All You Need to Know About Tarpon Fishing in Florida
May 14, 2019 | 8 minute read Comments
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Reading Time: 8 minutes

In this short guide, I’ll teach you the basics of Tarpon fishing in Florida. First, I’ll show you where to look for them, and at what time of year.  Next, we’ll look at which bait to use, as well as how to hook and land them properly.

The Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) is among the most popular game fish in Florida. It’s well known for its acrobatics on the end of a line and capable of jumping up to ten feet out of the water while rattling its gills like an angry diamondback snake. They grow to massive size, with the current IGFA world record at 286 lbs 9 oz. Tarpon are also called Silver King, Silver Sides or Sabalo (Spanish). While they are edible, people rarely eat Tarpon because their flesh is filled with small, hard to clean bones. Tarpon’s preferred water temperature is in the 74-88 degrees Fahrenheit range.

Tarpon fishing in Florida: The Silver King swimming in deep water

Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus)

When is Tarpon Season in Florida

Tarpon are catch and release only in the state of Florida. Retaining the fish is only permitted if you are pursuing an IGFA world record and have purchased a Tarpon tag, which costs around $50 and is limited to one per year per person. Also, Tarpon fishing gear is limited to hook and line only. However, as long as you play by the rules, you’re in for a world of fun. Let’s take a look at when and where you can hook these monsters.

Seasonality and Locations

Upper and Middle Keys

There is a large population of Tarpon around the Channel Bridges, Tom’s Harbor, Seven Mile Bridge and Long Key. Also, look for them on the flats. Jack Bank (near Marathon) and Buchanan Bank (near Islamorada Key) are good places, as well. While present near the Keys year-round, peak season runs from mid-March and until mid-July. During springtime, Tarpon are mostly on the Florida Bay side, but as the year progresses, they start moving to the Atlantic side.

Lower Keys

The best locations are Key West Harbor, Bahia Honda Bridge and Marquesas Keys. May through late July are the best months here, with the exception of Key West Harbor which is full of feeding Tarpon January through March. The Marquesas Keys, since they’re uninhabited and not connected to Key West by road, have Tarpon in great numbers if you can get to them. The Bahia Honda Bridge is a disused bridge that used to connect Bahia Honda Key with Spanish Harbor. The waters surrounding it are full of Tarpon.

Everglades National Park and the Ten Thousand Islands

The Sandy Key and Rabbit Key Basins along with the canals at Lake Ingraham and river mouths of Lostman’s and Harney rivers. The Turner River at Chokoloskee is also a good location famous for big Tarpon. Fish are caught all year, with peak season from March to July, during the receding tide.

Florida’s West Coast from the Everglades to the Panhandle

Boca Grande is the most famous Tarpon fishing location in the world. The best months for fishing are May and June, when people from all over the world come to catch Tarpon. The flats surrounding Homosassa Bay and the Crystal River are also full of big Tarpon May through June. Apalachicola Bay is a good spot, from June and throughout the entire summer.

Atlantic Coast, South of Biscayne Bay

Although found throughout Florida’s Atlantic coast, ports and inlets south of Biscayne Bay offer the best Tarpon fishing. In particular, Government Cut (between Miami Beach and Fisher Island) and Port Everglades, from January to June.

Florida Tarpon Fishing Location Heatmap

Tarpon fishing heatmap for Florida

Tackle

Technique Rod Reel Line
Spinning / plug casting (in open water) 7′ Spin or conventional 250 yds of 12-15 lb mono or braided
Spinning / plug casting (around mangroves, bridges and piers) 7′-8′ Spin or conventional 150 yds of 30 lb mono or braided
Inlet and Surf 8′-9′ Spin or 4/0 conventional 300 yds of 30-50 lb mono or braided
Fly fishing 9′-9.5′ 11-13 weight High end reel with good drag 300 yds 30 lb Dacron backing plus 100 yds 25 lb mono shock absorber

Rigs and Techniques

Natural and Live Bait

a pinfish, one of the most popular tarpon fishing baits

Pinfish are among the most popular baitfish used to catch Tarpon

With natural bait, you’ll get the best results during the ebb tide. Position yourself up-current and let your bait drift towards the fish. Double the end of your line at about 6′ with a Bimini Twist and attach about 8′ of 100 lb mono with a swivel. Use sharp hooks, as Tarpon have a hard, bony mouth that can be difficult to penetrate. Most fishermen land only about 1 in 5 takes.

Shrimp as live bait

Hook a large shrimp under its horn on the head or thread it and freeline it. Avoid using floats because they make it difficult for the shrimp to swim naturally. Chumming with small, cut up pieces helps. Hook size: 2/0-4/0.

Raise your rod as you cast to make the shrimp skip on the surface. Its movements will arouse a Tarpon’s curiosity. Keep casting until you get a bite. Crabs can be used instead of shrimp. Remove their claws and hook them bottom up. Cast towards a spotted fish and let the bait slowly sink in front of the fish.

Fish as live bait

Pilchards, mullet, and pinfish are the best. Hook the baitfish in behind the anal fin or in front of the dorsal fin to ensure they stay alive for as long as possible. If you are anchored, hook the baitfish on the top lip and behind the head. Use a 6/0-10/0 hook depending on fish size with a large float 6′-8′ above the bait.

Live or dead fish can be used as bait on the flats, as well as large cut up pieces of mullet, adjusting the float to keep baitfish out of the grass. Cast often and in front of sighted single tarpon. If you spot a pod, don’t scare them away by casting into the pod. Instead, cast nearby where they can notice it but not get startled.

In the fall and winter, rivers feeding bays are home to large schools of Tarpon. Methods and techniques explained so far will work but bottom fishing with live catfish or ladyfish can produce good results also. Large plugs trolled far behind the boat are effective. Biscayne Bay’s Turkey Point cooling canals are winter gathering places for Tarpon.

Artificial Lures

Follow the same location, time and tide guidelines as above. Work or troll your lure very slowly.

These lures have been proven to be effective:

Artificial lures are best used on the flats. Use lighter line and cast close enough to sighted fish for them to see your lure. Spinning lures and plugs should be retrieved slowly, letting the lure sink, then intermittently pulling the rod tip and reeling in the slack.

When fishing canals and rivers connected to salt water, use small Rapalas, Rebels, and round-headed crappie jigs about 1/8 oz.

Make sure that if you are fishing with jigs or other artificial lures, the lure is not weighted so it hangs below the hook when the line or leader is held vertically. Using weighted lures when fishing for Tarpon is prohibited and carries a hefty fine.

Fly Fishing

When fly fishing, the color of your fly depends on the color of the bottom. Flies 3”-5” long, with 2-2/0 hooks for juveniles and up to 5/0 for large fish. Choose a streamer that has good contrast with the bottom. Orange, yellow, and red patterns are effective over sandy bottoms, while light gray, blue, and light green is better over dark grass. When Tarpon are sighted feeding on mullet, 7”-9” white flies with dark stripes are good.

Retrieve your fly slowly in 6”-12” segments. Speed up and twitch more if a fish starts following to entice a hit.

When fly fishing canals and rivers, use a 5-7 weight rod, a 10 lb tippet with 20 lb 12” shock a 1lb 1”-2” streamer in white or yellow, the Dahlberg Diver, Marabou streamer, muddler flies, and all-black streamers in dirty water. Cast the fly right over a rising fish.

Avoid fly fishing for Tarpon around bridges. You will likely lose all fish on the surrounding obstacles.

How to Hook a Tarpon

Anglers frequently measure how good a fishing day it has been by stating how many Tarpon they “jumped”, instead of landed. This is because their very bony mouth makes it very difficult to set a hook well. Do not rely on hooks being sharp enough out of the box – supplemental sharpening is needed.

Tarpon jumping near a boat as the angler looks on

These fish can surprise even an experienced captain with their jumps!

Another problem with hooking Tarpon is in the strike: inexperienced anglers try to set the hook too soon.

Let’s cover natural bait first. When you feel the bite, take in the slack line, then wait until you feel the weight, and strike hard two times. It might also be a good idea to wait an additional second or two before setting the hook. Waiting will make sure the bait is solidly in the Tarpon’s mouth.

When using hard lures, strike as soon as you feel a heavy weight at the end of your line.

When fly fishing, most fishermen strike as soon as they see the fish eating the fly which is way too soon. Set the hook only when you feel the fish’s weight. If a Tarpon takes a fly while following it, stop stripping for a few moments to let the fly go deep into the fish’s mouth, then strike. If the fish takes while swimming towards you, set the hook several times in quick succession.

How to set the hook properly: keeping your rod tip close to the water, with the rod butt tightly secured against your belly, quickly rotate your body, making the rod move sideways while the line strips in hard.

In spite of all your efforts at hook setting, be prepared for the majority of fish to shake free.

How to Land a Tarpon

Once you’ve solidly hooked a Tarpon, expect lots of high jumps, somersaults, and gill-rattling. As your fish is about to leap, “bow” (lower) your rod tip and push it towards the fish to give the line slack. There is no holding a large Tarpon and no “horsing” it in, either. The drag on your reel will need help – hold your fingers so that you press the line against your rod and create additional resistance to the pulling fish.

When a Tarpon becomes exhausted, it will usually roll on its side. Using a short lip gaff, pass it through the fish’s lower lip and the fish will be held while someone removes the hook or clips the leader as close to it as possible.

Caution: Lifting a large fish by a lip gaff can injure it severely, so do not attempt to lift them out of the water. Remove the hook without lifting the Tarpon.

a an angler handling a tarpon he just hooked

Because nearly all Tarpon are released, some fishermen remove or flatten the hook barb. Doing so will ease removal, but you will lose more fish.

After a fight, the fish will often need reviving. Hold it upright in the water, moving it back and forth to enhance water circulation through its gills.

Have you fished for Tarpon in Florida before? How big was it? What bait/lure did you use? Got some other tips you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below!

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Comments (92)
  • clay

    Dec 27, 2015

    coming to sarasota “2 0f us” to golf and fish 2016
    i am experienced and my fishing partner is a beginner but very athletic and fit
    i want to fish for big Tarpon
    i am a fly fisherman but enjoy casting lures and live bait to
    what month is prime ?
    we will travel from sarasota to a hot spot if need be
    looking to go 2 or 3 times

    would be great if you can help

    thank you

    Clay

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      Xavier

      Dec 29, 2015

      Hi Clay, thanks for your comment! I can tell you that Boca Grande would be a prime choice for you two. This is the longest standing Tarpon hotspot and people from all over the world come here to catch the big ones. The best months would be May and June. Captain LeRoy with Tapout charters is an excellent guide to book.

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      john appleby

      Jan 27, 2018

      I am wondering how these fish fare following a long battle on a fly rod. For many species, lactic acid build up kills them hours following release. My understanding is that the quicker you land a big fish, the better the survival rate. Just curious if Tarpon have been studied from this perspective. ‘Don’t see anything on line.

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      Jerry

      Mar 28, 2018

      Hi, John, yes the same holds true for Tarpon, as well the faster you can land it the less chance you have of it dying later! Please check me out on FishingBooker…Scannin Shallow Guide Service.

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  • Bjørn

    Dec 30, 2015

    Hi,

    I will be staying in Cape Coral and somewhere in Florida keys (not decided where) in late february. I would like to go fly fishing for tarpon one day, however it seems a bit early in the season from what can find of info on the web. As this is my first time going for tarpon, catching fish is more important than the size of the fish. Do you have any advice on which area to fish? I will be going with a guide.

    Best regards
    Bjørn

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      Xavier

      Jan 4, 2016

      Hi Bjorn, thank you for your comment. Tarpon are good in Florida year round, the seasonality referring to the presence of bigger fish. Younger tarpon will be present in shallower waters. The Keys are a good region and the season there is skewed towards earlier months, but, since you say you’ll be around Cape Coral, I’d recommend visiting Boca Grande – the tarpon fishing capital of the world.
      Reach out to our customer service team if you need help finding a guide!

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      Todd

      Nov 4, 2019

      Hello,
      Do you have any Ideas for large Tarpon in the Jan or Feb season,
      Fly fishing, doesn’t necessarily have to be traditional site fishing

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      Albert

      Nov 5, 2019

      Hi Todd,

      Thanks for getting in touch.

      You essentially want to go as far south as possible to get to the warm water where Tarpon winter. The Lower Keys are your best bet in the US, especially Key West. If you’re not set on Florida, Puerto Rico has some of the best winter Tarpon fishing in the world, just a stone’s throw from downtown San Juan.

      I hope that helps. Feel free to get in touch with our Customer Service team if you need help planning your trip.

      Tight lines!

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  • Brendan Clancy

    Jan 10, 2016

    Hi, I am coming the keys Islamadora the end of May for two weeks. I have fished for Tarpon in Cuba and Boca Paula Mexico with success but am looking to catch bigger Tarpon on the fly. Any advise as to where and how would be very helpful!!

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      Catherine Tyack

      Jan 13, 2016

      Hi Brendan,
      Thanks for your comment. If you’re looking to fish for Tarpon on the fly I’d recommend taking a look at Eric Scoble’s charter listing. He’s an experienced guide with lots of happy clients and has caught plenty of big Tarpons around Islamorada!
      I hope you have a great fishing trip!
      Cat

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  • Jiff

    Jan 15, 2016

    Hey guys,
    I’m coming to Miami in mid-February and want to catch some fish (tarpon would be great)! What’s better the Biscayne Bay or the Everglades? Any preference.. Many thanks!

    Jiff

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      Catherine Tyack

      Jan 20, 2016

      Hey Jiff,
      Lucky you! Both the Everglades and Biscayne Bay are great for Tarpon, so it really comes down to your personal preference. The Everglades are perfect if you want to get out into nature and explore an extremely diverse ecosystem, while the advantage of Biscayne Bay is that it’s located right next to the bustling center of Miami, meaning you can combine world class fishing with a city break. Either way, you’re sure to get some great fishing whichever destination you choose!
      Have a great trip!
      Catherine

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  • Rod

    Feb 15, 2016

    Hi, I will be in Miami in October.
    I’d love to do some Tarpon fishing . What are my
    options for chasing them at that time of year?

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      Catherine Tyack

      Feb 16, 2016

      Hi Rod,
      Although you won’t be in Miami for the Tarpon high season, they are still in the waters all year round. It’s always great to target the species at night or in the late afternoon, and the best place to fish for them at that time of year is around the Government Cut. Hope this helps!

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  • Cat

    Feb 21, 2016

    Hubby and I are planning our first tarpon fishing trip May 8-15 to Homosassa Springs / Crystal River. We want 80+ size but don’t want to deal with all the people like in Boca. We have both been avid saltwater fishermen forever but never fished for tarpon. Any suggestions for guides would be greatly appreciated!

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      Xavier

      Feb 22, 2016

      Hi Cat, thanks for your comment! May’s a great time to target Tarpon and we feel you on wanting to avoid the Boca rush. Seein Spots would be our recommendation for a day trip out of Crystal River. Contact our customer service team for anything you’d like to know! And good luck with landing a big one, Tarpon fishing really is something else.

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  • Isaac

    Apr 6, 2016

    Any tips for the Caloosahatchee or Fort Myers/Sanibel?

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      Xavier

      Apr 7, 2016

      Hi Isaac,

      the Caloosahatchee River mouth is the birthplace of Tarpon angling – this is where the first one was caught on rod and reel in 1885! This is the the most consistent Tarpon fishery in Lee County – the Florida Power & Light plant makes these waters warmer than the surrounding ones, so huge numbers of Tarpon hole up here for the winter. You basically can’t go wrong with fishing for them any time of the year, but, of course, summer will be the most productive. Captain Brian David is our most trusted guide in the area and we proudly recommend him. You can book from the listing. Let our customer service team know if you need help!

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      Isaac

      Apr 24, 2016

      Ok, thanks! And can you catch any tarpon off Fort Myers beach (primarily) or other beaches around the area? If so which would you choose?

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      Isaac

      May 25, 2016

      Are there any beaches near Fort Myers where tarpon (any size) can be caught?

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      Cat

      May 25, 2016

      Hi Isaac,

      Sorry not to get back to you before. It’s sometimes possible to spot Tarpon from the shore, although it is very rare to land them from the beach. Your best bet is to go out with an experienced guide on a boat – the results are well worth it!

      Good luck!

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  • Jamie

    May 4, 2016

    I am going to Little Torch Key May 9-12 looking for tarpon. Do you know any back country flats/channels that are good areas to look for them? Will be fishing soft plastics and will have live bait as well……Thanks very much!

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  • Mike

    May 17, 2016

    You should consider updating this article. The regulations that you have listed are out of date (current regulations are now more restrictive), the lure that you have pictured is an illegal rig as of 2015 (using this rig is a criminal violation of state fishing regulations and will result in a minimum fine of $250 and a mandatory court date), and the world record tarpon is over 300 pounds.

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      Cat

      May 19, 2016

      Thanks for your comment Mike. This article was written back in 2013 and it is certainly due for an update! Thanks for letting us know. Tight lines, Catherine.

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  • Brian Duggan

    Aug 24, 2016

    Hi,

    I have been going to the keys for a few years and usually fish around flamingo/Lake Ingraham area. I go in either late December or June/July but always have to same result. See lots of tarpon but can’t get them to eat. We have been fishing before where we are surrounded by tarpon eating bait (Usually mullet) and even though we are using the same live bait we still can’t get them to hit. We have tried all sort of tactic with jigs ,bare hooks , on floats or drifting it back. Very frustrating!! Any tips on how to get them to hit? Thanks very much.

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  • Jim Coley

    Sep 5, 2016

    My wife and I are planning a trip for May 2017 (the date we are zeroing in) for week. Thinking of splitting time between Boca Grande and Marathon or thereabouts. Any thoughts on guides for both locations for Tarpon and perhaps some other species? I have been salt water fishing for 50+ years mostly west coast so no Tarpon. My wife and I are new to fly fishing on freshwater but never salt water. Thinking of trying both spin casting, live bait and fly fishing on trip. Any advice greatly appreciated.

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      Cat

      Sep 7, 2016

      Hi Jim,

      Thanks for the comment. I think I may have found you the perfect charter: Skinny Water Charters, who fish out of Boca Grande. They have the gear and know-how for all the techniques you’re interested in and run a dedicated 6 hour Tarpon trip. Take a look at their listing – I hope you have an amazing experience landing your first Silver King!

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  • Isaac

    Jan 4, 2017

    Hello, I will be in Fort Myers on spring break in March, and I was wondering if tarpon would be holed up in Estero Bay or in any marinas around the area. I would be fly fishing and spin fishing so size doesn’t really matter. Thanks

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      Cat

      Jan 6, 2017

      Hi Isaac,

      You’ll be right at the beginning of the Tarpon migration then, so it’s hard to guarantee that there will be larger Tarpons around. But resident juvenile Tarpons can be found in the back bays around Estero Bay all year round, giving you a good chance of a hook up!

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