, don't flick it or do anything fancy it will only make them lose interest. The Slow Roll is simply casting out and slow winding back. Deadsticking is just letting it sit there and drift in the current, mainly used when the Tarpon are close to the bottom or out a bit from the wall in deeper water. If there are Tarpon in the area, you soon know because of....
The Tarpon Tap
This isn't a fancy new dance step, if you want to chase Tarpon then you have to learn to recognise the Tarpon Tap. This is what Tarpon do when they aren't feeding aggressively(which is most of the time). They come up behind your lure and nudge it, hit it, grab it with just the front of thier mouth. This registers on the line as a tap, sometimes they will do this multiple times on a single retrieve, sometimes they will grab it after a few taps, sometimes they will tap it all the way to the boat before grabbing it, others they will lose interest. The best indication you are in the right area for Tarpon is the tap so learn to recognise it and if you get just one tap on a drift make sure you cover that area again on a second drift. Sometimes Tarpon need to be teased into biting so doing multiple drifts is important.
Hookup & Fight
So you have your lure in the water, slow rolling and you are getting tapped, what happens next. Well the hookup is next and you only strike when you feel the weight of the fish, once you strike you can expect the Tarpon to come shooting out of the water immediately, most tarpon are lost on the first jump. After the first jump they will usually swim straight at you to create slack line and then jump close to the boat quite often throwing the lure right back at you(Tip: Wear Safety Glasses if you value your eyesight). A Tarpon jump is a thing of wonder, they will launch themselves around a metre out of the water and proceed to shake thier heads up to 10 times in a single jump, if they do this multiple times during a fight and the fish is hooked deeply thats the equivalent of around 50 rubs on your leader with a coarse sandpaper. No wonder they are experts at wearing through light leaders. There is no best method in staying hooked up to a Tarpon, sometimes they will stay attached, sometimes they won't but when they are near the boat I reccomend keeping the rod tip as high as possible, this will increase the line pressure and reduce the amount of slack line given to the fish when he jumps. If you are really keen you can use one of his jumps to propel him into the boat.
Landing a tarpon is difficult, you can lift them into the boat on the trace if you are feeling brave, the best method is a landing net but they still have plenty of juice left when you are trying to net them and this is when many rods are broken. Tarpon do not stop fighting when they get into the boat, if anything thats when they take it into high gear. I use the term 'wrestling' when a tarpon gets into the boat, the larger fish in particular will just not stop moving. Getting them to sit still enough for a photo is difficult and getting them to sit still for a mat shot is damn near impossible. For this reason I reccomend taking a photo of only one fish per session and immediately releasing the rest. Don't think using a pair of lip grippers will help you either because it won't. They will quite happily struggle so much you will end up tearing thier mouth apart with the grippers, not good for a fish you intend on releasing. Holding them upside down will calm the fish enough to get the hook out.
Lastly but most importantly, Tarpon should be released or considered a catch and release only fish. They are full of bones, apparently taste terrible and they smell even worse so let them go for another day.
So in summary, Tarpon are a hard fish to find, to hook, to stay attached to, to land, to photograph, to measure. In short the ultimate target for any sportsfisherman. They are highly addictive, very frustrating and my favourite of all the seaway species. If you decide to take up the challenge of the seaway Tarpon and you find yourself cursing me in the middle of the night after you have lost your 10th straight tarpon without getting a fish in the boat... Don't say I didn't warn you.