Wilderness Systems Tarpon 120 Fishing Kayak Review

Buyer’s Guide | Kayak Angler

When I first started kayak fishing, we had two choices for performance kayaks: the Ocean Kayak Prowler 15 and the Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160. I chose the Prowler, but always wondered what I may have been missing with the Tarpon. Last year, when Wilderness Systems released the Tarpon 120, I was excited to see another advanced openwater kayak hit the streets.

Wilderness Systems Tarpon 120 Specs
Length: 12’3”
Width: 30”
Weight: 63 lbs
Capacity: 350 lbs
MSRP: $959

Tarpon 120 is a big-time performer

The Tarpon family was born in 2001 with the Tarpon 160. Two years later, the Tarpon 140 and 120 little sisters came along. Back when fishing kayaks were focused on coastal fishing, the Tarpon was Wilderness Systems’ first entry into the game.

As Wilderness Systems and the rest of the industry branched off to develop models focused on stability and fishability, the Tarpon went from a do-it-all boat to focused on big game performance. Several times the design has been updated topside and below the waterline, but the focus has always been on performance and fishability. With the most recent incarnation, the 2019 Tarpon 120, Wilderness reflects on two decades of experience to develop their most advanced big water boat.

Putting the 2019 Tarpon to the test

A word of warning: I’m a kayak snob. My world consists of distant horizons, powerful currents and unpredictable seas—a perfect test track for the Tarpon 120. Near my house, tributaries of Chesapeake Bay stretch for miles and the tide turns four times each day. Fishing these rivers requires paddling against the current, across the wind and into the marshy backwater.

Wilderness Systems Tarpon 120
This updated 2019 model is not just another Tarpon. | Feature Photo: Roberto Westbrook

To test the Tarpon in her natural environment, I launched the boat at my local honey hole for an afternoon of speckled trout fishing—and it did not disappoint. The smallest of the Tarpon line is designed for open water and tight spaces, with solid tracking to cover the distance and a short waterline for maneuvering into creeks and corners. My favorite application for the 2019 Tarpon 120 is light tackle fishing in tidal rivers.

Writing reviews for Kayak Angler, I wrestle a lot of kayaks from my truck to the water. The Tarpon’s dainty 63-pound waistline was a pleasure to move. I didn’t load down the boat with tackle; the 12-foot Tarpon is best kept light. The Tarpon 120 isn’t pre-rigged for a fish finder, so I left my unit at home. I grabbed my full-sized crate and a couple fishing rods and I was on the water.

Stern of the Tarpon 120. | Photo: Roberto Westbrook

I was stoked to see the Phase3 AirPro low-profile seat in the cockpit. A performance kayak, designed for paddling miles through unpredictable seas, needs the flexibility and support of a molded seat. Moreover, the seat should be low in the cockpit, to improve stability and paddling power.

The Phase3 seat is slightly elevated off the cold, wet deck. Mesh-covered, honeycomb foam in the seat and thick, closed-cell foam on the back provide ventilation and support. The back pad is adjustable, and the seat bottom can be raised for solid lumbar support. All adjustments can be made while sitting in the seat.

Well equipped with the right amount of bounce

As I pushed off the beach, the comfort and performance touches were immediately noticeable. Though tippier feeling than a standup kayak, the 2019 offered enough stability to feel safe. I look for some rock and roll in a performance boat, and the initial instability allows the Tarpon to bounce around in the waves.

Hull of Wilderness Systems Tarpon 120
Top: A sharp entry and flare cut through the water without sacrificing stability | Photo: Roberto Westbrook

The Tarpon 120’s hull flare is wide and gentle for improved stability while the narrow nose and stern cut through the water and roll with the waves.

A slight rocker in the hull helps the boat turn, especially when tilted to the side. Sporty handling and sensible paddling make the 120 perfect for backwater adventures. These same qualities make the small boat a good match for smaller paddlers, too.

But it’s the little touches that make a big difference. SlideTrax gear tracks on the bow and along the tankwell allow anglers to secure accessories and rod holders. Water bottle holders, dry storage and paddle holders are also upgraded.

One of my favorite Tarpon features is the simple paddle holder on the bow. A million times during a fishing trip I stuff my paddle blade under the bungee to free my hands for fishing. The Tarpon’s paddle holder is intuitive and out of the way; I can stow my kayak paddle without thinking about it. When I hook a fish the paddle blade gets stuffed into the holder. If the fish runs left, I switch the paddle to my right side. Some fish have me switching sides a half dozen times. Always stow the paddle parallel to the kayak, and don’t let it stick out like a wing.

Other intuitive touches include gear pockets under the seat and a small center hatch in the deck. I’ve never been a fan of these Tarpon traditions. I feel like the hatch and pockets prevent me from comfortably standup fishing in the boat. But the Tarpon’s not a standup boat. After a couple trips in the Tarpon, I have to admit, the pocket and hatch come in handy.

Wilderness Systems’ Tarpon 120 is a worthy addition

Over the past 20 years, the Tarpon line has gone through upgrades and modernization to stay relevant. The 2019 model of the Tarpon 120 may be the latest member of the family, but its sporty performance and smart features will prove equally timeless.

Video review of the Wilderness Systems Tarpon 120:

This article was first published in the Winter 2020 issue of Kayak Angler Magazine. Subscribe to Kayak Angler Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

This updated 2019 model is not just another Tarpon. | Feature photo: Roberto Westbrook