With the ides of March nearly upon us, and the first signs of spring beginning to wake from a long winter slumber, now is the time to head to the Smilin’ Islands for the Silver King season which typically extends from mid-March through late June. The 125-mile-long fetch of the Florida Keys is an archipelago of islands connected by 42 bridges and is a unique location to visit and fish throughout the year for a wide variety of species. However, the tarpon fishing found in the Keys during the spring is about as good as it gets due to the simple fact that the Keys are an integral part of the tarpon’s main migratory route. During this time period, schools of tarpon pass by Key West, Bahia Honda, Marathon, Islamorada, Key Largo, and the mainland coastline. Tarpon pause wherever they find bait schools, and a few may even extend their stay in the many cuts, channels and bridge supports where they ambush baitfish being swept along on the ebb and flow of the tides.
This migration provides boat, shore, and bridge anglers an opportunity to put their skills to the test on the Silver King, providing an adrenaline rush that few other species can match. Both line and tippet class I.G.F.A. World Records have been established on the Silver King in the surrounding waters of Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean. The fact that anglers land only a small percentage of hooked fish is not a deterrent as it takes both skill and luck to consistently land these powerful adversaries. The more experience you gain in losing them, the more of these fish you’ll land. It’s the thrill of the chase and the intensity of the battles that makes this fishery totally addictive.
Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) are among the most popular game fish in Florida. They’re renowned for their gill-rattling aerial acrobatics as they are fully capable of jumping ten feet out of the water. They populate a wide variety of habitats but are primarily found in the coastal waters, bays, estuaries, and mangrove-lined lagoons within subtropical and temperate climates. They prefer water temperatures between 75 and 80 degrees, but tend to bite best when the water’s in the low 80’s. In the Western Atlantic, tarpon primarily inhabit the warmer coastal waters concentrating around the Gulf of Mexico, Florida, and the West Indies.
Tarpon can tolerate challenging environments and will often enter river mouths and bays traveling well upstream into brackish water. In addition, they can also tolerate low oxygen environments due to a modified air bladder that allows them to inhale atmospheric oxygen, a process called ‘Gulping.’ The only variable that seems to limit their choice of habitat is water temperature which seasonal changes bring about. Research has demonstrated that tarpon are sensitive to temperature changes and seek out refuge in warmer and deeper waters when cold fronts roll through and water temps drop.
Whether conventional, spinning, or fly tackle is employed, you’re in for a memorable battle with these mercurial-hued acrobats each and every time that you hook up. Their sheer power and aerial antics make first-time anglers simply shake their heads in awe once the skirmish starts. One of the critical lessons needed for success is “Bowing to the King.” When a fish rockets out of the water, you must instantly drop your rod tip as airborne tarpon have an innate ability to toss a hook in midair if the line is kept taut.
Conventional and spinning tackle in the 20-to-30-pound class (or larger) is typically used to tussle with these fish. Conventional reels such as the PENN Torque 25, Squall 25, and Fathom 25 series along with spinning reels such as PENN Torque 6500, Slammer 6500, and Spinfisher 6500 mounted on 30- to 80-pound Carnage rods are great wands to wield. Anglers can go with lighter tackle, but tarpon fight to the finish and it’s better to beat them in a timely manner to ensure survival once they’re de-hooked and revived.
Line size used on the reels is typically 30- to 40-pound test, with a mono top shot spooled onto braid backing. For your leader, 40- to 80-pound test fluorocarbon is normally chosen based upon the size of the fish, the choice of bait, and water clarity. Berkeley ProSpec mono and Spiderwire braids have worked best for me.
Hook size will vary depending on the baits being used. For smaller baits and crabs, 5/0 to 7/0 circle hooks are employed. For bigger baits such as mullet, 7/0 to10/0 circle hooks are preferred. The majority of captains in the Keys use circle hooks since they latch nicely in the corner of the tarpon’s tough, bony mouth.
While mullet are the preferred bait to use early in the season, from the latter part of April onward mullet thin out and many tarpon anglers switch to 3- to 4-inch declawed blue crabs. The old adage of “Bigger baits tend to catch bigger fish” is not the case when ‘poon fishing, and a 100-plus-pound tarpon will happily slurp down a crab the size of a silver dollar. Mullet can be cast-netted or purchased from a bait truck at marinas. However, you’re much more likely to find crabs to purchase on a consistent basis and they tend to have a higher hook-up ratio than mullet. You’ll also pick up an occasional permit when employing crabs for bait which is a great bonus.
For those thinking about towing their boats to the Keys to engage in the pursuit of these fish, it’s not a bad idea to book a trip or two with a guide whose boat and tackle are set up specifically for tarpon, and the knowledge they possess will pay dividends rather than doing it the hard way. Not only will you pick up the how’s and why’s of catching Silver Kings, you’ll also learn the safe way to do it. Weaving through winding narrow channels bordered by shallows or through bridge supports hot on the trail of a big tarpon that’s spooling your reel are not tactics for the novice angler. While there are many public boat launches and marinas in the Keys, chartering is often the best way to ensure success in your quest for a trophy tarpon.
Boat anglers often pole/anchor up on the up tide side of bridges or drift alongside the edge of flats floating live baits such as mullet, crabs, pinfish, pilchards, or shrimp back under floats or balloons replicating baitfish being carried by on the ebb or flow of the tides. Those fishing from shore, piers, and other structures can modify the techniques employing the same live baits or by using lures that mimic the natural baits such as those made by Sebile, Rapala, and Gravity Tackle.
Fly fishing for tarpon in the Keys will totally test your tackle. Fly rods in the 10-to-12 weight class are the standard when targeting adult, migratory tarpon. These rods provide more backbone during the fight and will beat the fish faster. If your reel isn’t well built with a silky-smooth drag, Silver Kings will simply destroy it. Tarpon rip line off reels at warp speed initially and then put extreme stress on the drag during the fight. While you can tie your own flies, proven fly patterns can be purchased at many of the local tackled shops. 3- to 5-inch long flies tied with 2-2/0 hooks for juveniles and up to 5/0 for larger fish work best.
In addition to purchasing a required non-resident saltwater fishing license (not required if fishing with a guide), tarpon are a catch-and-release-only species in the state of Florida. Retaining a fish is permitted only if you are pursuing an I.G.F.A. world record and have previously purchased a $50 tarpon tag that limits the angler to retaining one fish per year. Also, tarpon fishing is limited to hook and line angling only. However, as long as you play by the rules, you’re in for a world of fun and excitement pursuing the quest to capture a Silver King. Tarpon fishing provides an angler with a thrill that they will never forget.’