With bright chrome scales, an upturned mouth and a long dorsal fin, it’s easy to identify a tarpon. Found in most tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic, tarpon reach sizes dwarfing the men and women who chase them. While some of the largest tarpon come from Western Africa, many fish over 200 pounds are caught in North America. Florida accounts for the majority of tarpon catches, but the silver fish are common from Texas to the Carolinas.

Tarpon begin life in estuaries as eel-like larvae. Their ability to gulp air allows tarpon to live in water with low oxygen. When they are hooked, tarpon are famous for wild aerial jumps followed by a knock-down-drag-out battle. The fish are smart, and they live in wild places that are hard to access. This combination of qualities makes tarpon the ultimate inshore adversary.

Silver King: Expert Tactics for Tarpon Fishing

How Tarpon Hunt

Tarpon are on the prowl day and night, but there are times when they aren’t inclined to eat. Tarpon feed actively after dark, using their large eyes to spot prey in low light. Tarpon are opportunistic predator; large tarpon will eat surprisingly small prey. Their menu includes baitfish, crabs and shrimp—they will even eat small worms and eels.

man reels in a thrashing tarpon while fishing from a yellow kayak in Florida
Hold on for the ride of your life. | Feature photo: Eric McDonald

How to Catch Tarpon

“For the best shot at tarpon, use live bait,” recommends Eric McDonald, owner of Deep Blue Kayak Fishing Charters in Boynton Beach. He prefers mullet but small ladyfish or pinfish are proven winners.

“There’s nothing tricky about the rig,” McDonald says. He uses 40-pound braided line connected to three feet of 60-pound fluorocarbon leader with an Alberto knot. To avoid deep-hooking a tarpon, McDonald prefers a 3/0 circle hook.

McDonald says a J-hook struggles to stick into the tarpon’s bony mouth. A circle hook increases your chances of finding purchase in the corner of the jaw.

Lures also work well. McDonald favors a swimming lure like the Shimano Waxwing retrieved at a moderate pace. Soft plastics are hard to beat, with big Hogy lures a favorite. In the fall, Florida anglers can find juvenile tarpon eager to hit lures and flies. But for the most part, lure anglers will put in more time and effort than those soaking baits.

To handle a fleeing tarpon, McDonald uses a 6500 spinning reel and a seven-foot, heavy-action rod. A seven-foot rod reaches around the bow of the kayak and produces more lifting leverage.

man holds up his tarpon catch
Taming the ultimate adversary. | Photo: Eric McDonald
IGFA All-Tackle Record

Max Domecq
286 pounds, nine ounces
Guinea-Bissau, Africa

Top Tarpon Spots

Tarpon follow seasonal patterns. In the northern part of their range, they appear in the summer and stay around until early fall. For Texas tarpon, late fall can be outstanding. Look for tarpon following schools of menhaden in Alabama’s Mobile Bay and in Northern Florida’s Panhandle bays in early and midsummer. The best tarpon action off Florida’s Gulf Coast is Crystal River, Homosassa and Boca Grande.

The Southeastern Florida coast hosts tarpon starting in late spring and building to a peak during the fall mullet run. The lower Keys and Key West experience world-class tarpon fishing in the summer, especially at night under bridges. In the winter, the fish stage in Key West harbor. The fish arrive to Virginia and the Carolinas in early summer. Best of all, many places where tarpon live are accessible by kayak.

Expert Advice

After helping many anglers catch their first tarpon, Eric McDonald stresses staying centered in the boat during the long fight. “Don’t rush the end game,” McDonald says. Even a seemingly tired fish may go nuts and jump over the kayak.

“With tarpon fishing, patience is everything,” McDonald says. His tarpon rule goes like this: “If you see one, it’s a successful trip. If you hook one, it’s a phenomenal trip. If you land a tarpon, go buy a lottery ticket.”

Cover of Kayak Angler Magazine Issue 50, Early Summer 2023This article was first published in the Early Summer 2023 issue of Kayak Angler Magazine. Subscribe to Kayak Angler Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

Hold on for the ride of your life. | Feature photo: Eric McDonald




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