Tarpon of all sizes can be caught in central Florida on a seasonal basis. While a few small fish will spend the winters in mud creeks, the majority of the fish migrate into the area during the summer and remain through the first cold fronts of fall. The best months are typical July- mid October. This highly prized game fish, nicknamed the "silver king" is known for its high jumps and aerial display when hooked. Success in tarpon fishing is often measured in the amount of fish hooked per day and not how many make it to the boat. because of their hard mouths and violent head shakes, they often throw the hook before they are landed.
Juvenile tarpon from 2-20 pounds can be caught on the same tackle used to target redfish. An upgrade in the leader strength to 30-40 pounds is usually required to prevent break offs. These fish can be found in creek, canals, ditches, basins, and on the flats throughout the lagoon system. Fish are normally spotted by watching for them to "roll". This is a term used to describe their action of coming to the surface and taking a gulp of air. When they do this, their entire body will be exposed as they head back down. It looks similar to a dolphin coming up for air. Because they can breather air, tarpon can live in areas with extremely low dissolved oxygen where other fish cannot survive.
Tarpon can be notoriously finicky eaters. Finding them can be far less difficult than getting them to bite. Some days they will be rolling all around and will not bite anything you offer. Usually, at least a few fish can be enticed to bite. Bite percentage increases in direct relation to the speed and accuracy of the cast made to rolling fish. For the smaller fish, I prefer DOA shrimp, 3" CAL or tiny TerrorEyz lures. For the full grown variety, I use a sinking DOA Baitbuster or 3/8 oz. TerrorEyz. cast slightly past and ahead of rolling fish and make a slow and steady retrieve. Bites, even from huge fish, can be extremely subtle. Hooksets must be firm and repeated. The fish will usually launch itself into the air within 5 seconds of being hooked.
For fly fishing anglers, tarpon make great targets as well. The small fish eat flies willingly and are best targeted with 5-8wt rods. Adult tarpon can be difficult on fly in this region, Not only can they not be spotted approaching, like in other regions of Florida, there are often a lot of smaller fish such as catfish and ladyfish in the same areas which are quick to grab and destroy your fly.
Large tarpon will migrate through the Lagoon system as well as along the Atlantic coast beaches. On the beach, they can often be found right in the surf crashing schools of bait. Inshore, they can be much more unpredictable and their numbers will vary greatly from year to year. In general, I would not recommend central Florida as a destination to come and target only large tarpon when booking trips well in advance. Even on short notice, factors such as the location of bait schools and the wind can have huge impacts on seeing fish or not. One day there may be tarpon as far as the eye can see and the next day there may be none. I advise prospective clients who want to target tarpon that we will make all efforts to find them but be prepared to switch to redfish if they cannot be found. Smaller tarpon are usually more consistent throughout the summer.
In most cases where clients wish to catch a tarpon, we spend the morning hours targeting them and then switch to redfish and trout during mid day. Often the fish are found on the same flat or in areas very close to each other. It is unlikely we would be able to target tarpon here during the winter as the areas they reside are inaccessible by boat.
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