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Quick Facts

SPECIES NAME

Megalops Atlanticus (Silver King, Poon)

SIZE

Average: 40-80 pounds
Trophy: 100 pounds or more

FAVORITE DESTINATIONS

Florida (Keys; Homosassa; Everglades); Cuba; Mexico (Yucatan Peninsula); Belize

DIFFICULTY RATING

Baby tarpon: 3/10
Adults (over 60 pounds): 8/10

KNOWN FOR

Incredible surface clearing leaps when hooked; the visceral thrill of its clapping gill plates when leaping (like banging two aluminum garbage can lids together); at times finicky eating habits, despite their hulk; and incredible fighting stamina.

Pat Ford

OVERVIEW

Tarpon are immediately recognizable by their large silver scales that flash in the sun—not to mention their immense size—giving all but the most stoic anglers a start in the process. In many places, tarpon are seasonal visitors; in some places (like the northern Yucatan and river mouths spilling into the Atlantic throughout Central America), they are present year-round. Odds are good that if tarpon are present, fly anglers will forget other species and focus on them. Anglers primarily find tarpon in shallow coastal waters and estuaries and in proximity to coral reefs, but they may also be encountered in open marine waters while migrating. . . .and occasionally in fresh or brackish water lakes and rivers. “Baby” tarpon (fish 5 to 40 pounds) can be fairly easy to come by, especially in the northern Yucatan, where extensive mangroves serve as a nursery ground; adults are often seen while fishing, but can be tougher to coax to the fly…and certainly more difficult to land.

WHY TARGET TARPON

Permit might be more persnickety. Bonefish might be faster. But for shear brute strength, size and thrilling aerial displays, there’s no more alluring flats species than tarpon. What other fish are you going to encounter in shallow water that’s willing to take a well-presented fly and could very well exceed your proportions in length and weight and jumping ability? (There’s a reason a small, obsessed [and perhaps slightly warped] cadre of anglers spend tens of thousands of dollars each spring in places like Homosassa, Florida to retain guides for a month at a time in hopes of wresting a world-record fish to hand—a mark that right now hovers north of 202.5 pounds for 20-pound test tippet.) Sometimes conditions demand that anglers blind cast heavy sinking lines into deep cuts where fish may be passing through or laying up out of sight. But in ideal conditions you’ll sight fish for them much as you would for bonefish or permit, either poling along a flat or staking up at the edge of a beach where the fish will—Mother Nature willing—pass by. Where water is less clear—say the Everglades—anglers may cast to “blurping” or rolling fish, and even to bubbles that suggest a tarpon’s presence. In an ideal flats situation, you (or more likely, your guide) will spot fish approaching. Ideally you’ll drop the fly in front of approaching fish in enough time for it to sink to the fish’s level in the water column. Some fish will respond better to a long slow strip, others to shorter more frequent “pops.” Either way, it’s important to keep the fly moving right to the boat; takes can come with the leader inside your rod tip.

Things often go south for fly anglers when a fish decides to take. If you’re watching a tarpon take on the flat, don’t strike too soon; it’s not uncommon to pull the fly out of the fish’s mouth. When you feel the line come tight—and you will feel it—sweep the rod back hard (don’t lift up). It doesn’t hurt to make a few hard strip-sets too. Next, you’ll need to take special care to clear the line as the fish takes off. Many a hook-up has ended with line wrapped around a fighting butt, a dangling pair of plyers or even a shirt button, tippet waving impotently in the breeze. If you make it this far with the fish still on, prepare for the first big jump—and bow the rod when this happens (and for each subsequent jump). This gives the tarpon a little slack so the fish is less likely to land on taut line, thus snapping your tippet.

The most skilled tarpon anglers apply lots of pressure early in an effort to wear the fish out quickly. Less seasoned anglers might find themselves fighting the fish for hours. Don’t feel too bad if you come unbuttoned on your first few fish; they say that fly anglers will land roughly one in 10 of the adult tarpon they hook.

RANGE AND LOCATIONS

Tarpon are found in the warmer waters of the Atlantic, from Virginia to Brazil in the western Atlantic, along the coast of Africa in the eastern Atlantic, and throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Some locales within their range host year-round “resident” populations, like the Florida Keys and parts of the Everglades; others see fish most regularly during migration periods, with tarpon passing north past Tampa Bay to Homosassa in May, further up toward the Florida Panhandle in June, and then along the Gulf Coast as far as Texas later in the summer before the fish begin heading south again. Some anglers target tarpon that are on the move; others look for “laid up” fish that are either resting or waiting to ambush forage. Low light periods—particularly the morning—tend to yield the most consistent results.

BIOLOGY AND LIFE CYCLE

Tarpon have hard, bony mouths that resist all but the most sharply struck hooks; lacking teeth, tarpon swallow their prey whole. They are catholic feeders, focusing on sardines, shrimp, crabs and mullet, among other species. Tarpon are unique among sportfish in that they have a swim bladder, which allows them to breathe air as we do…though they can also breathe through their gills. (A tendency for tarpon to breathe on the surface, especially in less oxygenated water, gives anglers a heads-up as to their location.)

No one understands for sure where tarpon spawn, but the best available data suggests that it occurs in the summer months, roughly 100 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Milt and eggs mix in the open water (a phenomenon known as broadcast spawning). Once eggs hatch, the larvae are swept by currents into estuarine habitats where they find shelter in mangroves and slowly grow into miniature versions of adult fish. Tarpon generally reach maturity around age 10. Females are bigger than males, and can reach weights of 300 pounds. They may live upwards of 60 years.

GEAR

For adult fish: A 12-weight rod with the best saltwater reel you can afford outfitted with floating and intermediate lines, 300 yards of backing, and 80 pound shock tippet (with 16 to 20 pound bite tippet). Some guides use straight 80-pound mono. Popular flies include Deceivers, Toads, Cockroaches and Black Deaths, though odds are your guide will have flies that they favor…and will likely replace your leader too. (Some anglers go with a 9- or 10-weight rod if smaller adults are around; however, the sturdier the rod, the quicker you can get the fish in…and the better their chance for survival.)

For “baby” tarpon: An 8-weight rod with floating and intermediate lines and 100 yards of backing should suffice. Straight 40-pound mono will do for leader, though you can make it as involved as you wish. Smaller versions of the flies above will work, as well as Gurglers and on occasion, even poppers.

Chris Santella

Chris Santella

Chris Santella is the author of numerous books, including the best-selling Fifty Places To Fly Fish Before You Die, and carries frequent bylines in the Washington Post and The New York Times. When not writing, Santella creates and plays music, or chases steelhead from his home base in Portland, Oregon.