Even though Mississippi’s Gulf Coast isn’t considered a world-famous tarpon fishing destination, there are a ton of tarpon in Mississippi. The fortunes of this bellwether species have waxed and waned over the years, but recent habitat restoration efforts have paid off to bring the Magnolia State tarpon fishery back in a big way.
Changing Fortunes of Mississippi Tarpon Fishing
Go back 100 years in the state’s history to find photos of anglers with bamboo rods and linen line hoisting five-foot tarpon onto Gulf Coast piers. Then, sometime in the 1930s, the tarpon disappeared. Some say the exodus coincided with the largest oyster harvest in Mobile Bay. It’s undeniable that the oyster depletion brought about a reduction in water quality.
In recent years, Mississippians have gone to great efforts to restore Mobile Bay and its oysters. For over two decades, water quality has slowly improved. To complete the comeback, tarpon returned to their historic boundary waters.
Gulf Coast Tarpon Diet and Habitat
According to Jim Franks, senior research scientist at University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, “Since 2007 we have observed young-of-the-year tarpon from June to December.” Baby tarpon grow into bigger tarpon, and the scientists are seeing more juveniles up to three feet long. “We find these fish in deeper habitats like Back Bay of Biloxi and Fort Bayou during the winter and spring,” Franks says.
Using a grant from the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources Tideland Trust Fund Program, Franks and research associate Patrick Graham are working to determine the diet of the next generation of Mississippi’s great tarpon. So far, they’ve discovered an all-you-can-eat saltmarsh buffet in their samples. From shrimp to minnows and crabs, young tarpon require a variety of food to fuel their incredible growth. And that diversity requires clean water and abundant habitat.
Once I learned tarpon had returned and I knew what they eat, the hard part was finding the fish. Tarpon have a special lung to gulp air from the surface allowing them to survive in low oxygen water. Thanks to this adaptation, tarpon roll on the surface making the fish easy to spot.
Fishing for Tarpon in the Mississippi Marshes
Mississippi tarpon live deep in the marshes where they search the tides for a meal. I look for deeper holes and channels and keep an eye out for rolling tarpon.
To target small marsh tarpon feeding on crustaceans and baitfish, I use a mule rig. I start with a Daiwa six-foot Laguna spinning rod and Abu Garcia Revo SX reel spooled with 10-pound-test PowerPro braided line and a 20-pound fluorocarbon leader. To the end of the leader, I tie a size six Owner Stinger treble hook.
From the bend of one of the treble hooks, I attach a 12-inch piece of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader and a 1/32-ounce crappie jig.
To target small tarpon with fly tackle, I use a six-weight outfit with floating line and a 1x fluorocarbon tippet. Simple fly patterns like a wooly bugger, Clouser or deceiver will get a tarpon’s attention.
Tarpon Fishery in Mississippi Continues to Rebound
Hopefully the Mississippi Gulf Coast will continue to see improvements in its tarpon fishery. With organizations like Gulf Coast Research Lab, we can learn more about the fish, its habitat, diet and behavior. One day, I hope to find myself fishing for the giant tarpon of Mississippi’s past.
This article was first published in Kayak Anger Issue 44. Subscribe to Kayak Anger and get the magazine delivered to your front door. Download the Kayak Angler Magazine+ app to seamlessly glide between the digital archives, the latest articles and videos or browse the digital archives for your desktop here.
Mississippi tarpon are back, and they’re biting. | Feature photo: Jeff Jones