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Spring silver king: from the Tampa Bay area, three methods for catching migratory tarpon.

Every year, as the air begins to warm and the last fronts of winter dwindle away, a switch is flipped inside the tarpon, triggering migratory instincts. Making their way north up the coasts and tributaries of Florida's Gulf and Atlantic coast, schools of tarpon are on the move. These fish can be intercepted just about anywhere along the coast, but there are some hot spots along the way, Tampa Bay being one of them.

Tampa Bay, of course, can hardly be considered a "spot." It is the biggest open water estuary in Florida, according to the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (, covering nearly 400 square miles and bordering three counties. The tarpon tend to show up here in April when water temperature hits 78 degrees, and leave once the water reaches 90 degrees, come early August. This ecosystem is a great stopping point for tarpon, due to the multiple forage opportunities, whether it is crabs or various baitfish. I recently got to experience this awesome fishery with Capt. Rob Gilbert of Reel Aggressive Charters (, and man was it action packed.

There's a few different ways of targeting the tarpon around the Tampa area, and weather permitting, you can enjoy all of them in one day. Not only are these techniques useful in this region, they can be applied just about anywhere tarpon are found.

Intercept 'Em

One way to get tight to the silver king is fishing the schools that are moving down the beaches in areas such as Anna Maria Island and St. Pete Beach. This is a run-and-gun style approach, but once you find the fish, stealth is essential. Running adjacent to the beach in a boat at 20 mph or so, you will want to be scanning for rolling fish or dark shadows along the bottom. Keep off the sand 50 to 75 yards and make sure to use your peripheral vision. These fish can hang out deep or push in close, practically on shore at times. Make sure to check the weather before running the beach. A stiff wind out of the west can create snotty conditions in the Gulf. A good swell will often kick up sand, making the water very turbid. This makes it very difficult to spot tarpon.

Once you have found a school, you will want to predict the course they are taking and get out in front of them, by at least 70 yards. A trolling motor is great for this, since it is much quieter than an outboard. Get your bait and make a cast 10 yards ahead of the fish. Three-to 4-inch free-lined blue crabs are preferred bait for the beach tarpon. Casting ahead of the school allows your crab to naturally fall into the strike zone. Fishing with Rob, we would hook our crabs, using 6/0 circle hooks, and place them in the livewell, so when the opportunity arose, we weren't fumbling around.

Note: If you are on a school offish with another, or multiple, boats, proper boating etiquette is appreciated. If someone beat you to the fish, allow them to get their shot and stage behind them, awaiting your turn. You wouldn't want someone to burn your shot at a fish, so don't do it to someone else. You can often read the school offish, and gauge their direction of travel. Doing this allows you to get away from the boat that's on the school and in turn set up for your chance.

Stake Out with Fly

One of the most popular ways to catch Tampa Bay area tarpon on fly is staking out on the sandbars and shallow humps along the beach, and waiting for cruising fish to pass by. This is when you stick your push pole into the sand, and tie your flats boat off to it. For bigger boats, this involves an anchor and anchor ball, ready to deploy when a fish needs to be chased.

Rob prefers to get to the spot he wants to anchor before daylight, allowing some time for nearby fish to get comfortable again by sunup. Before the sun has illuminated the water, rollers will be the target. Once the sun is high enough, seeing schools push across the bar is relatively easy. "Look for high riders, these will typically be the fish that eat," says Gilbert. These are fish that are closer to the surface than others in the school. These "high riders" seem happier, and perhaps unaware of your presence.

Keep your line ready to shoot, either on the deck or in a stripping basket. When it's time to make the cast, if the tarpon is only a foot under the surface, try leading it by 3 feet or so. If the fish is lower in the water, cast 10 feet in front, allowing the fly to sink into the strike zone.

Twelve-weight fly tackle is standard. If the fish are on the smaller side, you can fish a 10 weight, but you run the risk of "bringing a knife to a gun fight," as some would say. Gilbert prefers starting with a 60-pound bite tippet, and if the fish seem spooked or not interested, he will step down to 40-pound fluorocarbon. "I like a black and purple fly for these fish, especially early in the morning," says Gilbert. He believes presentation is even more important than the color of the fly.

Don't Pass Them Up

One of the most popular ways of targeting the tarpon in Tampa is fishing the passes such as Passage Key Inlet, on the north side of Anna Maria Island. Schools offish congregate into these deep cuts that flow out from Tampa Bay, waiting on an easy meal.

The best time to fish these passes is on a falling tide, when crabs and pilchards get flushed out into the ocean. Gilbert says, "Hill tides, prior to the full moon are the best." These fish will stage, facing into the current and eat as bait passes by. "Matching the hatch" is important for getting bites, so have blue crabs and pilchards on standby. Once the full moon comes, Rob will drift crabs at night, keying in on fish feeding at night.

No weights are necessary; you want your bait to drift with the tide. Opening your bail and allowing the bait to drift, be ready for a bite. A bite may be faint and if not paying attention, can be missed. A 7/0 circle hook is a good choice. When you feel the bite, close your bail and hold on; the fish will hook itself. Rob prefers a 12-foot piece of 50-pound fluorocarbon attached to his braided mainline with an FG knot. He believes a longer leader helps to get bites when the fish are pressured.

Anchoring with an anchor ball ready is an easy way to fish certain passes, but can be dangerous due to strong current. Drifting is suggested in or near any marked channel in the bay area, such as Egmont Channel. Drifting is the way to go when fishing spots like this. Just give space to surrounding boats and other anglers fishing. If fishing an unmarked pass, like Passage Key Inlet, scout it before anchoring. Where do you see the majority of the fish rolling? Where are most of the boats hooking their fish? You will want to be up current of this spot, to allow your baits to drift back.

An Evolution of TARPON TACKLE

Over the years, the tackle used to catch tarpon has been refined substantially. A favorite of beach tarpon anglers in the 1980s was an 8-foot fiberglass rod, with a 3/0 conventional reel and 30-pound monofilament. Those days are long gone.

A huge majority of tarpon anglers now prefer using large spinning rods, but why?

With new graphite spinning rods, you are able to cast light baits such as crabs plenty far, but still have the power to handle mature tarpon, in a relatively light package. Pairing one of these rods with a 7000 sized spinning reel and spooling it with 50 pound braid, you have ample line capacity as well.

Some rods that fall into this category are;

St. Croix TideMaster Inshore

8', Medium heavy, Fast action, 14-30lb

Penn Battalion

8', Extra heavy, Fast action, 20-40lb

Star Stellar Lite

8', Heavy, Fast action, 15-30lb

Shimano Teramar

8', Extra heavy, Extra fast action, 15-40lb
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Author:Roberts, Brenton
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Date:Apr 1, 2016
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