Tides   

How to Catch Tarpon Fishing from Bridges and Piers

This article was from a few years ago, but provides a complete (and simple) way to catch this season's silver kings.

If you have been a long time reader this article is from a few years ago, but provides a full set of instructions about fishing local structure for tarpon. We hope you like it.

"Tarpooooon!", yelled Captain Mike. The fifty-pound test Ande monofilament was singing. I can still hear it when a line gets tight enough, though a head injury in 2006 left one ear as dead to sound as a fingernail. But the vibration monofilament makes when it is between the tip of a heavy Ugly Stick and a 120-lb. Megalops do not need to shake your eardrums to shake your head. It doesn't matter what species or strength; it has to do with monofilament. It lets out a tiny and almost distant scream that is close to the one a guitar string makes the moment before it breaks.

Tarpon-101-Ellenn

TOF Team member - Ellenn - holding onto a hundred-and-twenty-pounder near the dolphins at the Skyway while the stretched monofilament made that special high-pitched sound it makes when it's tight enough. That's our late friend EW Spencer on the left and Captain Mike Plastic running his Mako 21. The image is 20 years old, but we're doing exactly what we teach you to do in this story. I was holding the camera and all of us were considerably younger than we are today. EW left the deck about three years ago, and the community lost a unique instructor. He taught me a lot about fishing and a lot about high-powered rifles, but most importantly he taught me a lot about communicating with and loving those around you. Captain Mike is in Colorado where trout swim.

Where to Easily Find and Catch a Tarpon

We could have called this article, "How to Catch Tarpon - the Easy Way," because that is exactly what we are going to teach you to do. We're not going to talk about drifting the beach or the big passes. We're not going to tell you how to sight-cast tarpon with a 12-weight flyrod, and we're not going to tell you how to catch tarpon with pass crabs. We're definitely not going to write about a hundred boats fishing over one small hole yelling, cursing, and fishing with jigs that kill a lot of fish, and we're not going to talk about reality TV tournaments, which really suck (in my opinion).

What we are going to teach you is the easy way to catch a big tarpon. Judging by the number of professionals that use exactly this method to put the vast majority of new tarpon anglers (and very experienced repeat customers) into these exciting hunts, we know it works.

Tarpon-101-Old-Image

Talking to Captain Rodney Smith the other day had us both mention how far we've come in protecting the beautiful animals we hunt for sport. When we were kids, having 200 dead tarpon hanging around the trees in downtown Tampa or in Tarpon Springs after a tournament was a common scene. Our putting a million tons of tarpon protein into our gardens (which is exactly where they went in those days) seemed a natural thing to do.

Planning the trip: Where to catch a tarpon

You can catch tarpon in many places: rivers, beaches, in schools far out-of-site of land, in residential canals, in any "pass" where water moves in and out during different tidal phases, and on the flats. In fact, after fishing in Tampa Bay, Charlotte Harbor, and all around Florida, Mexico, and the northern side of South America (Colombia's northern coast, to be exact), we are convinced you can catch them in almost any suitable and flowing saltwater. But, of all the places you are likely to encounter one of these incredible creatures and get one to grab a bait, it's near a bridge. Any bridge will do, but the bigger the better.

If you want to learn how to catch tarpon and want to do so under the easiest conditions, you are going to fish near a big bridge. We have written about catching fish on the beaches by sighting them, and we talked about river tarpon before, but this article is about fishing the bridges. If you're fishing in Tampa Bay you can start at the Skyway, but as the water warms, the fish will be at all the bridges, and what you are going to learn will work at any of them. Start just near the big span and move to the closest pilings. The fish can be caught at all of them, and as you will see, they move along the bridges (most of the time), not through them.

Tarpon-101-Fish-Movement-450

The tarpon come into the bay and move all around the edges and inside the deep channels. But a good percentage of them stay at the first bridge they come to -- in Tampa Bay it is the Sunshine Skyway. Once there, they tend to move alongside the bridge's length as often as they move in between the pilings. They gather on the down-tide-side of the structure; when the tide's coming in, they're moving alongside the eastern (bay-side of the bridge). When the tide's going out, they're on the outside (the Gulf of Mexico side). When the tide's coming in, you should be outside of the bridge; when the tide's going out, you're going to anchor on the inside of the bridge so the bait's being pulled out to the Gulf of Mexico. The fish are actually on both sides, but if you wanna catch one without a lot of hassle, anchor on the tide-side so you're baits are easy to get onto that shadow line. Fishing the other line requires you getting underneath that huge bridge -- something you do not want to do before you've successfully jumped a few dozen and landed and released five or six. There are a dozen challenging ways we could teach you to how to catch tarpon, but start here -- it's easy, relatively safe, and remains the way the top guides put newcomers onto the "Silver King."

Bridge Tarpon

The path tarpon take when they come into the bay

The first place the tarpon show up is outside the bay and around the beaches. The first tarpon of the year are taken in places like Ana Maria Island, and they start showing up as far north as Anclote Key on the north beaches of the island. They can surely be caught early in the year, but when the water temps start going up, the threadfin herring start to appear -- their rain-spatter surface behavior displaying them to anglers from above and tarpon from below. The tarpon follow the herring, and bull and hammerhead sharks follow the tarpon in a never-ending dance of predators. And now, in July, they're hanging at the bridges.

The species starts showing up at the beaches and eventually travel to the northernmost sections of the bay before exiting in the fall. People who have fished them for decades - guys like Captain James Wisener and a dozen others we know -- can literally tell you about where the large pods are on a week-by-week basis. Local Wisener had marked a "Tarpon Highway" decades before the first pixel appeared on defense department computers, much less a smart telephone carried in a tackle box. Some of the fish stay in rivers, around bridges, and in deep residential canals. There are fish around all year from 20-lb. juveniles to honker 200 pounders.

Tarpon-101-Fish-Movement-2-450

The fish come into the bay from outside in the Gulf and circle the bay all summer long. As the big schools move, they break into smaller pods. Some of those pods never leave the beaches, where flyfishers target them visually and with long rods. Some stay at the bridges, moving back and forth on the side opposite the incoming or outgoing tide. Think about it; they're moving alongside the pilings so the bait is drawn into their mouths.

When they show up in the early spring, they travel in huge schools of thousands of fish. As they move, the school begins to break into pods. The pods get smaller as they scatter to mate. Some fish are solo by the time you catch them, but complete solitude seems rare, with even the biggest fish seem to hang with at least one or two similar-sized fish. Judging by the behavior on the beaches (where they are easier to see) they're often traveling, mating, and feeding in packs of six or eight. Two dozen sometimes, but rarely is there only one. They are here to mate, and mating requires socializing.

As they move into the bays, some percentage of fish stay at whatever structure they see. Some stay at the bridges all summer. Some stay around a bridge, and some move from one to another and back again. Some move all the way up into the rivers, and some actually become indigenous to fresh water locales like the Peace, Hillsborough, and Manatee rivers. But the easiest place of all to catch them, and the place you should think of first when planning a trip are the bridges.

Positioning your boat

OK, think about what the fish are doing. They come into the bay, and some -- a lot -- stay at the big bridges. We're talking about the Skyway, but the same story applies to the Frankland, the Gandy, and the Causeway. In fact, though the tide moves differently and much slower/less intense at the Bayside Bridge, it too fills up with a thousand tarpon. Go there on a good day and you can jump a dozen. We have. The same principles apply:

  1. The tide is moving into the bay or out of the bay. If it is moving out, anchor inside the bay so your boat is very close (50' or so) from that light/shadow line.
  2. Wind will change the direction your boat pulls away from the anchor. The tide will pull you towards the gulf (or into the bay if the tide's coming in).
  3. Once you anchor and you are close to that light line, put three baits in the water. One near the bottom, one in the center of the water column, and one near or on the surface.
Tarpon-101-Boat-Position

This image should tell you almost everthing you can learn in the entire article. Anchor away from the bridge so the angle of the anchored line puts you about 20 or 30 feet from the light line. Then put three baits in the water; one near the bottom, one in the middle of the water column, and one near or on the surface. You will draw strikes. If you're ready for the battle, you have a good chance of catching and releasing one out of ten. The other nine will shake the hook in the first jump, or you will never see them before they break you off like you had hooked a volkswagen. Keep the baits just inside -- not directly on -- the shadow line.

Take time to determine where you have to drop the anchor. To do that you have to watch the tide and the wind, and take both into account. You want enough anchor line out so you can stop the boat 20 or 30 feet away from the shadow/light line caused by the sun's position relative to the bridge. If you drop the anchor and your boats not in exactly the right place, pull it. Take the time necessary to get that boat in the perfect position. If it takes you 45 minutes to get in the right place, and you fish for 2 hours, putting your boat in the wrong place in five minutes could waste the whole day. You will catch suicide tarpon in the middle of the bay, and we've often seen them flying (jumping for no apparent reason into open air) in open water. But put three baits at three different depths on that shadow line created by one of the bay's bridges and you will catch a tarpon by the end of the third trip. We're not gonna' be on the boat with you, and we cannot guarantee the sun is gonna rise tomorrow morning, much less forecast global climatic conditions, so you might be the one person our prophecy fails, but it's not likely. Do what we're telling you, exactly the way we're telling you to do it, and you will join TheOnlineFisherman.com's "100 Pound Club."

Anchoring to Catch Tarpon the Easy Way

Learning how to catch tarpon the "easy way" means putting your boat where it needs to be. You want the back (stern for people that care about names) of the boat facing the bridge. You want the tide moving underneath your boat towards said bridge; any bridge, but a bridge. Start near the center span, but do not be afraid to try this method near the shores, either. The tarpon move along the entire bridge, and some of the biggest tarpon we've ever jumped were near the shore in 8' of water, not in the center over 40'.

  • Put a good anchor on your boat and make sure there is a chain on it.
Tarpon-101-Anchor-Detail

You need to stick the boat to the bottom and minimize how many times you need to pull and re-drop that chunk of metal. And drop it further away from the bridge than you think you might need to. You're gonna miss and get too close way more times then you are gonna stick it too far away. And if you do stick it too far away, you can always let out a little more line. Put a 150' line on your anchor if you have to. Just put the boat close to that light line and stopped dead. You should be able to cast underhand with a sabigi rig and get past the line.

  • Use a good long line. There is no such thing as a rope on the anchor. It is a line. Make sure your anchor line for tarpon fishing is 100' long. Some people use longer lines, but a hundred feet is fine.
  • Tie a big plastic buoy to the anchor line. If you hook a tarpon, you are not gonna' pull the anchor. You're going to throw this big orange/red or white buoy ball off the boat and move away. The float is used to mark the place under the bridge. It is so some bonehead has no excuse for moving directly where you are catching fish.
Tarpon-101-Anchor-Ring-Buoy

These anchor-buoy rings are used a lot by grouper diggers (people who fish offshore a lot and pride themselves on eating the delicious and challenging sports species) and are perfect for tarpon fishing. They let you easily pull the anchor when you are done fishing. But far more importantly, when a tarpon hits, the entire device -- ball and all -- are tossed. They mark your spot and let you re-anchor without doing anything but pick up the ball and re-connect the line to a cleat. Baits go back into the water, and tarpon start to fly again.

Catching them

Once you know where the tarpon are likely to be, and you picked a bridge you intend to fish, and you've put your anchor buoy on the end of a good 100' or 150' of anchor line, and you've prayed to the Tarpon Gods, you have to choose the right bait to use to actually catch fish. You can use lures, but that's not something we're going to talk about now; we're talking about catching them the easy way. And the easy way is with bait.

Bait

You are going to fish with three kinds of bait: One of them you can definitely get. The other two you have to work for. Once you have the boat loaded with the right rods, you have to get the right baits.

LIVE THREADFIN HERRING: Arguably, the best bait of all are live threadfin herring. We are going to assume that you're not good at throwing a 12' cast net near one of those pilings. That said, the baits there, and you can catch them on Sabiki rigs. Sabiki rigs are excellent lures for catching tarpon bait, and they do it well. Pinfish catch tarpon too, as do large scaled sardines (and small ones if they're tasty enough and the fish wanna eat tiny stuff that day, which they often do). But in my opinion nothing will draw a strike from a hungry tarpon like a live threadfin.

DEAD THREADFIN HERRING: Chum for them. You will have a few dead threadfin in the net and a few will die from stress while in the live well. Take a few dead ones and cut them into thirds. Stand at the stern and drop a single piece into the water and watch it move towards the shadow/light line. When it gets to the shadow line, drop another piece. Keep doing it for a half hour. At the 31-minute mark, put a third-chunk of one of those dead threadfins and put it on a rig. Drop the bait into the water and let it drift back to that light line. A lot of times you'll have luck with this technique when they're just not hitting live bait.

LIVE OR DEAD SHAD: If you know the species, you can tell the difference between a school of threadfin on the surface and a school of shad on the surface. Threadfin never leave the water; shad do. Threadfin look like raindrops, and shad look like a tiny helicopter crashing sideways into the water. One makes tiny droplet shapes on the surface where they're touching the air (Threads) and the other (Shad) make shapes on the surface that look like a crescent sword or the crescent moon. If you can find them on the surface -- and you often can from about June to September near the bridges and in open water) and you can get a net on them or a few to hit a sabiki, do it. Live shad are probably more effective then threadfin, but harder to find, catch, and keep alive (some of us have custom bait wells made specifically to keep shad alive when we find them). But you can buy 20lb or 50lb frozen blocks of shad, and as a bottom bait they're the best. They attract anything -- from gorgeous lemon sharks to blacktips to bulls that will rip you out of your boat. But they are also pure tarpon candy.

STRIP BAITS: A LONG piece of squid -- the kind of five-inch or eight-inch baits they put on bottom rigs on the Hubbard's Marina head boats -- will catch tarpon sometimes quicker than a live threadfin will. So will a dead mullet, or better-yet a mullet filet. Long strip baits work on the bottom, they work in the middle of the column and they work on the surface. If the fish aren't eating, try a strip on all three rods at one time (using one bait everywhere is only one variable; you should be changing and checking and moving baits all the time while you're out there).

PASS CRABS or BLUE CRABS WITH THE SHELLS OFF: OK, we said we weren't going to talk about fishing for tarpon with pass crabs, but we are (very quickly). A pass crab is a softshell blue crab -- usually small at around four inches or so. Along with larger hard-shell cousins, they move in with the incoming tide and move out with the outgoing tide. They swim and will get away from a long-handled crab net in a heartbeat, but you should have a dip net on your boat with at least a six-foot (better eight) handle. Get a net that has 1/4 inch holes. Any bigger and smaller crabs -- perfect baits -- will get out. Watch for the crabs and scoop them up. Take off the crabs claws and hook them near a removed pattle-foot (the two at the back; remove one and it will leave a hole). If the crab is a big blue, take the claws off, and lift the hard shell off. Cut them in halves or quarters and use them on the bottom. The pass crabs -- the live ones -- you should present on the surface.

Tackle for Catching Tarpon

Learning this method of how to catch tarpon requires the right line, lure, rods and terminal tackle.

Rods and Reels: Use a heavy-duty spinning rod or even a light grouper rod with a level-wind reel. Do not start fishing for tarpon with light tackle. The fish get very stressed and unless you're able to get them up fast with light stuff and let them go fast, you are gonna kill half the fish you get to the boat. Use appropriate rods and reels.

Line and Leader: Use 50-60-lb. braided line. We personally use Tuf-Line braided line for many reasons, but in this case it's for feel, strength and color. When you fish any deeper than 10 feet, having the Tuf-Line XP Braided line with Color Indicator is invaluable. It removes the guesswork about how deep your line is -- or was -- when it got hit by that 80-pound Tarpon. 

For the rest of the setup, tie a 80-100-lb. flurocarbon leader to the braid. Tie a hook to the leader. For the bottom rig, you will use a standard Fishfinder rig with appropriate weights, but the line and leader will remain the same.

Rigs for Catching Tarpon

Bottom Rig: Use a fishfinder rig on the bottom with a fairly heavy lead. The lead should be heavy enough so the tide cannot pull it up off the bottom. Three ounces is not too much if the tide's ripping. You want to get the bottom bait onto that shadow line or very close to where you can visualize the shadow reaches the mud. We often put a Cigar cork onto the leader to keep the bait up off the bottom about a foot or two, but a live bait will keep itself up in the water. We often put a dead shad on this bottom rig. It attracts a lot of catfish, so be ready. But dead stinky shad have brought more tarpon to our boat than live threadfin. By a factor of 10-1. Use dead shad on this bottom rig at least part of the time you have it on the bottom.

A Bait in the Middle of the Column: To keep a live bait, a good long strip of squid, or a mullet filet in the center of the "water column" means that if the water is 20' deep, to get the bait behind the boat and on that shadow line, you need a piece of lead on the line. You can put it into the line using a "Torpedo" lead, which has a swivel and ring on each edge. The problem with Torpedo leads is that you have to tie and clip and retie knots to change them, or to switch the center-column bait to a bottom bait, or get it onto the surface. When a bite begins, it often happens at one, not all three, of the rods. You want to be quick on your feet, and think about swapping the bottom and top baits to middle baits if that one gets hit.

You will be amazed at what quick thinking can do to improve your tarpon catches. Because of needing to change baits and change them fast, the best possible middle-column bait -- in the author's opinion -- is what is called a "Rubber Core". You can get them on and off quickly and easily, and more importantly you can keep five or six different sizes in your tarpon box (yes, you should have a tarpon box, but that's another article). If the tide is moving strong, you can put a heavier weight on, and vice versa. More importantly, you can mix and match weights to try putting a live bait or great strip bait into different depths. If the water's forty-feet deep you can try 30' down and 10' down buy changing the rubber-core.

Tarpon-101-Rubber-Core-Weights

Rubber-core weights are best for keeping one of your three in-water tarpon rigs between the surface and the bottom of the light line. That line -- where the shadow is cast down onto and deep into the water by our bridges -- is where the tarpon are gonna be caught 90% of the time. They move in between the bridges, and often eat in the "boils" formed by the shapes and positions of the structures' pilings, but those spots are way harder to fish, and when you hook the fish you're gonna have it underneath nothing but steel and concrete. Catching them outside the bridge like we're suggesting using proper boat positioning and anchoring -- combined with three rigs in three different spots on that light line -- is far easier.

Surface Baits: Keep a live threadfin on a freeline rig on the surface of the water. We've used balloons in the past as floats, but now use corks if we want to keep the bait on the top. Try the bait for a while without a cork -- just freelined using a leader tied to your braided line, tied to a circle hook. Then try it for half-an-hour with a cork in the mix. Try slightly different things to all three baits -- bottom, top, and middle. When something works, swap the other rods out and see if the bite's on.

Fighting and Releasing a Tarpon

So far we've found the bridge where the tarpon are likely to be. Fishing where the fish are is a big part of success on the water. Trust us when we say the fish are there. You can see them rolling as they eat. Get there at the right time (be patient, for God's sake!) and they'll be rolling...and hopefully eating your baits.

You've learned how to anchor the boat, and where it needs to be stuck before you drop the bait in the water. You know what baits you should be using. You put the baits in, you sit for an hour watching the chrome on your boat's rails rust, and something happens. A rod goes tight. As happens on the battlefield, pure boredom turns immediately into utter chaos. Or will if you do not know exactly what to do or what order in which to do it.

Tarpon-101-Fight-Position-2

Three people need to be on the boat. Two of them are show here. One is the Fighter -- who has to stay on the bow of the boat. The second one is the 'captain of the moment' -- the person running the boat. The boat has to stay behind the angler and the fish. The fish will run far -- often 40, 50, or more yards between jumps if they're big enough. The person on the bow has to keep the line tight, gain line when they can, and bow down (Bow to the King) to put plenty of slack in the line when the fish comes up and out of the water. If there is no slack, their shaking their heads so hard will rip the hook out or break the leader. The play between the person running the boat, the angler, and the fish need to come together perfectly for the landing and release to happen. It will not happen when you first try it - or if it does you got lucky. Time and practice and repeatablity -- which is what we're trying to teach you in this article -- will build into practical experience. Catching tarpon and doing it on a regular basis is not hard, but definitely takes practice and time on the water. Do it around the full moon in June for starters, and from there learn tides, wind, solunar, and other conditions that effect how this one method works. Keep practicing and when you're good, move to flyrods or handlines or whatever other way interests you. This one works for the pros, and will work for you.

Be ready for the strike. You need three people to do this right. Here is what you need to do:

Person #1 - The Fighter: This is the person chosen to fight the next fish that hits. They have to:

  • Grab the rod.
  • Take all the slack out while keeping their eye on the line. The fish is probably going to jump right away. This person has to get the line tight and set the hook HARD three times. Once you get the slack out, try to rip the fish's head off three times in a row. You will not hurt them -- but fail to set the hook properly and you will lose nine of ten before they jump.
  • Get to and STAY on the bow of the boat.

Person #2 - The anchor man (or woman): As soon as that rod bends, this person:

  • Throws the big red ball connected to the anchor line over the side BEHIND THE ANGLER AND CLOSE TO THE BACK OF THE BOAT.
  • PULLS IN ALL OTHER LINES INSTANTLY.

Person #3 - The Captain of the Moment

If you were on a guide boat, this person would always be behind the wheel. Not so when you have yourself and two friends. Whoever's turn it is to play captain, their role is the same. They have to:

  • Start the boat.
  • Watch the angler. They should be on the bow.
  • Keep the boat behind the fish. The fish has to be in front of the boat. The captain of the moment -- the person running the boat -- has to keep it in and out of idle, and has to keep close to and behind the fish. The fish will move -- the boat has to follow it.

If the fish jumps, the angler has to bow down to immediately put slack in the line. Bow to the King. If you do not bow, and the line's tight when that animal jumps, they will break off or spit the hook. End of story, end of fight, and time to go re-connect to the line connected to the anchor.

Safely Releasing a Tarpon

Do not kill a fish if you can avoid it. Catching big fish stresses them, for sure. There are a certain number of these animals that will die because we fought them. They will be tired and eaten by their natural predators, and sometimes they'll just die tired. It's sad to see it happen, but it doesn't happen often. That said, we protect these creatures. Catching them and being part of this incredible universe is a blessing to us, and something almost ingrained into who we are. But be careful. Don't treat them bad. Fight them fast, use circle hooks, bow when they jump so you don't stress them or sprain muscles in their necks, and release them gently.

Do not take pictures that end up stressing or killing the fish. Forget the pictures if you have to hang the fish on a rope to shoot the photo.

If all goes well, you will get the fish alongside the boat.

  • Do not pull the fish out of the water and do not use a gaff. Person #2 -- the Anchor Person -- reaches down and grabs the huge, fat, and easily-grabbed top lip of the fish. They lift it slightly out of the water with one hand, and use a pair of needle-nose pliers to pull the hook.
  • Slip the head of the fish back into the water and let it regain its strength. When the fish comes to life you will know it -- they will kick away from your hand. Be ready to let them go.
  • Start at the first paragraph, repeat the process, and catch them until your arms hurt. Believe us, it happens.

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