If you fish, one species tops your list of favorites, or at least are very likely on the list of fish you would like to catch before you walk across that Rainbow Bridge. Called Silver Kings by some people and Dragons by the many foreigners who pay big money for all-inclusive tarpon journeys to Charlotte Harbor in season, *Megalops Atlanticus* is more likely called "poon" by us locals. Or for the less colloquially challenged, tarpon.
Tarpon can be caught in rivers in the winter, where juveniles weighing in at 20lbs jump like their big daddies in the same freshwater, and they are caught on our beaches and our passes. They are not all that easy to target, but if you follow the instructions offered by people that catch them on a regular basis, they are not that hard to add to your repertoire of target species. A lot of variables arise but the rod and reel you use are certainly a major factor in the formula for success.
In days gone by, early anglers used harpoons - the fish was that hard to catch and land on contemporary gear. Barrels were connected to 1/4" Manila rope and the harpoon attached to the end. The fish would be approached drifting, and stuck with the steel. If the man could not handle the hand line with a tarpon connected, they tossed the barrel, and killed the fish for no good reason other then to sharpen the points of their handlebar mustaches.
Today, we catch them, but we do not kill them for the garden or hopefully for the wall of one's office.
The best tackle for Catching Tarpon
Some anglers believe the only way to catch tarpon is using a flyrod; others use heavy conventional gear. They're both right. But let's start with the basics, and our personal favorite:
Spinning Tackle for Tarpon
Spinning tackle ranges from ultralight equipment that easily and effectively managed line thinner than a hair. A five-foot or five-and-a-half-foot spinning rod with an ultralight reel from top manufacturers like Daiwa or Shimano is quite capable of handling a 120lb tarpon. One of the team members caught one on six-pound mono with a Shimano rod and reel near a local bridge. But the fish took forty-five minutes to become so stressed we forced her to break off.
All around best tackle for catching tarpon is a good medium-to-heavy-weight spinning Rod. Make sure the tackle has good backbone, but you do not need the fast to extra-fast tip action we normally seek for skinny water fish. Tarpon will tire out quicker if the rod as a little --but not too much -- play in the backbone. Look for a rod that bends a third or even a half way from the tip to the base. They're better for tiring a 120 lb fish than a fast-action rod.
Start with Medium-heavy, medium- to medium-fast-action spinning rods that are anywhere from seven-foot-six inches to eight foot. You can spend $70 for a rod and you can spend $700 for a rod before you consider what reel to have, so your budget and your desire for fine tackle will determine how much you want to spend on spinning tackle. Whatever price range you select, match the weight of the spinning reel to the weight of the rod. Good tackle shops can help you find what you need and match the tackle to the conditions and the species.
But stay heavy, and you always need to consider backbone. We normally recommend fast-action spinning tackle for almost anything, but a little extra 'bend' in a tarpon rod helps to battle a fish that could very-well take forty minutes to get boatside. The fight is as important – more – than the hookup. You don't want a 'whippy' rod, mind you, but a little less stiffness in the longer rods will help keep you from having locked-wrists when you finally release a 120lb fish.
If you are new to fishing from the beach and are not considering flyfishing, a spinning rod is the best way to go.
Conventional Tackle for Tarpon
Spinning tackle rules because spinning tackle is easy. That's why the large majority of rods you see being used for inshore and nearshore species like tarpon are spinning rods and reels. But go into deeper water where grouper and American Red Snapper pull so hard you feel like you're lifting an electric car from the bottom and you realize that the position of the reel (on top of) relative to the rod gives you twice – or more – the leverage you get from a spinning rod.
The added leverage of conventional tackle is often called for if you don't have experience catching these powerful and challenging species. Some of us use them when we're fishing close to bridges or other big structure because they allow us to turn the fish's head faster and get them away from those line-slicing columns and pilings.
The reason conventional tackle gives you more power is simple: you have your hands and power underneath the rod, and you can use your upper arms and even your shoulders to lift. A spinning rod is hanging underneath your hands; it's all wrist and forearms. I can hear readers now: "No man!!! I have all the leverage in the world with my ultra-light spinning tackle!!!!". But that just ain't so. Conventional rods and reel combos – especially with 'level-wind' mechanisms to keep the line from piling up on one-side-or-another of the spool – give you a tremendous advantage. If you are going to try catching tarpon yourself, or without an experienced tarpon angler on the boat with you, consider using a light action grouper rod for one of the lines - perhaps the one on the bottom, where setting the hook requires more pressure.
Fly fishing tackle for tarpon
Fly fishing in salt water only started getting popular in the end of the last century. Before guys like Lefty Kreh and Billy Pate had taken the concept of salmon fishing to Florida's species. From bonefish to redfish and from snook to huge permit, the hunt eventually lead the pioneers in feather fishing to the silver king. The men and people like them changed the World of Sportfishing forever, and told us you could catch a saltwater fish - even the silver kings - on flyrods. And so, too, can you.
This image from Flyfishingkeywest.com shows the best of all worlds -- at least in the eyes of some anglers. A lightweight flyrod and a juvenille tarpon. Imagine a 20lb ladyfish on steroids and you can envision what this battle was like. Try catching a 200lb fish on a flyrod if you really want to raise your man totem.
Before you think about it, remember what we always say about going "too light" and that certainly holds true for tarpon fishing. You need the ability to cast big flies - heavy flies - so do not start with an eight-weight rod you might feel fine for snook under the docks or on the beaches. A hundred-pound fish well-connected to an eight-weight will rip the reel (and potentially your fingertips) to shreds. Like all light-tackle addicts, some readers (and commentators) are saying "nah! I use the same flyrod fishing for sunfish as I use sight casting on the beaches for the poons" but ignore what they say: a ten weight is light tackle, and a twelve-weight with a sixty-lb tippet on the hand-tied or pre-made leader of your choice is best. The flyrod you use for tarpon is not going to be well-suited for those backcountry redfish or beach snook. In the world of flyrods the gap between inexpensive but effective and high-end and magical and twelve thousand dollars is vast. We strongly suggest you get inexpensive American tackle. You will spend more money on minimal but effective fly tackle than you will spin or conventional. By a factor of two, at least. Because you are casting the line and not the weight of the lure, the line is specially made and a costly component.
Summary: The Rods and Reels for Catching Tarpon
All the tackle we've described will work for those gorgeous beasts we call tarpon. They're not all that hard to find and hook, but the battle is something you will never forget if you're blessed enough – and perseverance – to hook up. That said, choosing the right tackle to start with is critical, because successfully catching and releasing these fish takes common sense. Start with a good seven-and-a-half or eight-foot medium-heavy weight spinning rod, and try to catch your first tarpon in a place they're easy to find. The beaches are good, but we would argue anchoring away from a bridge is better. Use spinning tackle, get the fish into open water as fast as you can, and the tackle will be a blast. But as you get better and more experienced, and begin fishing closer to structure, or can effectively spot them when they're performing their circular mating dances on the beaches, consider conventional tackle for the bridges, and even fly rods for the beaches.
Tarpon will change your life if you let them. They start showing up in the springtime and stay around in large groups until late summer, and you can even catch them up our rivers in the coldest days of winter. But having the right tackle when you hunt them is a critical key to your success.
Good luck, and remember to bow to the king – whatever rod you've hooked him to.
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