- Good things come in small packages; those feisty
juvenile tarpon can put a smile on the face of any angler.
springtime months of April, May, and June, everybody who's anybody in the realm of Florida
Keys sportfishing is on the water chasing their favorite gamefish. Some spend their
days in pursuit of giant tarpon. Others prefer the challenge of stalking those
elusive bonefish and permit in skinny water. And there are those who take their
aspirations offshore, hunting for dolphin, wahoo, and maybe a crack at the grand daddy of
them all, the blue marlin. Plenty can be said about each of these fish, and this
writer knows better than to claim that one species is more popular than the rest.
But there is a particular fish that is near and dear to the hearts of light-tackle anglers
throughout the Keys. This fish will never be described with glowing terms such as
awesome, incredible, or magnificent. Their strike is far from heart stopping, and
their runs fall far short of line sizzling. To top it off, you can't even eat the
What this fish does amount to though, is the friskiest, jumpingest, light-tackle fish an
angler could ever want. We're talking baby tarpon here, and with large tarpon having
earned the name Silver King, it certainly would not be overstatement to bequeath
the title of Silver Prince upon their younger brethren.
Although there are no universal parameters that define what a baby or juvenile tarpon
actually is, it's generally agreed that any tarpon under 15 pounds qualifies (though a
typical size is more like 5 to 10 pounds). These fish possess an uncanny ability to
put a smile on the face of even the most experienced angler. What a contrast it is
to see a veteran fly fishermen (who normally wears his "game face" while
fighting larger tarpon) break into a ear to ear grin while playing out one of the little
guys on light gear. In a nutshell, baby tarpon are pure, unadulterated fun!
While it's not necessary to build a case for the experience of hooking and landing giant
tarpon, there are some distinct advantages in targeting their younger brethren.
First, they're easy on the body. There's no epic two hour struggle in landing
these fish. In fact, seldom more than a few minutes elapses from hookup to release.
Secondly, the tackle is a lot lighter, with 8 pound spinning tackle or an 8
weight fly rod (a 7 weight is even better if wind is not an issue) being about right. One
final plus is this: When it's late in the day and I'm sitting on two legs of a grand slam
(needing only a tarpon to round it out), I'll frequently turn to baby tarpon as the
easiest way to put it together.
There are several ways to go about targeting these fish. Perhaps the most popular is
to look for them out in the backcountry along the edges of mangrove shorelines. It is
really exciting to pole in toward a treeline shortly after dawn and find a pod of
undisturbed baby tarpon rolling and feeding. A live shrimp reeled slowly just under
the surface along the perimeter of this activity is an automatic strike at times like
this. A small fly (marabou collar and a grizzly hackle wing...I prefer natural
looking rather than colorful tarpon flies) tied on a #1 hook should also enjoy the same
results, though you'll want to work that fly faster than you might think (rapid, foot-long
strips). When the tarpon strikes, avoid the tendency to employ a "career
hookset"... just come tight on him by lifting the rod and he should be there. I
instruct my anglers to bow to a jumping fish just like they would a large tarpon, the idea
being not so much for fear that these little guys are going to land on the leader and
break it, but rather because the small hooks I use will often tear out under pressure
during one of those patented head-shaking leaps for which baby tarpon are famous.
only real problem one might encounter while fighting a fish here (other than the tarpon
jumping into an over-hanging limb and snapping the line), is that tarpon will occasionally
try to make a power run back to the safety of the overhanging branches and root systems of
the shoreline. It's important to turn the fish before he gets there; adding a
little extra pressure with the hand on the rim of the spool to increase the effective drag
should stop the fish. The trick here is to "feather" the spool rather than
clamp down on it, thereby risking a breakoff. If the tarpon does make it into the
mangroves, then clamp the spool with your hand, bury the rod tip in the water (to clear
the overhanging branches) and try to drag him out of there. Tarpon won't dive deep
into a root system like a snook will; you might be surprised how often you can muscle one
out of the roots.
It's also possible to find these fish out in the open on a flat, either "layed
up" or else slowly working along the edge of the flat. Although one would think
these fish should be easier to work than those along the mangroves, the lack of cover can
make them extra spooky. Obviously, a quiet approach with a push pole is necessary.
Another area where juvenile tarpon can be found is around the bridges throughout the Keys.
Like their larger brethren, baby tarpon find the bridges to be a handy
location from which to ambush bait that is being swept through with the tide. I've
had my best results fishing the ends of the bridges close to the shoreline; the smaller
fish just seem to be more comfortable about feeding here. Because of the close
proximity of all of that nasty concrete, I prefer to use a little heavier line to fish
with...12 pound is about right. I like to fish up current of the bridges, and drift
my baits (live shrimp, small pinfish, or finger mullet) back to the fish. Working a
fly cross current uptide of the bridge can also be productive. This is an especially
effective technique at night.
Also effective at night is targeting baby tarpon around lighted docks. Again, a live
shrimp is hard to beat, but be sure to make your casts out along the outer perimeter of
the lighted area on the water.
Since tarpon are of no food value, a word needs to be said here regarding proper release
techniques. I've watched people really beat the hell out of a baby tarpon in the name of
catch and release. These fish are at a very vulnerable stage in their life, and
don't take well to being dropped on the deck of a boat or bounced off the edge of a dock.
The best way to release these feisty battlers is to unhook them in the water.
With a gloved hand, grasp the tarpon firmly by the bottom jaw. Unhook
the fish with the other hand, using long nose pliers or a dehooker if the hook is deep in
the roof of the mouth. Should you gut hook a fish, don't try removing the hook, as you'll
probably do more damage than good. Simply cut the line as close to the hook as
possible...and next time don't let him eat for so long!
One study I've read states that a 70 pound tarpon is about 17 years old. This means
there's a pretty good chance a large fish can get caught a number of times during its
life. So be gentle on the little guys...a little extra care now will go a long way
in protecting what is a very sustainable fishery.
Looking for a fish that is a light-tackle fisherman's dream, as well as a great
alternative to some of the other highly sought species of springtime? Look no
more...the Silver Prince awaits you.