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This is a brief synopsis of how you should hook and fight a tarpon. We use multiple different tactics and I’ll try to cover at least the ones we use most of the time. I walk all my anglers through a lot of this stuff, however if you read about it ahead of time it will give you an upper hand.
Live Mullet Fishing
My personal favorite, there is nothing quite like watching a live mullet jump and run for his life as a big 100 lb tarpon tries to eat him 30 feet behind the boat! I generally like to fish J-hooks with live mullet as often the tarpon grab them at all kinds of different angles and the bait flips and flops all over, so you really need to be ready and set the hook appropriately. Basically we are usually fishing a bobber with a 6-8 foot leader with a mullet on the end. In some cases we may not fish a bobber at all, though it won’t really effect what you do to hook your fish. Most of the time you will see the mullet get nervous and zip around quickly if a tarpon is nearby. If one is actively trying to eat him he will often jump and flip out of the water. If you see this happen just sit tight and be ready – dont do anything to soon. All too often anglers start reeling, jerking, and all kinds of things before the fish has had a chance to eat the bait. If the tarpon busts him and misses him (which they usually do), often you can just slowly and steadily lift your rod tip very high to straighten your line out, then drop your tip low again. This will also throw the mullet off balance making him easier to get for the tarpon, and when the tarpon comes back you will be able to reel and ‘get tight’ on him much quicker as you’ve gotten the slack out of the line. Just wait for him to come back. If you think a tarpon has eaten your bait, wait until you feel pressure (a pull) on the line. When this happens the tarpon has eaten him – reel as fast as you can and lift your rod tip up to a 45 degree angle. It is VERY important to REEL first as that is going to start the hook to set in his bony jaw. If you just jerk right away, often the hook will bounce right off the bony jaw. Now in some circumstances you may not feel pressure on the line, for instance if there is very weak tide or if there is any amount of slack in your line due to wind, tide, etc… It helps if you as an angler are aware of this as in these cases you may have to just watch the bobber and if you see a bust and the bobber goes down, your bait has likely been eaten. In this case just reel until you get tight on the fish and proceed to set the hook as described. If you reel and you don’t feel a significant amount of pressure – stop reeling – as your bait likely just pulled the bobber down and the tarpon may go after it again. Now once you’ve reeled, the line is tight and the fish is pulling drag (lots of pressure), you may give it a thump to set the hook. Nothing crazy required – we are not trying to rip the lips off a bass – just one nice steady thump. Remember – braided line had no stretch to it and we use very sharp hooks, this is why in all cases you never have to give any kind of crazy rip-lipping hookset – this usually causes more problems than it is worth. After you give a thump, drop back down to the 45 degree angle and keep reeling. If the fish jumps you want to bow to him. Bowing means drop the rod tip and point it straight at him (give him some slack). This prevents him from easily being able to shake his head and throw the hook. Again braided line has NO stretch so it is imperative you give them slack when they jump.
Live Crab Fishing
With live crabs they are much easier to eat then mullet so it is a lot easier to get a proper hookset as the crab isn’t actively trying to swim/jump away from the tarpon. You often won’t see any indication you are about to get a bite, you’ll just feel a strong bump or two and then the line will start screaming. With crabs I usually just recommend waiting until you feel pressure (a pull) on the line, then reeling and lifting your tip to a 45 degree angle. You don’t really need to give them a hard hookset in my experience, though if you want to the same rules apply – reel first and lift up your tip and once you are tight and the fish is screaming drag and you feel the heavy pressure give it a nice thump. Remember to bow to the king when he jumps!
Dead Bait Fishing
Often we fish a variety of dead baits for tarpon. I usually have anglers hold the rods while doing this so they can feel and hook their own fish and also if done correctly increases your chance of hooking a fish. However many anglers seem to constantly want to reel or tug on the lines, check the baits, and do all sorts of things that hinder are chances at getting a bite. You really just want to leave the baits out there, leaving some slack in the line as we often are swinging around especially if the tide/wind are not together. I say just pretend like you are a rod holder! One thing to always keep an eye on is your rod tips – especially with slow moving tide – make sure that you don’t get ‘tip wrapped’ where the lines wraps around the tip of your rod. This will obviously cause it to snap if something grabs the bait and runs off line quickly like a tarpon. Keep the rod pointed towards where the bait is. If we are fishing circle hooks, you just want to keep your rod pointed directly at the fish with light drag when you get a bite – do not pull back on the fish or tighten your drag until told to do so. This means there should be no bend in the rod at all as the fish is pulling out line. Let the fish run off a bit of line for a while, usually 30 seconds or so, and keep the rod pointed straight at him, if he his pulling drag just let him go – if he is not pulling drag then reel. After ample time has passed I will usually tell you then to lift up your rod tip to a 45 degree angle, and give the fish one little thump to set the hook in a bit more. Depending on the apparent size of the tarpon, speed of the current, and other conditions I may change my hook style. If we are fishing J-hooks, I like to fish them the same way as circles keep the rod pointed straight towards the fish in the beginning and just reel, but you don’t have to wait 30 seconds to lift your tip up, you can do that a little bit sooner after you’ve reeled and gotten tight on your fish in that case. After you come tight you can give a small thump to set the hook. Though in all cases it is usually best NOT to do any crazy hook set – even with J hooks. I will check baits at appropriate times, freshen them up, put new ones out, etc… when we need to. Often there are smaller ‘picker fish’ that just tap at the baits, a tarpon will grab it and RUN! Believe me you will know when you get a bite. As stated the tarpon will generally set the hook on themselves if the rods are in the rod holders – if you get one on, you just pick the rod up and keep your tip at a 45 degree angle and reel. I generally always recommend anglers hold their rods however, and only leave them in the rod holders if you are busy doing something else and it is necessary. At first you are just picking up slack line as we chase the fish, once he settles down we will put more pressure on him as needed. I like to start with the drags fairly loose and then slowly tighten as needed once the fish settles down. I have a much better catch ratio doing this than trying to ‘over drag’ the fish. You will not stop a tarpon with drag you have to apply pressure at the right time, at the right angle, and let the fish wear himself out as you do so. Bow to the king when he jumps.
A note on small (30 lb and under) tarpon
Certain times of year (especially in the summer) we have a lot of smaller-on-average size tarpon around. We often are still using the same gear that we fish for larger tarpon with, but obviously it is a bit heavier than you’d like to use for small tarpon. Tarpon are unforgiving about throwing the hook when jumping, and that is especially true with smaller tarpon. Though you can’t always pick which one is going to bite so you have to be ready for the bigger ones in my opinion. I’ve found with especially smaller tarpon, your best chance at landing these guys is to not lift up high on the rod at all. We also fish the drags extremely light, just tight enough so you can regain line as you reel. Never bring the rod up to a 90 degree angle (straight up or straight to one side). And for the first few minutes, I would really recommend just keeping it pointed straight at them. A lot of times you do not really need to put a lot of pressure on these size fish, and if you do all that is going to happen is they are going to throw the hook or the hook will pull out! It just happens a lot more with small size fish due to smaller mouths and they are much more acrobatic and violent when they jump. If you end up having to fight them for more than a few minutes, I suggest keeping the rod butt in your armpit, and just pulling lightly with the tip of the rod, no more than at a 45 degree angle. If you feel them thrash, surge, run, or give any indication they may be getting ready to jump, just point the rod straight at them ahead of time in anticipation. This will give you the best chance at keeping these smaller fish hooked. It goes against many anglers instincts, but I’ve really found it to be the best shot at landing these size fish.
Using jerk baits, soft plastics, etc…
Sometimes we use artificial stuff for tarpon too. I don’t fish this way personally very often though occasionally it is fun while we have other baits out to toss an artificial, or if you were sighting moving fish you could toss in front of them. Usually you would be working a larger jig with a sharp hook and a jerk bait attached. If your fishing in a channel with rolling fish, simply tossing it out as far as you can and reeling it back at a steady pace usually works best. If your seeing lots of fish roll, waiting and throwing in front of rolling fish can be effective, though often you will not necessarily have that opportunity. Simply blind casting and keeping an eye out for rollers is usually best. If you are not getting bites, sometimes trying to work the bait more erratically (jigging) it may help, or even trying to reel it as fast as you can sometimes can entice a bite too. Basically if you’ve made umpteen casts and not had a bite, try something new – when fishing artificial stuff presentation is a much bigger deal and something as simple as changing the speed your reeling, or adding a slight twitch every few seconds, can make the difference between catching a fish or not. If you do get a bite, it will usually be a very hard smack and all you need to do is keep reeling fast and lift your tip up. After you get tight on the fish, giving one good thump to set the hook is usually a good idea. Hooking tarpon on artificials is often much harder to do. Same rules apply when the tarpon jumps, bow the rod to him. Again I don’t do much fishing in this fashion as it is usually more of a sight fishing thing for skinny water skiffs, though sometimes the opportunity presents itself.
Bowing to the king
Bowing to the king refers to dropping your rod tip when they jump. Tarpon have very hard, bony mouths. They also are very powerful and when they jump they shake their heads violently. We fish mostly braid which has NO stretch in it. We do put a long topshot of mono on the end, however even so when the fish jumps and shakes like this it can cause a problem. The problem is if you are pulling tight on the fish when this happens, the shaking can cause the hook to dislodge. For this reason, we tell you to stop reeling and bow (point the rod at the fish) as this takes the pressure off the hook and line. It may be counter-intuitive as many fish you always want to keep the line tight, though with tarpon when they jump this is not the case. When the fish is back in the water, lift your tip back to a 45 degree angle and reel tight again. Now there are some things that can tell you when a fish will jump. One is if he makes a very hard run it is usually an indication of him getting ready to jump. The other is if the line begins to scope upwards this is an indication he is coming to the surface, obviously if he is not running it may just be to come up and roll for air, though if there is force behind it he likely will break the water.
Fighting the silver king
There is a proper technique in fighting the silver king that will cut the fight times down tremendously and help your chances of landing the fish. It takes some time to really nail this down but I will give you some pointers to help you out as we go along. When a fish is hooked you want to reel in every other bait as quickly as you can if he is a large fish. If it is a smaller fish that we do not have to chance, we usually leave one other bait out to try and possibly hook another. They do often roam and bite in packs. If we are anchored we unhitch our anchor buoy from the boat and throw it in the water and give chase as quickly as possible on a big fish. First off we use specifically designed rods for tarpon fishing. These rods have light action tips with a stiff backbone which helps in hooking tarpon as well as keeping them on when they jump, plus giving you enough backbone to put ample pressure on them. Basically we don’t fish the drags locked down very tight at first because you are not going to stop a tarpon with drag alone. We fish them medium/medium light, just enough to get a good hookset, and then let the fish do his thing. This is often a mistake of many anglers – they think when a fish is running hard and taking line you should hammer the drag down very tight to stop him. Wrong! Unless you are about to get spooled you want to leave the drag medium to light when a fish is screaming out line and running hard. Otherwise you are just going to either break him off, or have him throw the hook when he starts jumping and going crazy. In the beginning we usually chase after them and you are just going to be reeling up any slack line as we try to close distance on him. He will often be running hard and going nuts jumping at this time, so be ready to bow when necessary. Once he settles down usually after this first 5-10 minutes, we tighten the drag down a little bit. Most of the fight the fish is going to be within 30 feet of the boat. Basically you are going to be pumping the rod up, and then reeling as you drop the rod tip back down towards them. They will swim along seemingly forever with strong kicks of their tail. One important tactic is to use the rod to fight the fish. When the fish is swimming to the right, you pull back down and to the left. When he swims left, you pull back down and to the right. Don’t just stand there and pull straight up the whole time. This way you’re pulling AGAINST the fish and making it harder for him to swim and breathe. If you can’t tell which way the fish is going, just switch up the direction you are pulling from every 20 seconds or so. You will feel the pressure in the rod and line increase when you are pulling the right direction against the fish. When you do this be ready for the fish to surge and possibly jump, as they feel this extra pressure and often panic. Now you can tighten the drag down more if it is getting to be a very long time, however if the fish surges or jumps there is greater chance at losing him with tighter drag especially if they jump and you are not quick to bow. Often the best thing to do is to manually add drag to them with the palm of your hand on the spool (spinning rod) or thumb on the spool (conventional tackle). This way when the fish feels the added pressure you can quickly let off if he kicks hard, runs, jumps, goes crazy, etc…. Be VERY CAREFUL doing this, if the fish kicks hard and runs or bucks at all, just let off and let him go. If you keep lots of pressure on the fish and he runs you will break him off OR break the rod. Again I only recommend doing this at the END of a battle once we’ve gotten the leader and you are satisfied with having caught the fish to this point. Usually once we get the main leader on the fish and he is technically caught, we will then increase the drag and I will start pulling on the wind-on leader to try and subdue the fish in an attempt to get good boat side photographs. If we have already gotten good pictures of a previous fish, we usually just cut them off once we get close enough to the main leader to do so, this way we do not unnecessarily stress or harm the fish.
A few other things to remember, if the fish goes under the boat, always stick the rod tip (not reel!) down in the water, and try to avoid having the line rub on the boat as much as possible. If the fish is very green and pulling hard, it may also be a good idea to back off on the drag some. Usually (not always) you have to go UP AROUND THE BOW to get to the other side and continue fighting the fish, as going around the transom is often difficult with the motor sticking out. HOWEVER do remember off the bow, often the trolling motor is down in the water, so you must wait until I lift that up out of the way to go around to the other side.
Also if you are the person not fighting the fish be aware of what is going on in the boat. Both myself and the angler may have to jump around the boat very quickly, so try not to be blocking where we need to go. Sometimes you may be trying to take pictures etc… but also try to be aware of what is going on around you.
High Sticking and when the fish is near the boat
One thing I see very often and am always cringing over is what we call high sticking. When tarpon or any other fish are near the boat, anglers will put the tip of their rods way up high in the air, as if they are going to try and lift the fishes head out of the water or some such thing. When a fish is near the boat or under the boat, you DO NOT want to stick your rod tip up high. This takes the pressure out of the backbone of the rod and puts it up near the tip. Always try and keep the rod at a somewhat horizontal angle, especially when a fish is near the boat or directly under the boat. Otherwise this ‘high sticking’ can result in a broken rod and lost fish. If the fish surges under the boat the rod can be easily broken, so be ready to drop your rod tip down into the water and swing it out around the other side of the bow if necessary. I try to maneuver the boat and keep the fish off the bow, though at times I may not be at the wheel or the fish may make a sneaky move. Try to NEVER let the line hit the boat as this weakens the line and can result in a lost fish. When the fish is near the boat you want to make short pumps only lifting the rod a foot or two, then reeling back down. Again I explain this all but being ready to do the right thing just makes things a bit easier.
Around bridges, buoys, and markers
Tarpon often swim around structure such as bridge pilings, crab pots, channel markers, and other things. We give chase to tarpon for this reason. If a fish is going near something like this you really just have to keep an eye out and watch what he does. You can try to pull them away from it, though generally your not going to be able to stop them. A smaller fish or very tired fish you may be able to manipulate, however a large or fresh fish will be trouble. Generally if he goes through or around something, you want to LESSEN the drag on them. So if your drag is tight loosen it a bit until we are able to get around the object. This takes the pressure off the line while it is rubbing against the structure and it will be less likely to frey and break. Sometimes the fish swim in between structure that we cannot unfortunately get through, especially some of the bridge pilings or power line structures. If they are swimming for something like this, we crank the drag down and just try to pull them to swim away.
Keep your eyes on the fish
Often I see anglers looking at their friends, smiling for the camera, fumbling with things in the boat, and all other kinds of things when they are trying to fight a tarpon. If your not paying attention a tarpon is going to use that to his advantage, and your hook up will be over as quick as it started. You need to keep your eyes out and on the fish (or at least where you think the fish is), this way you can see when he runs and is going to jump, if he is going to swim around that lobster buoy, if he is going under the boat, if he is going around that bridge piling, etc, etc…
Getting a picture
To get a good picture of a tarpon often it requires fighting them till they are exhausted completely. This can take up to an hour or more and is not as healthy for the fish as releasing them with energy left. I don’t mind getting a good fish picture, however I don’t like to fight every fish we hook to the point of exhaustion as again it is not good for the tarpon. We DO NOT lift tarpon into the boat as they can be very dangerous to bring in and can toss around and break things. They also are not designed to be lifted out of the water by their gills, or handled as that knocks a lot of the slime off of them which is not good. For pictures we try to lay the fish alongside the boat in the water from the bow, wearing gloves and taking wraps on the leader. The person taking the picture goes to the back of the boat and gets down alongside the boat and snaps the picture of you holding the leadered fish next to the boat.
Capt. Rick Stanczyk