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Tarpon Season Tactics in the Keys

Tarpon Season Tactics

As the most popular time of year to fish in Key West begins, tarpon are showing up right on time. Tarpon are definitely a resident fish to the Keys, but each year our weather patterns decide when we see our migratory fish. Some years we see a big push of fish in January and February, but the start of the actual tarpon season is around March and April. Being as warm as it is, we have seen a lot of fish move in already, making their appearances in the harbor and channels throughout the backcountry.

For most species of fish, you can just pump and reel to get your fish in.

Tarpon like to make things a little more challenging. Tarpon get the best of a lot of anglers, with many jumps, head shakes, thrashing, long runs to deeper channels, and constant directional changes. There are so many things that can happen throughout the fight that can break the fish off. Jumping and trying to dislodge the hook is one of the most common methods. Other ways tarpon get free is by under sized tackle, leaders getting shredded, bent hooks, and the fish landing on your line after they jump. Since there is so many ways a tarpon can break off, we have many methods to try and keep them hooked.

Tarpon can be fly fished for, chummed, and artificially enticed, but my day-to- day tarpon fishing consists of using live bait (pinfish or crabs). Since our tarpon range in sizes from 20-120-pounds, I like to use tackle that is heavy enough to keep the big ones on. I use 7 foot 30-50-pound spinning rods with 8000 class spinning reels, preferably something with a good amount of drag pressure like a Quantum Cabo. I line the reels up with 30lb FINS XS braid, so you can have great power with good casting distance. From my line I go to 30-50-pound ANDE fluorocarbon leaders. The leader size will all depend on the water clarity and size of the fish we are targeting. I like to tie on about 5-6 feet of leader, attaching it with your favorite line-to-line knot. I use a uni-to-uni because of its simplicity and strength. Some people like to get fancy, but I don’t have time to be fancy when tarpon are rolling all around us! The hooks are also very important because that is what’s holding the fish on your line. I like to use 5/0 or 6/0 Owner circle or J hooks. I have used both types of hooks on many tarpon in my career, and I still do not have a favorite.

A good technique is crucial if one is going to get a tarpon to the boat.

First off, letting the tarpon eat your bait all the way can really make or break your hookup. Tarpon don’t always get the baits all the way in their mouth when they swipe at it. Some people like to try and set the hook on them immediately, which causes the bait to come right out of the tarpon’s mouth. Some anxious anglers have actually hooked more tarpon in my rod holders than they have hooked themselves…it just works. Once the tarpon is hooked, letting them run is a must. They usually make a really hard run, and then jump a few times. Once this happens, I like to have my anglers drive the hook (not set it) into the tarpon’s mouth. Driving the hook is the same motion as setting the hook except not as aggressive. 5-7 small pumps with the rod is all you need to drive the hook through your tarpon’s tough jaw.

Tarpon Season Tactics

When the tarpon are jumping closer to the boat, it is a good technique to “bow” to the fish. The term “bow” comes from the way it looks when you are bending over with your rod giving the fish some slack when they come out of the water. This lets the tarpon go crazy and jump without breaking you off. When a fish lands on your line after jumping out of the water, the pressure and abrasion can snap your leader.

Tarpon Season Tactics

Landing a tarpon can be one of the most rewarding parts of the whole fight.

Bringing these monsters boat side for a great picture sometimes has its challenges though. Tarpon will act like they are worn out, but sometimes thrash a bunch when you try and grab their jaw. I usually throw on a pair of gloves to land the tarpon unless I’m feeling adventurous. It’ll be a lot easier to grip their rough jaw structure with some tough gloves. Grabbing the lower jaw is the best place to control a tarpon. They will shake their heads a bunch, but just hold on tight!

Capt. Kyle Kelso
Capt. Kyle Kelso is a Florida native from St. Petersburg, FL. He is a full-time fishing guide in Key West, FL and member of the Florida Guide Associat...