TEN THOUSAND ISLANDS
Rising water temperature drives tarpon out of the Gulf of Mexico and onto Florida’s west coast by March, as early as February in some years.
“The magic number for us is 72 degrees,” says Capt. Ken Chambers, who guides the Ten Thousand Islands and Everglades National Park out of Goodland, Florida. “We see them first south of Chokoloskee.”
In the early part of the season, the fish come out of the Gulf in waves. The bays will fill up, then there will be another wave as they push through in big groups, spreading northward and filtering through the bays and the backcountry.
Once the big numbers of fish arrive, they spread out from Lostman’s River all the way up the coast, on the outside.
In general, this is the pattern for the entire migration, from mid-march through mid-june.
The biggest schools of moving fish are found 1 to 5 miles offshore, in less than 15 feet of water. On calm days, they’re easy to see, rolling on the surface.
The best strategy for these tarpon traveling down the Gulf Coast is to locate them, position the boat in their path, then wait for them to swim into casting range.
“Tarpon moving on the outside are hungry. They are the easiest ones to catch,” says Chambers, “especially early in the season with live baits, such as threadfin herring or sardines.”
These same fish are eager takers for lures also, when they are fresh in and haven’t seen a lot of boats yet. Chambers recommends soft-plastic baits like Zoom flukes and swimbaits, or ½-ounce bucktail jigs. DOA’S Bait Buster, in white or glow, or an assortment of different fly patterns work equally well.
“The first groups of fish you get on during the migration usually provide the best action due to lack of fishing pressure,” says Chambers.
The preferred rig for the necessary gentle presentation on casting tackle is a 60-pound fluorocarbon leader and a 4/0 or 5/0 circle hook run horizontally through the nose of a weightless live bait or lure.
Chambers’ game plan: Go out early and look for clean water, signs of bait, and rolling tarpon in the channels and rivers. When it’s calm, look on the outside for schools moving north.
“My favorite fishing,” says Chambers, “is sight-casting on the shoals in May. Set up on a sandbar, over white bottom with the sun behind you, and let them run into you.
“Cape Romano Shoals makes an ideal setup spot. You can follow miles of shoals south and find fish all the way.” — SWS Staff
MANGROVE COUNTRY: Tarpon flood into the Ten Thousand Islands once water temps hit 72 degrees.