• Published:July 9, 2018
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Summertime offers incredible tarpon action off Florida's central Gulf Coast.

Every summer anglers flock to Florida's Gulf Coast passes for their chance to strike it rich in the "Silver Rush," the summer tarpon season.
Tarpon, known as the silver king, blend raw power, astounding aerial displays into a mesmerizing physique wrapped in an armor of large shimmering scales. On a good day, you’ll get about half of the fish you hook to the leader, but even those that come unbuttoned reward you with the most astounding aerial displays the inshore fishing world has to offer.

Tarpon typically travel in large schools, particularly during the May/June period when these prized sport fish flood the nearshore shallows and turn coastal bridges into meccas of rod-bending revelry. Massive schools of silver bodies traverse Florida’s Gulf Coast, feeding heavily in preparation for their summer spawn and giving anglers with the right tackle, baits and tactics the thrill of a lifetime.




HOW IT SETS UP

Beaches and bays see plenty of tarpon action, but during this late spring and early summer period, bridges are a hot ticket, particularly the Sunshine Skyway, which carries Interstate 275 across Tampa Bay. You’ll want to show up early, as anglers stake out well in advance of optimal tidal periods in which the ‘poons leverage pilings for current breaks.

After the spawn, some of the fish return to coastal bridges where they’ll feed in similar fashion. Night fishing for tarpon along the shadow lines becomes a big deal for the dog days of summer, but plenty of daytime action remains.

The fish position in slack water and gobble any crab, shrimp or bait that washes past their nose. Anchoring allows you to line up your presentations, but a hooked poon will unleash the crazy on you, and that usually means a big run in precisely the most inconvenient angle imaginable.
You’ll hear the bridge regulars shout “Coming at you!” when a hot fish heads toward a neighboring vessel, and etiquette says you should reel ‘em up to clear the way for your fellow angler. Most crews rig a float to their anchor line, so they can quickly detach and work their fish away from the crowd. After the catch or jump-off, simply return to your spot, reconnect your anchor line and get back to work.

On prime tides, open spaces can be hard to find, but local tarpon stud Capt. Billy Miller prefers a mobile game plan aimed at working fish, rather than spots.

Miller idles in and around the main channel, scanning for busting tarpon. Once he spots significant activity, he motors upcurrent and positions his boat to drift with the current on a stern quarter.

“We just cover more ground,” Capt. Billy says. “You can get in there and find the fish. If you’re anchored, you’re fishing for whatever fish are there behind you, but if you get in there and drift, you can fish for more tarpon.”

To spread out the baits and minimize tangles, Miller stations one angler in the starboard corner, another in the port and a couple on the bow. Each spot has a 5-gallon bucket half full of water to hold a hooked bait between presentations.

FEED ‘EM RIGHT

From stationary or drifting presentations, tarpon readily eat live baitfish such as threadfin herring (aka “greenbacks”), scaled sardines (“pilchards” or “white bait”) and pinfish. The hands-down favorite, however, is a small pass crab, the ones often seen paddling at the surface or clinging to floating debris.

Coastal bait shops sell crabs, but you can dip for your own crabs with a long-handled net drifting the channel on a hard, outgoing tide. Tower boats help skippers spot crabs and call out directions, but you’ll spot plenty from the deck of a flats skiffs or bay boat as well.

The ideal tarpon crab has a carapace about the size of a silver dollar. Too small, and they’re hard to hook. Too large and the tarpon may decline. Female crabs with eggs (visible under the apron at the rear of the shell) are off limits, so leave those in the water.

Hook your crabs in the outermost corner of the shell by gently working the hook through to minimize stress and maximize your bait’s usefulness. A properly hooked crab will last a couple of drifts, but tarpon like ‘em lively, so replace as needed.

Free-lining crabs will earn you a few bites, but floating keeps a bait near the surface where the active tarpon can see them easier. Miller likes large, round corks caped with high-vis green or red tape, which provides a quick visual reference for him to monitor. His instructions are simple: “When the cork disappears, reel like you’re trying to start a fire.”

Considering the average seasonal tarpon weighs about 100 pounds, with plenty in the 150-plus range, you’ll want to gear up with a stout 8- to 9-foot conventional rod and a 4/0 class reel carrying 50-pound monofilament and 125-pound fluorocarbon leader. An improved clinch knot will secure the 9/0 hook, but Miller prefers to crimp his hooks onto his leaders.

APPETIZER ATTRACTION

Now, as much as we view tarpon as magnificent predators of cunning strategy and aggressive attacks, all fish are scavengers at heart. That means not even the mighty silver king can pass up an easy gulp of fresh cut bait, and that’s what Capt. Rob Gorta banks on for much of his summer tarpon action.

After netting fresh jumbo threadfin herring near a pier or navigational marker, Gorta heads to one of the Tampa Bay coastal passes where tarpon are known to gather. There, he cuts a couple dozen baits into generous chunks, drops them beside the boat and directs his anglers to do the same with their hooked versions. Positioning ahead of a moving school usually allows him to pull their attention in his direction.

“Once you get the tarpon under the boat, you can hold them there long enough to get bit,” Gorta said, while diligently chopping fresh threadfins during a recent Tampa Bay outing. “When you look down and see a big silver flash through your chum, that’s the coolest thing.”

“You have to make your bait look just like that drifting chum, so you want to keep pulling line off of your reel so the bait looks like it’s drifting. If you lift your rod to pull out line, it makes your bait rise and you’ll never get bit.”

Soon as you feel a thump, close the bail, reel down and stick it to him. The tarpon will handle the rest.

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