The Magic Sea­son

TAR­PON START THEIR AN­NUAL PIL­GRIM­AGE ALONG BOTH FLORIDA COASTS

Saltwater Sportsman - - Table Of Contents / Features - By Alex Sues­cun

AAS IT HAP­PENS EV­ERY APRIL WHEN WA­TER TEM­PER­A­TURES HIT THE MAGIC 75-DE­GREE MARK, THOU­SANDS OF TAR­PON ON BOTH THE AT­LANTIC AND GULF COASTS OF THE SUN­SHINE STATE LEAVE THEIR WIN­TER HANGOUTS UP COASTAL RIVERS, DEEP IN­LETS AND PASSES TO JOIN A RE­MARK­ABLE PRO­CES­SION THAT AVAILS AN­GLERS WITH AMAZ­ING OP­POR­TU­NI­TIES TO TAN­GLE WITH WHAT’S WIDELY CON­SID­ERED A BIG-GAME SPECIES IN AC­CES­SI­BLE IN­SHORE WA­TERS.

Grouped in small packs of a dozen fish or fewer, or mas­sive schools of 50, 100 or more, waves of tar­pon trace the con­tour of both Florida coast­lines, head­ing south on the At­lantic side, and east and then south on the Gulf side be­fore turn­ing around some­time in June and cruis­ing back in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. Some­where along the way, the fish go as much as 100 miles off­shore to spawn in open wa­ter.

CHOOSE YOUR BAT­TLES

Trav­el­ing across all sorts of ter­rain dur­ing this spring and sum­mer mi­gra­tion, tar­pon en­able an­glers to pick their bat­tle­ground by geo­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion and to­pog­ra­phy best suited for the ex­ist­ing con­di­tions and their pre­ferred fish­ing style. Many fly-rod­ders and other sight-cast­ers, for in­stance, flock to the Keys and var­i­ous Gulf beaches known to of­fer a num­ber of pro­duc­tive lo­ca­tions with clear wa­ter and light bot­tom. Live­baiters, mean­while, usu­ally opt for fish­ing chan­nels, points, in­lets and passes, or look for tar­pon ac­tively feed­ing on school­ing bait­fish off ad­ja­cent beaches.

In ad­di­tion, there are some ar­eas, the Ever­glades’ Ten Thou­sand Is­lands among them, where the fish stage for a few days — lay­ing up in pro­tected coves and river or creek mouths — be­fore con­tin­u­ing their jour­ney. While harder to spot than their tour­ing coun­ter­parts, those laid-up fish are more sus­cep­ti­ble to stealthy ap­proaches and well-placed casts with an ar­ray of baits, both nat­u­ral and ar­ti­fi­cial.

TRAVEL LANES AND HANGOUTS

Tar­pon love seams and bor­ders, and they tend to fol­low sand­bars and edges that di­vide grassy and sandy ar­eas, as well as ledges that par­al­lel beaches and shore­lines where the bot­tom

drops slightly. While many such ledges are not easy to iden­tify at a glance, a topo­graph­i­cal map of the area will re­veal the depth con­tours. Then it’s just a mat­ter of fig­ur­ing out which the fish are us­ing as a travel lane that day.

While the pods of sil­ver kings trekking along the beaches fre­quently pre­fer depths of 10 to 20 feet, which in many cases are found be­yond the swath of wa­ter most often oc­cu­pied by swim­mers and cruis­ing boats, the average wa­ter depth of tar­pon travel lanes once they reach the flats is 4 to 8 feet, and there are times when the fish will cruise along stretches barely a cou­ple of feet deep.

Of course, strong winds and tide changes will push the fish closer in or far­ther off the shal­lows. Some of the most pro­duc­tive ocean­side tar­pon spots in the Keys pro­duce best dur­ing a strong in­com­ing tide and wind blow­ing from an east­erly quad­rant, both of which push the fish tight against a shal­low flat or sand­bar, a sit­u­a­tion that makes the fish­ing pre­dictable.

But those mi­grat­ing tar­pon are not al­ways on the move. There are fa­vorite hangouts where they pe­ri­od­i­cally hold and rest. Deep bowls or chan­nels in the mid­dle of the flats, cer­tain deep is­land troughs, and pro­tected coves and boat basins often get the nod.

WA­TER CLAR­ITY AND LIGHT

Sun­light, not clear wa­ter, is more im­por­tant for sight-fish­ing. The clear­est of wa­ter is no guar­an­tee that you’ll be able to spot tar­pon. Over­cast skies and dark bot­tom, even in a scant 4 or 5 feet of wa­ter, will con­ceal the where­abouts of a school of 100-pounders in­cred­i­bly well, es­pe­cially when the fish are hug­ging the bot­tom. Fur­ther­more, tar­pon have in­cred­i­ble eye­sight and eas­ily de­tect move­ment and details like hooks, leader knots and fly lines in clear wa­ter. Yet the fish’s field of vi­sion is sub­stan­tially re­duced in cloudy or stained wa­ter, which bodes well for an­glers be­cause a tar­pon is more likely to suck in a bait, lure or fly it hasn’t had much time to in­spect.

Bright sun­light, mean­while, height­ens con­trasts, en­abling you to bet­ter per­ceive depth and bot­tom-con­fig­u­ra­tion changes, not to men­tion fish. Keep in mind, how­ever, that in Florida op­ti­mal vis­i­bil­ity usu­ally oc­curs be­tween 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. in late spring and sum­mer, so be­fore and af­ter such a pe­riod, or when cloud cover dims the light, it’s smart to fish shal­lower spots with light, sandy bot­tom where the proper boat po­si­tion pro­vides a good an­gle to still see tar­pon that hap­pen by.

TELLTALE SIGNS

Even fish this big often man­age to sneak past un­sus­pect­ing an­glers. At first light and at dusk, es­pe­cially when

the wind dies and the sur­face turns glassy, sound car­ries ex­tremely well on the wa­ter, and the con­di­tions are con­ducive for tar­pon to roll. Then, you’ll often hear the dis­tinct sound of fish gulp­ing air from quite a ways off. Let your ears guide your eyes. Let them point you in the gen­eral di­rec­tion, and scan for splashes or pro­trud­ing fins.

There are times when the fish are happy, un­pres­sured, and in no par­tic­u­lar hurry to get any­where, and they just lol­ly­gag by your boat, tak­ing turns at break­ing the sur­face to gulp air and wave their dor­sal and cau­dal fins tan­ta­liz­ingly in the process. But the mo­ment there’s a rip­ple on the wa­ter, chances of tar­pon rolling quickly di­min­ish. Then, you must rely on other signs to pin­point their where­abouts.

When the fish are cruis­ing close to the top, they often cast a wake. But when there are no signs above the sur­face, it’s time to look un­der­wa­ter. If the sun is out, shad­ows show well over light bot­tom. And over grass, a school of fish ap­pears as a darker spot. How can you be sure it’s tar­pon and not a darker patch of grass? Find a cou­ple of quick land­marks as ref­er­ence points and see if the spot moves.

Now that you have the ba­sics to find tar­pon dur­ing Florida’s an­nual run, check the side­bar for the es­sen­tials you’ll need to hook up.

YOUR MAJESTY: A hooked sil­ver king dis­plays its power and grace, op­po­site. JUST LOOK­ING: Even in shal­low wa­ter, it takes trained eyes to keep tar­pon from sneak­ing past the boat, above.

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