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Tarpon Fishing Methods & Tips Guide

Tips, Techniques, & Tackle Info - How to Catch Tarpon in Key West

Info & Fishing Techniques on how to Catch Tarpon

In this article learn about the basics on how to fish for and catch giant Tarpon.  We will give you some professional advise from

Key West fishing guides

on some of the tips and nuances on how to fish for trophy Tarpon.

Key West is known as one of the greatest Tarpon fishing Mecca's there is for catching large fish.  If a trophy Tarpon is on your fishing bucket list then the Florida Key's might be just the place for you.  A

guided Key West Tarpon fishing charter

will almost guarantee you a great chance to land the fish of your dreams, if you choose the right time of year.
Key West Tarpon Fisherman holding a Tarpon Fish
Learn how and where to catch trophy Tarpon.

When to Book Your Tarpon Fishing Charter

Planning a Tarpon fishing trip?   The first and foremost important order of business when fishing for trophy Tarpon is picking the right time of year.   The best Tarpon fishing action in Key West usually starts in late March and runs through July.   You can catch Tarpon year round in Key West, but the bigger fish don't show up in more abundant numbers until some time later in March. 

We have seen good Tarpon fishing starting in March in the lower Key's, but the weather has to cooperate in good way.   Your best bet is to book your Key West Tarpon fishing charter some time after the month of March.  Many Key West Tarpon guides will suggest a fishing trip in May and June for the best (almost) guaranteed action.

As summer progresses the Tarpon fishing will heat up all along the west coast of Florida all the way up to the northern panhandle region.  Charlotte Harbour and Tampa Bay Harbour are other hotspots noted for having great Tarpon fishing action in the summer months.
Fisherman holding a large Tarpon caught on a fishing charter.
April to July are the best months for Tarpon fishing in Key West.

Hire a Pro Fishing Guide or Tarpon Fish on Your Own?

If you choose to go with a professional guide while

fishing for Tarpon in Key West

your guide will almost certainly get you up to speed on the proper method & techniques for catching Tarpon.  They will also have all the gear and tackle that you will need. However, if you're a do it yourselfer and renting a boat or maybe bringing your own fishing boat then the Tarpon fishing pointers below may help get you pointed in the right direction.

Tarpon fishing in Key West

and for all of Florida for that matter is catch and release fishing only.  Tarpon are considered edible but they are very bony and not what most people would consider a delicacy.   You can purchase a Tarpon tag, which allows you to take one fish per year if you're trying for a state IGA record. (Good luck on that note!)  Otherwise any Tarpon over 40 inches in length may not be legally removed from the water.
Fishing guide and a jumping Tarpon in Key West Harbour
Large Tarpon caught by Key West Harbour in late March.
Star Plasma Tarpon Fishing Rod our favorite choice.
Star Plasma Tarpon Fishing Rod - Our Personal Favorite

Choosing the Appropriate Tarpon Fishing Tackle

Once you've planned your fishing trip or booked a fishing charter it's critical that you have the

appropriate fishing gear for landing that big Tarpon.

  Single barbless cirlcle hooks are recommended when using live bait preferably over a treble hook for clean and easy releases.  Circle hooks between size 5/0 to 8/0 are the more common sizes that you should use. 

If using artificials they will come with treble hooks but there's little chance the fish would ever have time to swallow the hook.  A heaver rod and line combo are also important to land the fish in a reasonable amount of time to avoid over tiring the fish. Most Tarpon fishing guides will recommend a fluorocarbon leader of between 50 to 80lbs and braided line that is in the 30 to 50lb test range. 

A medium heavy rod with a fast action is ideal when targeting larger Tarpon. One of our favorite Tarpon fishing rods is the 8' Star Plasma in a fast action.  The rod will set you back about $220 but is well worth the price since it comes with a lifetime guarantee. 

When to Tarpon fish with Light Tackle

You may want to consider using lighter tackle if you're fishing during the off season months when only the smaller fish may be present.  Some fishing guides will use braided line in the 30lb range under these conditions. 

The lighter braided fishing line is also a little better for making those long casts that will help keep you from spooking the fish.  These same guides however will still recommend the heaver leader sizes if you're targeting Tarpon.

Your reel should be in the 6000 to 7000 size range to be able to hold enough line for the inevitable head shaking runs that the Silver Kings are noted for.   It's important that your reel has enough drag pressure to withstand those acrobatic runs made by the bigger Tarpon.  

Most decent reels in that size class should be adequate, cheaper versions however may not have that feature. 
Best value Tarpon fishing reel - the Daiwa BG series
The Daiwa BG series of Tarpon fishing reels are a great value if you're on a budget.  Best bang for the buck.

The Best Live Baits for Tarpon Fishing

Tarpon feed on wide variety of live baits such as Mullet, Porgies, Grunts, Herring, Sardines and many others.  Live bait is by far the easiest method for catching a Tarpon.  Mullet, Pilchards, and Pinfish are a popular choice with many Tarpon guides. 

Part of that could be attributed to the fact that they are usually the more readily available baits or are easier to find and catch.   By far the best choice as summer progresses would be Blue Crabs, if you can get them. 

No self respecting Tarpon fisherman would ever go afield without a good supply of Blue Crabs, assuming or course that you can get them from your local bait shop.  See the video below to learn how to properly hook a crab for Tarpon.  

There are times depending on where you are fishing  that certain bait works better than others. It's probably due to the fact that the fish are used to feeding on a particular bait fish in that area.  As a fisherman it's your job to figure that part out.

Best live bait for Tarpon fishing - the Blue Crab.

How to hook a Blue Crab for Tarpon Fishing
Hook your Blue Crabs just on the very edge of the shell.
Here's how to hook a Blue Crab when Fishing for Tarpon

Best Lures and Artificial Baits for Tarpon Fishing

An artificial lure is a more sporting choice that can be a fun and satisfying method.  It's also cheaper than buying fresh bait.  An eight to ten inch soft jerk bait in a bone or white color with a size 7/0 hook is one of the deadlier combinations. 

There are an endless number of artificial lures that will work for Tarpon just as long as they resemble the type of bait found in your area.  Swim baits that resemble and wiggle like Herring or Sardines are among the artificials that produce good results.
Best soft bait for Tarpon fishing, the Shad JerkBait
8 to 10 inch soft jerk bait, one of our favorite fishing baits for catching big Tarpon.

Best Tarpon fishing Knot for Tying Braid to Leader

The best fishing knot for tying braided line to your leader which we recommend is the double uni-knot.  The double uni-knot will give you one of the best strength ratios for tying two lines together. 

If you're using a flurocarbon leader then we recommend the simple and quick Clinch Knot for tying on a hook or swivel. We do not recommend the Clinch Knot for tying braided fishing line.
Best knot for Tarpon fishing, the Double Uni Knot
Best Tarpon fishing knot, tying leader to braid - The Double Uni-Knot.
Popular Tarpon fishing knot - the Clinch Knot
The clinch knot is a good choice if tying a swivel or hook to flurocarbon fishing line.

How and Where to Find Feeding Tarpon

When fishing for Tarpon in the lower Key's, there are some areas that will typically hold fish.  Bridge structures are a great place to focus on when searching for schooling Tarpon.  Shallow areas that are close to rip currents and mangroves also can be some of the better places to find feeding fish. 

Tarpon can be found in many of the deeper narrow channels where the current is concentrated.  If you have a good GPS fishfinder sort through some of these areas until you locate a Tarpon pod.  The tides will be a major factor as to when the fish may be active in these narrow channel areas. 

A really good outflow of current is the ideal scenario. During slack tides the fishing action can be quite a bit slower.  The easier way to find Tarpon is to be on the water at day break and simply look for rolling fish. Early morning is the best time to locate schooling fish, before the breeze picks up and the fish decide that they are done feeding.
Old Key West railroad bridge
Look for narrow channels with outflowing current to locate submerged Tarpon.

Best Time of the Day for Tarpon Fishing

Early morning is the easiest and best time to target feeding schools of Tarpon.  You should be on your way from the boat dock well before the sun is peaking from the horizen.  The water is usually calmest at day break. This makes it easier to detect Tarpon that are barely creasing the surface of water.  The competition is also at it's lowest at that time of the day.  Once the wind picks up and the sun starts to get higher in the sky the Tarpon will many times decide to call it quits until later in the day.

Besides early mornings evenings are the next best time frame for targeting large Tarpon.  The majority of fisherman and fishing guides will be off the water before then.  The competition will be mostly eliminated and the fish tend to put on the feed bag before dark settles in.  It's possible to have really good Tarpon fishing after dark but it's usually not as appealing as the day time.
Tarpon fishing in Key West at sunset.
Late evening is a great time to fish for Tarpon in Key West.

How Retrieve an Artificial Bait

Once you locate a pod of Tarpon you will want to get within casting distance while staying away as far possible so as not to alarm them.  Since we don't want to spook the Tarpon you will want to cast to a spot approximately 10 feet or so in front of the fish.

From there you want to slowly bring in your lure with a twitching motion.   Wait a second, twitch and pause for two or three seconds, and twitch again.  Many times the Tarpon will hit your artificial on the pause.  Resist the urge to set the hook to early, which is the sign of an inexperienced Tarpon fisherman.

A word of warning, if you decide to anchor while casting you had better have a quick release mechanism, with a buoy, on your anchor rope.  A really big Tarpon can spool you in a heartbeat if you're not mobile. You most likely won't have time to retrieve your anchor without losing all your line along with the Tarpon. 

Fisherman retrieving an artificial lure
Twitch & pause is often the best lure retrieval technique for triggering feeding Tarpon.

Tarpon Fishing Hookset Strategy

After you located the fish and managed to tempt one into biting your best bet for a good hookset is to let the fish bend your rod before your decide to lay the wood on them.  Once you've made a good hookset on a Tarpon this is where it gets weird for most experienced freshwater fisherman.  If you've been on a guided Tarpon fishing charter you will be familar with the term, you must bow to the King. 

At some point your hooked fish is going to realize he made a bad business decision.  At this point your Tarpon will explode out of the water shaking his head in an attempt to rid itself of the offending offering and you.

It's at this point that a lifetime of fishing experience can work against you. We all remember our Father's telling us to keep tension on the line when we had a fish on.  That advise will come back to haunt you with Tarpon.
On your first few Tarpon hookups you may have a natural instinctive urge to pullback on the line when an acrobatic fish becomes airborne.  Whereupon your buddy will inevatably say, sorry for your loss Bill that was a damn nice fish. 

Tarpon jumping out of the water
Be patient when it comes to setting the hook.

You Must Bow to the King!

When a Tarpon jumps you MUST point your rod in their direction, putting slack in the line. Because of their hard bony mouths this method works way better to keep the hook in their mouth.  

I can almost guarantee the more experienced the fisherman, the poorer the odds are for landing the first few Tarpon that you have hooked.  Even with the proper technique you will fail more often than not.  It's just the nature of the game. 

Tarpon have hard raspy mouths that can chew up your hands if you treat them like you're Bass fishing.  A decent pair of gloves is a must wear when you're trying to release a Tarpon or trying to revive the fish.

The only thing left to do is smile for the camera.
Fisherman pointing his rod towards a jumping Tarpon
Bow to the King!
Point your rod towards the Tarpon when they jump out of the water.
Professional Fishing guide, Captain Grif,  offers many exciting custom Key West fishing charters including:  light tackle fishing charters, fishing charters for sharks & barracudas, fly fishing charters, fishing charters for trophy Tarpon, charter fishing for Permit & Bone Fish, backcountry flats fishing charters, reef fishing adventures, ship wreck fishing charters, night charter fishing and more.....
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