How to Go Tarpon Fishing: An Angler's Guide for 2024

May 16, 2024 | 8 minute read
Reading Time: 8 minutes

When you think of saltwater, inshore game fish, there may be a few species that come to mind. But think of a species that puts up an intense fight and is known as a “trophy catch,” and you may narrow it down a little… 

A woman kneeling on the bow of an inshore fishing boat in Florida, holding a large Tarpon with calm waters and mangrove shores visible behind her on a bright day
Photo courtesy of Caitlyn Gatrell

Tons of inshore saltwater anglers spend most of their time on the water in search of these creatures. New anglers want to get in on the action, too. And even if you aren’t immersed in the fishing world, it’s a species that will definitely make you say “Wow!” Any guesses? I’m talking about Tarpon fishing, of course!

Tarpon are the ultimate inshore game fish for a variety of reasons. In this article, I’ll talk about what makes this species so amazing and how you can score on catching one. I’ll let you in on my own experience (see the picture above) and why I love chasing this feisty brute. Let’s dive in!

What’s so special about Tarpon?

Tarpon – aka “Silver Kings” – are amongst some of the trickiest, toughest-fighting fish. They’re tough, composed of thick bodies, hardy fins, heavy tails, and blocky heads. If you get smacked by one of these guys as they thrash around – trust me, it will hurt! This is one of the reasons they are so sought after. A lot of saltwater anglers enjoy fighting a fish that puts up such a hard fight, not one that can be ripped up in a couple of seconds.

A Tarpon half-submerged in turquoise waters
Photo courtesy of Dauntless Fishing Charters

In addition to their build, Tarpon are known for their crazy fights. These guys tend to swim quickly when you have them on the line and will make your drag scream. If they aren’t going on a long run, they soar in the air, thrashing their bodies around before crashing through the water. 

Anglers need to be extra careful in these situations because Tarpon are able to pull the hook or cut the line if you aren’t fighting them cautiously. Whenever a Tarpon jumps, you need to point your rod tip at them, in a “bowing” stance, to reduce tension. We call this “bowing to the King.”

Not only that, but their size is another reason that keeps fishers coming after them. Tarpon can reach lengths of 8 feet and can weigh upwards of 300 pounds. That’s bigger than almost any human! And for someone like me who is 5’2, catching an 8′ beast is the fight of a lifetime. 

Tarpon Fishing Regulations

Now you know a couple of reasons why Tarpon are such ultimate game fish, let’s talk a bit more about actually fishing for them.

An infographic featuring text that says "Tarpon Fishing Regulations What You Need to Know" against a dark blue background with a vector of a boat and the FishingBooker logo

First things first. You’ll need to be mindful of regulations whenever you go after a Silver King. Tarpon fishing regulations can vary depending on the area you’re in. However, many locations have similar rules. For starters, fishing licenses are required in almost all regions when fishing for Tarpon.

To add, most areas, such as Florida, place strict regulations for Tarpon fishing to ensure their populations stay healthy. This includes no harvesting and no lifting larger ones out of the water. An exception would be if you have a valid annual Tarpon tag. On the other hand, you can harvest Tarpon in countries like Brazil.

The most important aspect of Tarpon fishing is to respect the fish. Aim to keep the fish safe during the fight, steering clear of obstacles such as rough structure or nearby predators. Be sure to give all the time it needs for a harmless release.

Best Baits for Tarpon

So, you want to learn how to fish for Tarpon. In order to start your process, you need to know how to get them to bite. Tarpon take to a variety of baits, but they can be a bit picky. Knowing which bait to use can help you succeed at Tarpon fishing. 

A closeup of the mouth of a Tarpon being pulled in by a fishing line having been caught in Costa Rica's inshore waters
Photo courtesy of Sábalo Costa Rica

These fish like snacking on a meal that puts up a fight against them. They like to chase their prey, and therefore enjoy eating anything that’s alive. Common meals for Tarpon include crabs, pilchards, shrimp, mullet, pinfish, ladyfish, and more. They will eat dead or cut bait, although they prefer live bait.

If you’re using dead or cut bait, it’s best for it to be fresh, but you can use the frozen bait sold in local stores. Bait shops also come in handy when trying to secure some lively bait for hungry Tarpon.

In addition to live bait, artificials can work just as well. Topwater lures are great for that morning Tarpon bite, and they also eat swimbaits or jigs that land in their direction.

Whether you’re cast netting your own bait, grabbing some from a local shop, or using artificial lures, you now know how to entice a Tarpon.

When is the best time to fish for Tarpon?

Tarpon can be caught throughout the day, even if you’re not expecting it. But when it comes to the best opportunities, early morning and evening will give you your best shot. Some anglers also wake up at 2 a.m. to get some midnight action, but you need to be willing to wait up all night! In my experience, the evening bite near sunset always seems to be the most active.

A man in an orange poncho at night, holding a shiny Tarpon to the camera while smiling
Photo courtesy of Hold Tight Charters

What about seasons? It depends which region you are in but most areas tend to have the same thing in common – warmth. Tarpon are fond of warm waters that are just in between – not too hot but not too cold. With that being said, spring and summer are the most common months you can expect to see a lot of Tarpon. In some areas, you can find them year-round while others only see them during the warmer months.

Next up is the weather. Once again, speaking from experience, Tarpon will bite when they’re hungry. That means it could be a calm cool day, a burning hot morning, or a heavy storm-filled evening. They’ll bite when they want, so you can find luck any time. But if you want to plan your trip around the best opportunity, look for a day with calm conditions when the sun isn’t beaming down too much.

The last thing to look at when it comes to fishing for Tarpon is the tide. Tide is influential for Tarpon movement because they base a lot of their feeding habits around it. An outgoing tide is best to catch Tarpon, as bait is pushed out to deeper waters. These feisty fish hang close inshore while they wait for the bait to come to them.

Tarpon Fishing Techniques and Tips

Now that I’ve discussed the best baits and times to fish for Tarpon, I’ll advise you on how to go fishing for Tarpon.  

A view across the water towards a fishing boat near the Florida Keys, with people fishing over the side and a Tarpon leaping out of the water into the air a few yards away from the boat
Photo courtesy of Salt Creek Fishing Charters

As mentioned, Tarpon are strong, fast, and feisty sea creatures. You need to pay attention at all times, use your utmost strength, and learn how to outsmart the fish. Tarpon tend to go for big runs or jumps even if they seem tired. The best method is to let them do their first run and quickly reel in anytime they stop pulling. Once you feel them go for another run, let the line go, and pull them in when they aren’t fighting back. If you reel while they’re running, you can break the line.

My favorite method of Tarpon fishing is free lining a live bait (usually a mullet or pilchard) with a sinker in a deep water cut with a strong current. It’s the best feeling when you’re quietly sitting, holding your rod and then there’s a massive thump and your line takes off. If you prefer artificials, jerking your bait or reeling it quickly will grab their attention. Topwater lures make movement and sound along the surface that bring them in.

Traveling to mangroves, shorelines, beaches, islands, passes, bays, piers, jetties, and reefs will help you locate schools of Tarpon. Throw your line out when the current is strong, as they’ll most likely be hanging below the surface. Once you hook one, keep the tension balanced, steer it away from any nearby structure, and minimize the time it takes to dehook it or lift it out of the water. 

When all is said and done, give the fish a good revival and watch them swim safely away.

Best Gear for Tarpon

Having reliable gear is essential when fighting any fish, but especially for Tarpon. I’ll let you in on my basic Tarpon setup, but keep in mind you can go higher up on any of the equipment.

A view across the water towards a small fishing charter in Costa Rica with a n angler fishing over the side of the boat as two look on on a clear day
Photo courtesy of Tortuguero Sport Fishing

I like to use a medium-heavy rod, paired with a 5000 spinning reel. I add a fluorocarbon leader of at least 30 pounds but sometimes go higher. To finish, I like to use circle hooks at least 3/0 in size. The Tarpon I usually catch are smaller than others, so if you’re targeting the big girls that are 100+ pounds, size up your gear and get a heavier line, leader, and hooks.

One more thing to note – it’s a great idea to use gloves when handling Tarpon. Trust me, you can easily slice up your fingers on their hard, sharp mouths – especially the hefty ones. Having gloves handy will keep you safe and allow less contact for the fish.

Where to Go Tarpon Fishing 

A man kneeling on a dock in Florida, holding a small bait fish above the water as a Tarpon emerges trying to take it

Tarpon fishing is popular across the world. As I already said, shallow saltwater regions with warm water temperatures will give the best opportunities. Here are a few hotspots for you to consider:

  • The Florida Keys are home to tons of Tarpon who hang around year-long in search of food and shelter. There are various tourist spots in the Keys that contain hundreds of Tarpon every day of the year.  
  • Boca Grande. You can find Tarpon here year-round, too, with anglers from all over flocking to the pass from May through July in particular to get in on the action.
  • Texas. Tarpon fishing in Texas is a fun experience for everyone, as you can escape to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in search of your own Silver King.
  • South Carolina gives you the experience of Tarpon fishing in the Atlantic Ocean but with a cooler approach. The state is a popular spot for migrating Tarpon when it gets too hot in the south. 
  • Costa Rica is another region that encourages safe fishing of well-populated Tarpon. You can find some really nice-sized ones in Costa Rican waters.
  • Belize sometimes goes under the radar as it’s such a small country. But its flats fishing is incredible – and the same goes for Tarpon. If you’re looking for some unchartered territory, this is the place to be.
  • West Africa. Speaking of unchartered territory, countries such as Gabon, Angola, and Sierra Leone may sound daunting. But these untouched fisheries boast world-class Tarpon action. Unfortunately, very few Westerners get to experience it.

Tarpon Fishing: An Unforgettable Experience

A man in a baseball cap and sunglasses standing next to a smiling young girl while holding a Tarpon on a clear day with mangroves visible behind them
Photo courtesy of Uncharted Adventures

If you weren’t already a Tarpon lover, I hope you now want to get outdoors and embrace the joy of Tarpon fishing. You can fish for Tarpon on land or on a boat, so there are plenty of opportunities to find them. And remember, FishingBooker can point you in the direction of an experienced guide if you want to become serious about planning a Tarpon fishing trip. Enjoy the outdoors and engage in the joy Tarpon fishing provides. I hope I’ve helped you along the way.

If you’d like to read about other underwater residents, visit our Fish Species: The Ultimate Guide blog post.

Are you an avid Tarpon angler? Any tips and tricks you’d like to share? Maybe you’re thinking of heading out for the first time? Either way, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Author profile picture

Hi! My name is Caitlyn Gatrell and I'm an outdoor writer and inshore saltwater angler based in Naples, Florida. My fishing is typically done in the Ten Thousand Islands region, as well as the Estero, Naples, and Marco Island areas, along with some Florida Keys trips here and there. I typically target game fish such as Tarpon, Snook, and Redfish, as well as some Jack Crevalle, Seatrout, Goliath Grouper, and Sharks. I have been involved in the fishing field since I was a little girl, and my passion has only grown since I’ve gotten older.

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