Without question, the Atlantic tarpon is one of the most exciting and prized inshore/nearshore saltwater gamefishes in the world. Among the reasons are its proclivity for high, twisting, somersaulting leaps when hooked and its sheer size: The opportunity to hook a fish weighing 100 to 200 pounds or more in a few feet of water have helped generate generations of ardent tarpon devotees.
Tarpon are found in warm and tropical waters on both sides of the Atlantic, supporting important recreational fisheries in Florida, Mexico and Costa Rica, among other places. It should be noted that Atlantic tarpon in recent years have become regular (and welcome) sport catches in the Pacific from Colombia to Costa Rica. There’s little doubt tarpon have transited into the eastern Pacific via the Panama Canal. Though small fish have been found the Pacific, it remains inconclusive whether or not they’re breeding. There is also a genuine Pacific tarpon (Megalops cyprinoides) found in the Indo-Pacific which looks and acts like its Atlantic counterpart, though it seldom reaches even 10 pounds in size.
Long and streamlined with a deeply forked tail and long last dorsal ray, Tarpon have a very large eye and a prognathic jaw. They come in one shade only: chrome-bright silver, their bodies covered by very large scales.
Tarpon do range offshore, occasionally into deep blue waters, though most are caught just off beaches and inside bays and channels that cut through flats or run past mangroves. Bridges, piers and other structure attracts them, where they feed at any time but particularly at night around lights.
Anglers commonly tangle with baby tarpon of a few pounds as well as 10- to 50-pounders, and not uncommonly far larger. The IGFA all-tackle world record, taken in Guinea-Bissau (west Africa) in 2003, weighed 286 pounds, 9 ounces on a mullet. (The guide, better known now than then, was lure-maker Patrick Sebile.) Tarpon are particularly popular among fly-rod enthusiasts; the largest taken on fly to date: 202 pounds, 8 ounces, by James Holland Jr. at Chassahowitzka, Florida, in 2001, fishing 20-pound tippet.
Amazing acrobats; take a variety of baits, flies and lures in accessible inshore/nearshore waters; can grow formidably large.
Hard, bony jaws can make setting a hook — or keeping one in place — quite difficult.
Pro’s Tips for Targetting Tarpon
One of the Florida Keys’ top flyfishing guides, Capt. John O’Hearn (Instagram @jpohearn1) runs any of three boats out of Key West, focusing much of his attention, by popular demand, on tarpon. Years of pursuing the species has given him rare insight into turning anglers’ aspiration into accomplishment. He shares three inside tips:
- Before your first cast “Start each shot with knowledge, the more the better,” O’Hearn says. “Figure out what the current’s doing, at what angle to the wind your cast may be, and what strip you should use. All before you take the first shot. Run the plays in advance, come up with a game plan beforehand.”
- Back-cast competence This one’s easy: Learn how to make quick and accurate back casts. It doesn’t have to be a 70- to 90-foot weapon, but casting effectively in the 30- to 50-foot range will dramatically increase your success. It just take some practice.”
- Retrieval Compensation That is, the speed at which a fly or lure moves is of critical importance. “If we tarpon-fished in a vacuum, it would be easy: Any action imparted by the angler would be transferred exactly to the fly or lure, but in the real world there are lots of moving pieces — the speed of the boat’s drift and/or spin and the strength of the current can have huge impacts on speed of presentation. Compensating for such factors is feasible when they’re recognized and understood.”