Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus)
- Size 25 to 80lbs
- Food Value None
- Game Qualities Excellent
- Habitats Inshore, Flats, Backcountry
Tarpon is a majestic creature, highly sought after for its strength, stubbornness and spectacular acrobatic moves, which are often comprised of up to 10ft leaps and violent body shakes aimed at release from your hook.
Otherwise known as the "Silver King", this prehistoric water dweller (with an estimated existence of about 125 million years) was one of the first saltwater species to have been declared a game fish and represents a true epitome of sport fishing.
Anglers throughout Florida are pressed on checking a Tarpon fight off their bucket list, and for a good reason - landing one represents an angling right of passage; the process leading up to that point entailing understanding this animal's motions, which is considered an artwork in and of itself.
There's a reason why the King has been around for so long - all of the years of its evolution have been invested into learning how to put up a fight. This is why 63% of all hooked tarpon will break your line (there's research behind this claim), the majority of which will happen as soon as they suck up the bait or rocket out of the water.
Do you think you have what it takes? You'll get hooked on hooking Tarpon.
Tarpon grow slowly and can live up to 50 years. They reach reproductive maturity at 6-7 years, by when they're about 4ft large. Adults (15-30 years old) average at about 5 to 6ft in length and 100 to 150lbs in weight. The majority of hooked Tarpon of all ages will be between 25 and 80lbs, whereas once in a lifetime trophy catches are monoliths of up to 8ft and 300lbs.
Gentle beast reeled in out of Venice, FL
Where & When
Tarpon like warm temperate tropical and subtropical waters, and can be found as far north as Long Island and down south to Brazil, east until the end of the Texas coastline and west to the brinks of Africa.
When spawning during spring, females lay millions of eggs offshore, which drift freely to the shoreline, entering freshwater streams, where they hatch. Young tarpon spend their developing years close to shore, only to venture out into the ocean upon maturing, where they become hard to trace. Due to this, optimal waters to target them in will be shallow flats to nearshore waters up to 40-50ft deep.
The Kings are able to thrive in shallow, deoxigenated, waters due to their unique ability to gulp air into their air bladder by rolling at the surface. They feed at dawn and at dusk, so the best times during the day will be around 5AM and 5PM.
Tarpon is good to fish wherever you are in Florida, the most notable fishing grounds including:
Gulf coast: Up from Homossassa, through the Tampa Bay area, including Clearwater and St Pete, the island of Boca Grande (the oldest and hottest tarpon fishery) down over Sarasota, Captiva, Estero and Sanibel islands, to Naples and the Everglades. The best time will be May to July.
Atlantic coast: From Jacksonville Beach southwards across St Augustine, Jupiter, to Boca Raton, Ft Lauderdale, Miami (Biscayne Bay) and throughout the Keys, with Islamorada, Marathon and Key West being hotspots. August, September and early October are best months for the northern part, April, May and June for the Keys.
The bliss of landing your first Tarpon, courtesy of Puerto Rico Magic Tarpon
How to catch
As fully grown Tarpon are usually invisible in deep waters, they are mostly targeted in the flats, with sight casting live bait or flies being the most popular fishing choices. Bait options include live mullet, pinfish, crabs, shrimp and similar, but casting or trolling with spoons, plugs, or artificials is also efficient.
Brutes as they are, Tarpon are actually easily scared by noises, so the vessel used should be propelled by an electric motor or, better yet, pole paddled to the spotted small pods or large schools of fish.
This is where skill and measure kick in - when spotted, you should cast your bait in front of the fish close enough for it to be seen and allow it to to drop down. In calm water this distance should be greater, so as not to frighten the fish. An experienced guide is important to have, as they will help you handle Tarpon's audacious initial runs, advise when to apply pressure/relax the line and will know whether to chase the fish or hold position.
A very important rule of thumb you should remember is "bow to the King" - when the Tarpon jumps, quickly lower the tip of your rod and push it ahead to give slack - this will help keep your line from being severed by the tarpon's gill plates and body, or your hook thrown by the frantic shaking of their massive, bony, head. One more rule - if he's a big one, never take the King fully out of the water or it might die.
For a complete overview on tackle, bait and fishing tips and techniques, head over to our exhaustive guide to Tarpon fishing in Florida.
Good to eat?
Not at all.
- Season - always open, except for Georgia (open 3/16 - 11/30);
- Size limit (minimum) - South Carolina - 77''; Texas - 85''; Alabama - 60''; Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi - no regulations;
- Bag limit (per angler per day)* - Florida - 2 (if purchased $50 permit in pursuit of an IGFA world record - this is valid for Alabama as well, except no limit on number of Tarpon); Texas, North and South Carolina, Georgia - 1; Louisiana, Mississippi - no regulations;
Mexico - up to 2 fish, no size regulations;
Belize, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands - catch and release only;
* with the bag limits stated, there's really no reason not to let these dinosaur fish live to fight another day.
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