Tarpon along the Emerald Coast are an untapped resource. The tarpon usually start to show up in May and last into late August or early September. The heart of the run, and when you can expect to have the best fishing, is June and July.
Tarpon in our area range from Indian Pass, to Port St. Joe, Crooked Island Sound, Panama City Beach, Destin, Navarre, and Pensacola. The piers catch the majority of the tarpon that are caught in the area, but there are plenty to be caught by anglers fishing from boats. The tarpon we catch range from 50lb fish to in excess of 200lb.
Tarpon fishing is very exciting because of the aerial displays put on once they have been hooked. Most are caught spot casting to individual fish or schools.
The extremely clear waters of the Emerald Coast provide a challenge of getting close enough to the tarpon to get them to bite, but not spook them into not biting. In this article we are going to teach you how to get the bite of a lifetime.
Rods and Reels
For the most part we use spinning tackle 30lb to 65lb. Most of the guys fishing the pier use 8ft to 9ft medium heavy spinning outfits spooled with Power Pro braided line in 50lb or 65lb. Anglers fishing from a boat generally use 7ft to 8ft rods, again spooled with 50lb to 65lb braided line.
You don’t want the rods too heavy or you’ll pull a lot of hooks when the tarpon jump once they’re hooked. The rods need to have some bend to them. If you’ve ever heard the term BOW TO THE TARPON, you’ll understand. When you hook a tarpon, they put on quite an arial display jumping out of the water multiple times in an effort to shake the hook free. When you feel the tarpon nearing the surface and can anticipate the jump you need to lower the tip of the rod just as the tarpon jumps to relieve some of the pressure, so you do NOT pull the hook or break the fish off. This is where the term BOW TO THE TARPON comes from.
When and Where to Catch Tarpon
Tarpon can show up in early May and last into September, but the bulk of the tarpon are caught from June to Mid-August.
All along the coast, the piers are some of the most popular spots for tarpon. They can be caught all day, but early morning and late afternoon seem to be the best times. You see just as many tarpon during the middle of the day, but when the sun is high in the sky the tarpon can see better and are more likely to get spooked and not bite.
When fishing from a boat along the beaches and just off the sand bar, the times are the same as pier fishing. The exception is fishing Indian Pass where the water is not as clear. Here, the fish tend to bite better on the tide change rather than early and late. The other exception is fishing Crooked Island Sound where we ease along mostly from boats with poling platforms and spot cast at the tarpon. In this cast the best times are when the sun is high in the sky and you have better visual on the tarpon.
When you are boat fishing along the coast just off the sand bar, you want to look for the tarpon rolling along gulping air. If you motor up to these fish your chances of getting a bite are slim to none. You need to figure out the line the tarpon are moving along and anchor and wait for them to swim by you unless you have a trolling motor. The trolling motor is quite enough to sneak up on the fish without spooking them.
Baits change depending on the area you are fishing but there is one constant. MULLET!!
- Indian Pass, Port St Joe and and Crooked Island Sound: Menhaden and Mullet
- Panama City, Destin, Navarre and Pensacola: LYs, Mullet, and Threadfin Herring.
There is a lot of confusion about LYs and Menhaden, locally a lot people call menhaden LYs but there is a big difference. Menhaden are mostly in the bay and LYs in the gulf. There is also a threadfin herring.
Below: Threadfin Herring , Menhaden, LYs, Mullet
The mullet is the one bait that will work just about anywhere, you can use finger mullet and then larger mullet up to almost 1lb in size. Mullet are a favored baitfish for almost any coastal species and can be caught with a cast net almost year round.
To make a live bait rig choose an Owner Mutu Light 5/0-7/0 hook and make a Carolina Rig out of 60lb Seaguar Fluorocarbon leader about 18 to 24in long with a barrel swivel.
Tarpon will take a variety of lures from spoons, topwater poppers, rattle traps, and I can not stress enough the number one bait is a Berkley Swim Bait in 5in or 6in size and by far the most popular is the 6in size.
During the summer of 2014, Jason Zabelski caught over 20 tarpon off the Okaloosa Island Pier all on Berkley Swim Baits. It was one of the finest exhibitions of tarpon fishing from the pier I can ever remember. I am not 100% sure, but I believe he caught them all on swim baits. The Berkley swim baits also work for kings, amberjack, snapper, grouper, tuna, dolphin and redfish.
If you haven’t given this exciting fishery a chance, you’re missing out on some real action. While tarpon are not edible, and this is a catch and release fishery, don’t miss the chance to get in on the action as there are not many species that bring this much excitement. The thrill of a 100lb plus tarpon screaming the line off, your reel jumping numerous times, putting on an aerial display second to none will make your heart race!
Provided by Tim Broom, Half Hitch Destin manager.