but for much of the year, large tarpon are a bonus fish you might encounter somewhat by chance while you’re fishing for snook and redfish.
In the spring, however, migratory tarpon come in from the Gulf or up from the Keys and make their presence known, first in the Everglades, shortly after in Pine Island Sound. They’re off the beach in the Gulf, in the passes, in the back bays adjacent to the main passes … at times, it seems like they’re everywhere.
Then, suddenly, they’re nowhere, as one batch of migratory fish continues on its journey, and the bays are empty until the next batch cruises in to take their place.
The migration can begin with isolated pods of fish as early as February, but the prime time is April through June, when a sort of madness descends on Southwest Florida anglers as they forget about jobs and family responsibilities and other species of fish to pursue the silver king.
In the Everglades, the main technique is sight-fishing for laid-up tarpon, “sleepers,” as some call them. These are the resting tarpon who lie on or just under the surface of the water in Everglades bays. The idea is to present a fly or lure right in front of the sleeping face of the fish in hopes it will wake and snack. Sometimes not much happens — the fish slowly descends into the water until it disappears from sight. Other times, it’ll turn on the fly … and all hell breaks loose!
It's those “all hell breaks loose” moments that tarpon anglers live for. Some have termed the encounter with large tarpon a life-altering experience.
Everglades tarpon vary in size from “babies” in the 5- to 50-pound range to large tarpon that can reach weights close to 200 pounds. Every year, anglers hook up with fish in the 150-pound range.
The game is different in Pine Island Sound. Laid-up fish are always a possibility, but most of the action takes place along the Gulf beaches, as strings of tarpon follow the shoreline north to the pass at Boca Grande, which is a staging area for spawning.
Hooking is only part of the story when it comes to tarpon. For every large tarpon hooked, only about one in four stays on the line past the first jump. Perhaps half of those that are still hooked after the first jump are landed. Many, many fish are lost right at the boat, when a seemingly whipped tarpon suddenly comes back to life, leaving broken lines, broken hearts and, sometimes, broken rods in its wake.
For small tarpon, anglers can use the same tackle required for snook. For large tarpon, fly anglers will want an 10- to 12-weight rod along with a saltwater reel with a smooth drag and the capacity for 200 yards of 30-pound backing in addition to the fly line.
Light tackle anglers will want a heavy-duty rod capable of handling 50-pound braided line, along with a reel with a good drag and 200-yard line capacity. For large tarpon, both fly and light tackle anglers will need shock tippets in the 60- to 80-pound class.
Montana angler George Anderson shows off a monster tarpon caught on an 11-weight fly rod. According to the traditional formula of girth squared times length divided by 800, the fish weighted 181 pounds. When the length and girth measurements were put in a newer formula developed by Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, the fish registered slightly over 200 pounds.
Bob Delaney brings a backcountry tarpon to the boat.
Reviving a fish prior to release.
There are tarpon in the Glades and Pine Island Sound year-round,
of the Flats
Tom Harding clears the line on a leaping backcountry tarpon.
Photograph by Bob Delaney
Photograph by John McMinn
Photograph by Ned Small
An 80-pounder takes to the air. A good hook-set is essential since only about one in four hooked fish stays on.