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.

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

www.wildernesssystems.com

Each time Wilderness Systems comes out with a new incarnation of the Tarpon, I’m first in line for a test drive. Last year, when Wildy released the Tarpon 120, I was excited to see another advanced openwater kayak hit the streets.

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 Tarpon 120 2019, Wilderness reflects on two decades of experience to develop their most advanced big water boat.

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. The smallest of the Tarpon line is designed for open water and tight spaces.

My favorite application for the Tarpon 120 2019 is light tackle fishing in tidal rivers. 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. The Tarpon 120 has solid tracking to cover the distance and a short waterline for maneuvering into creeks and corners.

The redesigned Tarpon 120 did not disappoint. To test the Tarpon in her natural environment, I launched the boat at my local honey hole for an afternoon of speckled trout fishing.

Writing reviews for Kayak Angler, I wrestle a lot of kayaks from my truck to the water. The Tarpon’s 63-pound waistline was a pleasure to move.

Stern of wilderness systems Tarpon 120 kayak
Stern of Tarpon 120 | Photo: Roberto Westbrook

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-size crate and a couple fishing rods and I was on the water.

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.

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, 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 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, 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.

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

Not just another Tarpon | Featured photo: Roberto Westbrook

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