Tarpon on the Beach

by Nick Gallagher

September 20th, my family and I packed up for a trip down to southern Florida to target the elusive Tarpon. Every year around this time we head south just after the busy tourist season on Cape Cod. My family owns property in Stuart Florida where there is a wide variety of inshore as well as pelagic species.

Late summer early fall is an exciting time for land based anglers on the east coast of southern Florida as wide variety of game fish follow schools of bait within casting distance of the beach as they migrate south to warmer waters. The most sought after species being the “Silver King” or tarpon. These fish are known for their long runs and stunning acrobatics during battle. 

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Nick Gallagher, working the beach for tarpon.

Tarpon are not easy to catch and bait presentation is key when targeting these fish successfully. During the fall migration the tarpon are moving at tremendous speeds and there is so much bait in the water it is difficult to get them interested in what’s on the end of your line. The most effective way to hook a tarpon is by using live bait.  When using this method I find that a circle hook tied to a long fluorocarbon leader is most productive.

The tarpon are on the hunt for mullet and glass minnows. The minnows are too small to be live lined so the mullet is the most commonly used live bait when fishing for tarpon. The first thing you have to do is catch some Mullett for bait and I have found that throwing a casting net is the best way to to land a enough for a sessio. When presenting the bait I like to pierce the hook through the back under the secondary dorsal fin. This will ensure that the bait is going to swim away from the beach to where the Silver Kings are waiting to ambush.

Fishing for tarpon from the beach is not a lazy man’s sport. Spotting these fish takes a lot of skill and you will be constantly moving around, up and down the beach, chasing the schools of bait and their predators. When a group of tarpon are spotted you only have one shot at hooking up before the school moves on. On occasion the tarpon will gorge on giant schools of bay anchovies commonly referred to as “glass minnows.” When feeding like this you need to change tactics and you will have a better chance at a strike using smaller artificial baits. A favorite of mine in this situation would be a five inch pearl white Gulp jerk shad with a half ounce white jig head or even a smaller Yo-Zuri crystal minnow.

On our first day of fishing we walked down to the St. Lucie inlet to search for of our prey. The mile long walk from the beach access to the inlet jetty was loaded with bait. A mix of silver mullet, bunker and glass minnows were being ambushed by predator fish all along the shore line. I observed hammer heads, blacktips, jack crevalle, blue fish, mackerel, snook and most importantly for me, tarpon corralling bait in the trough just off the beach.

My early attempts at hooking the silver king while live lining mullet were thwarted by sharks constantly attacking my bait. With this in mind it was time to switch tactics and I started throwing some artificial baits. My father and I ended up landing some descent sized jack and snook, but the tarpon eluded us. As the sun went down it become difficult to spot fish from shore so we moved spots and headed towards the artificial light near the docks and bridges. The bait becomes attracted to the light after dark which consequently brings in the predatory fish like snook, redfish, jack and tarpon.

The game fish like to hide in the shadows and ambush bait in the lights. I find fishing jig style baits along the shadow line and bottom are the most productive in these situations.

Throughout the course of the week I noticed less mullet and more glass minnows off the beach which is disappointing as it makes the chances of hooking fish less probable as its difficult to catch the attention of a big fish. Again I start using small presentation baits to “match the hatch” with little success. I tossed every small minnow imitation bait that I had in my box with no interest from tarpon. I put in lots of time and effort for the next few days of my trip with no luck. I was discouraged but the memories of previous battles with the Silver King keep me focused and I keep casting.

NickTarpon3Its the second to last day of my trip my father and I arrive at our spot and immediately started spotting bait getting crushed by tarpon. That morning I decided to throw a Yo-Zuri 3D crystal minnow and much to my relief, my first few casts resulted in some follows. While I chased the school south, I was able to make an opportune cast in front of a hundred pound class tarpon. As soon as the crystal minnow hit the water the tarpon inhaled the bait and I was on!!. Initally the Tarpon goes ballistic, its imperative to keep the rod tip low every time the fish becomes airborne, this ensures the line stays tight and makes it difficult for the fish to shake the hook. After 30 minutes of long runs and breathtaking acrobatics I safely landed the “silver king” in the surf for some pictures and a clean release.

Targeting tarpon from shore is a difficult but rewarding task, with hard work and perseverance you can land this incredible species for what can only be described as the light tackle fight of a lifetime. If you are an experienced angler looking for a challenge, I encourage you to take a trip to a region where these fish thrive. Be prepared for an extremely difficult but rewarding expedition.       

Tight lines – Nick

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