A four-part series by Captain Robert McCue
Gin-clear flats, white sugar sand beaches and swift flowing passes are traditional settings for those who stalk the spectacular tarpon along Florida's west coast. >From April until about the full moon in July, rare is the dawn that doesn't find a bleary-eyed and demented angler lurking along the well-known travel paths of the world's greatest gamefish.
Shortly after that full moon in July, the tarpon anglers disappear faster than toilet paper during a blue-light special. Tarpon can be found roaming the flats, beaches and passes - but the fishing becomes very inconsistent the rest of the summer. As I've discussed in previous installments of this series, what brings the tarpon to these whereabouts is part of their pre-spawn ritual. The spring migration southward of pre-spawn tarpon slowly, but surely, becomes a summer northward migration of post-spawn tarpon. Until finally, they all but disappear.
Disappear? Well, not really - if you know where they went. As the post-spawn fish move north a percentage of the fish "break off" their path of travel to enter bays and rivers along the coast. Why they like this mixture of salt and fresh water (in some cases completely fresh) is not totally understood and is another part of the tarpon's mystique. One thing is certain: the temperament of these "off-season" tarpon is unlike that of their springtime counterparts. Summer tarpon are here to eat. The waters of both Charlotte Harbor and Tampa Bay support great populations of these late season tarpon. Due to its close proximity to my home, Tampa Bay is where I spend most of my fishing time.
It would be unjust to speak of Tampa Bay tarpon without acknowledging fellow Mercury Pro Team member and friend Capt. James Wisner. "The Wiz" learned his craft from the secrets of the early tarpon fishing pioneers. He honed these skills to a fine edge through a dedicated work ethic and a lifetime of scouring the waters. James has shared much of his wisdom with me, and he'll let us in on one of his favorite tricks a little later on in this story.
There are countless places and methods to fish for summer tarpon - far too many to completely cover in this story. Year after year, however, the tarpon seem to keep showing up in the same places and eating the same things. The theater may be a channel, dredge hole, river mouth, bridge, deep flat, oyster bar, "live" hard bottom, grass edge, points, troughs, docks or submerged rip-rap. Techniques include flyfishing, plugging, trolling, corking with live bait, bottom fishing and drifting. Although summer tarpon can be found in many different places, if I had to pick the type of spot most likely to produce fish, it would definitely be bridges.
No single spot consistently holds more tarpon in the bay than bridges. These bridges (we have over fifty miles' worth in Tampa Bay) are tarpon magnets during the summer. The fishing can be so reliable that my exclusive "Tarpon Guarantee" charters are run in their shadows. Understanding how the tarpon move around the bay will determine which bridges to fish. The Sunshine Skyway, however, is a reliable hot spot all summer long. During the big tides of the full and new moons, drifting live sardines and herring through the pilings and shadow lines cast by the structure is a sure-fire way to get hooked up.
On the slower quarter-moon tides, a change in technique is often needed. It's time to pick the brain of a master tarpon angler, Capt. James Wisner. Capt. James sets up on the upcurrent side of the bridge and hooks up what is nothing short of a magical tarpon bait: fresh dead menhaden. He slings the weighted bait (it should lie flat on the bottom) into the pilings, then begins a technique borrowed from northeastern tuna fishermen -- chunking. James sweetens the area by ladling cut-up pieces of this oily bait into the water, allowing the tide to carry the chum slick under the bridge. The aroma dribbles around the pilings, producing much the same effect on tarpon as a picnic basket does on Yogi the bear. Like most fish, tarpon are lazy by nature and are suckers for fresh dead bait on the bottom. This technique produces unheard-of bites and is deadly on giant tarpon. Menhaden is the bait of choice, although a large butterflied pinfish was the standard prior to the discovery of menhaden as a tarpon bait in the 1970's. The location of the menhaden schools, as well as the most productive spots, are often closely-guarded secrets of experienced tournament anglers.
Tarpon are for the most part great nocturnal animals. The same bridges that hold fish during the day are tarpon night clubs after sundown. The fish are drawn to the bright lights like insects to a bug zapper. Anglers can anchor up-current and drift small ladyfish to the shadow line - it's here that the tarpon prowl. Ladyfish are easily caught under the lights with a 1/4 oz. Cotee jig head and motor-oil colored grub. But for real heart-stopping action, getting under the bridge and sight-casting the cruising tarpon is a scene which will burn itself forever into your memory. Probably the ultimate in sight-casting these fish is rigging a 12 wt. fly rod with a purple and black Death fly. Another productive method is to rig a spinning rod with 30 lb. test line and a short piece of 80 lb. leader. Attach an Owner 7/0 SSW hook to your leader via a loop knot. Next slide a black and pearl 4 inch Cotee shad body onto the hook. Complete the rig by lightly crimping a 3/8 oz. split shot sinker 2 inches above your hook. When you hook up, the weight will fall off the leader, preventing the tarpon from using the weight of the rig to throw the hook.
Shrimp and any palm-size fish get the nod as top live baits. The tarpon eat your offering just a foot or two from the boat - all in plain view.. If this isn't enough to bring on a case of buck fever, just wait 'til that tarpon "goes bad" and is looking at you eye-to-eye on that first jump. My clients have initially expressed concern about being able to see the tarpon jump. Trust me - you will see everything. Most of the fight is played out in the lights of the bridge, up to 200 yards away.
To be able to consistently hook up with bridge tarpon, it's important to know how the fishes move along the structure at any given point in the tide phase. To gain experience and savvy, you have to put in your time - get out on the water and learn all you can about these great gamefish.
Away from the bridges, there are of course tarpon to be had. Artificial lure enthusiasts troll large silver Krocodile spoons and diving 7-inch Mirrolures in various rivers during the summer. The Hillsborough River and surrounding ship basins are time-proven producers. Many sportsmen love casting flies, plugs and corked live bait at rolling tarpon. Fish are often found around the deep flats off Apollo Beach, Mermaid Point, MacDill Air Force Base, and the mud flats near St. Pete - Clearwater Airport.
In closing, I'd like to say it's been a great pleasure offering you this series on my favorite gamefish. Your response has been overwhelming, and I hope you've enjoyed reading about these fascinating animals. For those who couldn't make it down this year to sample the action first-hand, we look forward to seeing you in the future. Book early and let's go fishing!!
Bent rods and tight lines!
Captain Robert McCue
(PART I) (PART II) (PART III)
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