The Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper

Vol. 16 No. 27 - May 4, 2016

reel time

Tarpon time

Reel time

rusty chinnis | sun

The sight of tarpon rolling in the Gulf will quicken your heart rate

The signs are in the air and out over the Gulf. As the water clears and temperatures warm into the high 70s to low 80s bait fish schools dimple the surface, signaling savvy anglers that the "man in the silver suit" won't be far behind. Tarpon, the prehistoric fish with scales that form a shield of silver armor, make their way to the Gulf beaches, creating one of angling's apex opportunities for local fishermen.

The word on what is known as the tarpon telegraph is that tarpon are already being spotted and caught by patient anglers. These distinctive fish generally appear in dependable numbers after the middle of May, but time of the year combined with water temperatures signal that it's time to start the hunt for these noble warriors.

Tarpon are seasonal visitors to the Gulf beaches and Tampa Bay on their annual spawning ritual, but there is also a resident population that becomes active when conditions are favorable. This is a wonderful opportunity for anglers of all types to do battle with one of the most aggressive and impressive gamefish that swim our shores.

Tarpon aren't picky when it comes to a fisherman's choice of tackle and bait, readily taking lures, flies and bait, either dead or live. While small blue crabs and pass crabs are preferred, pilchards, threadfin herring and pinfish catch their fair share of fish.

Anglers who fly fish favor flies like toads, bunnies and traditional Keys style flies. While some anglers swear by dark colors like black and purple, others prefer a neutral color like tan. Most experienced fly anglers have a favorite color, but will experiment if a particular pattern or color gets refused. In truth it's hard to say, as many times an impeccably tied fly of any color can be perfectly presented and refused. Therefore experimentation and experience generally rule the day.

The best way to experience this amazing fishery is to engage the services of one of the many excellent guides that call local Gulf waters their office. You don't have to hire a professional to catch a tarpon, but a guided trip will be the best investment you've ever made.

If you decide to try it on your own, a quick primer can get you up to speed. Hooking a tarpon isn't essentially difficult. In fact, it can be quite easy. Catching one is another story. First and foremost, realize that you'll be angling for one of the most powerful gamefish that swim coastal waters. It's important to match tackle to the challenge. Not being prepared or aware of what you're doing can be dangerous to you and the tarpon.

Spin anglers can start with a quality 30-pound outfit spooled to capacity with the same or heavier line. Double the standing line using a Spider Hitch or a Bimini Twist and tie on a two foot section of 78-pound fluorocarbon leader. A favorite lure is the DOA red and white Baitbuster (deep runner trolling model). If you're fishing live bait, tie on a 3/0 or 4/0 circle hook using a non-slip mono loop.

Tarpon are occasionally hooked by anglers that do everything wrong, but that's the exception and not the rule.

When you spot schools of moving fish, get well ahead of them, establish their track and cut your outboard at least 50 yards ahead. If you're casting a lure or a fly, the presentation has to be nearly perfect, moving away from or across their path. Another important factor is getting the presentation down to the tarpon's level. They will seldom go even a foot or two out of their way to take live baits or lures.

When you go tarpon fishing, it's OK to mimic more experienced anglers, but never encroach on a boat that's stalking a school. Circle wide of other anglers and go farther down the beach and line up for a cast. It's rude and ruins the fishing for everyone when someone runs up on a school of fish after anglers have positioned themselves to intercept them.

Tarpon fishing should be fun. If someone ruins your fishing try explaining the rules to them. In most cases, they don't even know what they're doing. Someone who just doesn't care isn't worth the effort, so just go find fish somewhere else. I try to show them the courtesy they don't show me.

Tarpon are one of angling's greatest challenges and a test of your mettle. Try your hand either on your own or with a guide. Don't forget to show a little respect; this can and should be fun for everyone.

AMISUN ~ The Island's Award-Winning Newspaper