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How Ex­perts Find and Catch Tar­pon in the Everglades Back­coun­try

THE un­tamed wilder­ness of labyrinthine rivers, creeks and bays that con­sti­tute Everglades Na­tional Park’s back­coun­try can be as in­tim­i­dat­ing as it is sub­lime. De­spite their tricky nav­i­ga­tion, th­ese waters of­fer both amaz­ing fish­ing and peace from South Florida’s con­crete jun­gle just an hour away. It’s where you’ll find me in my skiff as often as I can get away, through win­ter and into spring, hunt­ing for trea­sure — 100-pound in­gots of liv­ing sil­ver — the mighty tar­pon. A friend in­tro­duced me to this world-class fish­ery in the late 1990s, and ever since, it has been an ob­ses­sion of mine.

A high point in th­ese years of ob­ses­sion came dur­ing a re­cent Jan­uary when Carl Ball (a char­ter cap­tain out of Mi­ami) and I found the mother lode of tar­pon.

We left the Flamingo ramp at But­ton­wood Creek, cleared Coot Bay and Tar­pon Creek and, within 20 min­utes, were hooked up to chrome-plated bal­lis­tic mis­siles in White­wa­ter Bay.

A sin­gle tar­pon had given up its lo­ca­tion when its mir­rored back re­flected the sunlight pierc­ing through the man­grove tree­tops. Pitch­ing plugs about the same size as Carl’s half-smoked Co­hiba on what could serve as bass-fish­ing tackle was the game. We jumped a dozen sil­ver kings, mostly in the 80- to 100-pound range, land­ing four in two hours of fish­ing be­fore we changed gears to tar­get snook in the deeper re­cesses of the Glades.


It’s never easy fig­ur­ing out a fish­ery, es­pe­cially one that takes place within a maze. The vast­ness of the Everglades is over­whelm­ing (of­fer­ing vis­i­tors a re­minder just how in­signif­i­cant we re­ally are). The place can’t be tamed but learned only slowly through hard work and per­sis­tence.

The lat­est GPS tech­nol­ogy of­fers an­glers the chance to nav­i­gate th­ese waters in ways never avail­able to early pi­o­neers. My Ray­ma­rine Ax­iom 9 chart plot­ter with Navion­ics Plat­inum+ satel­lite im­agery opened wilder­ness doors when that chart chip be­came avail­able in 2007. Hav­ing the ben­e­fit of satel­lite im­agery in a GPS pro­vides a bird’s-eye view for nav­i­gat­ing and also of­fers an ef­fec­tive tool when try­ing to find lee shores on windy days. I wouldn’t ven­ture there with­out it.

Even with such elec­tron­ics, I file a float plan with fam­ily or friends be­fore fish­ing the Glades. A cur­rent, reg­is­tered, per­sonal ACR ResQLink per­sonal lo­ca­tor bea­con or Garmin in­Reach Ex­plorer satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tor is also a plus in case of emer­gency. There’s no TowBoatUSA or SeaTow to help you.

As an an­gler who fishes th­ese waters, I’ve learned much by chat­ting with sea­soned guides who ob­vi­ously share the same pas­sion for the park and its tar­pon. Capt. Steve Te­jera (knot­tightchar­ spe­cial­izes in fish­ing the back­coun­try 200-plus days a year. Tar­pon can be found all year in the many rivers, creeks, back bays, shal­low mud flats,

basins, man­grove shore­lines and around oys­ter bars. Still, Te­jera feels that know­ing in which ar­eas he’ll find tar­pon dur­ing cer­tain con­di­tions and times of the year greatly im­proves his catch stats.


“Dur­ing the win­ter months, from De­cem­ber through March, 100-pound-class tar­pon can be plen­ti­ful in the back­coun­try,” Te­jera says. When wa­ter tem­per­a­tures rise be­tween cold fronts, you can ex­pect the tar­pon to be ac­tive, ac­cord­ing to Te­jera. The tar­pon fun­nel into the large back bays such as White­wa­ter, Tar­pon and Broad River, mov­ing in from the Gulf look­ing for sta­ble, warm fresh­wa­ter en­vi­ron­ments.

In cold, northerly winds, the fish move out of th­ese bays or hun­ker down on the bot­tom and get lock­jaw, but af­ter a win­dow of three or four days of warmer south­east­er­lies, es­pe­cially af­ter a cold front, the fish­ing can light up in those places, Te­jera says.

When tem­per­a­tures re­main mild for long pe­ri­ods dur­ing Fe­bru­ary and March, cou­pled with winds from a gen­er­ally east­erly di­rec­tion, the fish move from back bays to the out­side capes — East Cape, Mid­dle Cape and North­west Cape, and also out in front of Flamingo.

Still longer pe­ri­ods of sta­ble weather with wa­ter tem­per­a­tures in the magic 72-to-74-de­gree range might cre­ate the per­fect sit­u­a­tion for laid-up fish, a spec­ta­cle that has to be wit­nessed first­hand to be­lieve. Tar­pon ly­ing mo­tion­less in the up­per part of the wa­ter col­umn can be dis­cerned by a tell­tale golden smudge a few inches be­low the sur­face. If you can dis­tin­guish the fish’s head from its tail, throw­ing a plug or soft-plas­tic jerk­bait can end up in a tug-of-war of epic pro­por­tions. When things are re­ally good, you might see the tips of tar­pons’ dor­sal and tail fins above the wa­ter’s sur­face. Wit­ness­ing scenes like this that will get any an­gler’s heart rac­ing.

Around March and April, the fish be­gin stag­ing near river mouths and open bays to be­gin their mi­gra­tions to spawn in the Keys, Te­jera says. That’s also around the time cold fronts dwin­dle. From May through June and into July, the fish can be in­ter­cepted as they ad­vance to the south in packs or strings over the cleaner-wa­ter banks — First Na­tional Bank, Sandy Key Basin and Ox­foot Bank.

From Au­gust through Novem­ber, the bights — Snake, Garfield and Rankin — con­sis­tently hold fish in 5-to-20-pound range. “Out front is bet­ter in the sum­mer­time,” says Te­jera of Florida Bay. “The back bays heat up quicker, and it’s typ­i­cally too hot for tar­pon.” He be­lieves they re­lo­cate out into Snake Bight Chan­nel and Tin Can Chan­nel and in all the large basins be­tween shal­low mud flats. “In late Novem­ber and De­cem­ber when bait­fish are thick, fun-size 40- to 50-pounders move into the chan­nels and will even ven­ture up on the flats,” he says.


“West wind makes fish­ing the park tough,” Te­jera says. “The wa­ter be­comes tur­bid, and tar­pon roll less be­cause there might be more oxy­gen in the wa­ter.” When cool north­ern winds as­so­ci­ated with an ap­proach­ing cold front shut things down,

he changes gears and tar­gets snook and red­fish. If they’re not blow­ing too hard, con­sis­tent south­east­erly breezes are al­ways a bless­ing.

The search for gi­ant tar­pon in such a vast place can range from min­utes to hours. Start search­ing early be­cause they roll less when the sun rises over­head or wind picks up. Rollers and free-jumpers of­fer ob­vi­ous tar­pon signs, but so do div­ing seag­ulls and ner­vous bait­fish schools. “If you find tar­pon rolling in a river, you never want to idle your skiff against the cur­rent be­cause they’ll feel your pres­sure wave,” says Capt. Bob LeMay (954-435-5666, lemaymi­[email protected]).

He fishes the tar­pon in rivers the same way he fishes for Alaska’s salmon, ob­serv­ing where they are and cast­ing up-cur­rent from them, start­ing his re­trieve only when the plug reaches that zone.

For gear that can cast plugs all day but still han­dle 100-pound fish, I pre­fer a 7-foot-2-inch medium-heavy Shi­mano Terez Waxwing. It has some­thing of the look and feel of a bass-fish­ing rod but is ac­tu­ally de­signed for large pe­lagic species. You want a rod that will han­dle 30- to 50-pound braided line. (I used this same rod to haul in a 200-pound-class yel­lowfin tuna on a popper at Han­ni­bal Bank, Panama.)

Hurl­ing plugs as far as you can in wide-open bays re­quires a reel that has suf­fi­cient line ca­pac­ity yet bal­ances well with the light­weight rod. For ex­am­ple, a Shi­mano Stradic STC5000 is a good fit, with good line ca­pac­ity for 30-pound braid, plenty of drag and a fast gear ra­tio.

“Keep the rod tip low when fight­ing tar­pon,” Te­jera ad­vises. “The rod tip down in the wa­ter cre­ates drag on the line and re­sis­tance on the hook to help keep it lodged. Since tar­pon stay near the sur­face for most fights, I tell my clients to keep the rod tip down, and if the fish jumps, don’t bow; re­lax your wrist to main­tain light re­sis­tance with no slack. Bow­ing to them takes too much pres­sure off the hook, and more times than not, the fish even­tu­ally jumps off that way,” he says.


In sci­en­tific terms, tar­pon have a su­pe­rior lower jaw, best de­scribed as a mas­sive un­der­bite. Be­cause their lower jaw ex­tends far be­yond their gape, tar­pon ex­cel at hunt­ing prey at or above eye level. Ad­di­tion­ally, the ex­tremely bony mouth of th­ese pre­his­toric fish makes them chal­leng­ing to con­sis­tently hook and land.

In fact, a study done in 2004 by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Com­mis­sion showed that only 37 per­cent of hooked tar­pon ac­tu­ally made it to the boat. Hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced sim­i­lar re­sults, I’ve learned a cou­ple of tac­tics to help keep the odds in my fa­vor.

Since the stan­dard tre­ble hooks found on most

lures are not de­signed for big tar­pon, I change out the hooks.

One strat­egy is to use size 2 Mus­tad KVD Elite Triple Grip tre­bles, size 1 VMC 4X Model 9626, or Owner Stinger 4X ST-66 tre­bles. I also sharpen them with a stone and mash their barbs slightly to im­prove pen­e­tra­tion.

You can change out tre­bles to stronger ver­sions (such as Mus­tad KVD Elite Triple Grips, VMC 9626 4X or Owner Stinger ST-66 4X, gen­er­ally in a size 2). How­ever, a bet­ter tac­tic — which helps keep tar­pon hooked longer and is bet­ter for the fish — calls for re­plac­ing tre­bles with 2/0 VMC 7237CB in-line sin­gle X-strong large-ring hooks. In-line sin­gles hold bet­ter, al­low­ing more drag pres­sure with less chance of straight­en­ing, and are much safer when land­ing tar­pon for fish and an­gler.

Slow-sink­ing and sus­pend­ing plugs pro­duce more bites for me than straight-up sink­ing lures. Plugs such as Mir­rOlure’s Catch 2000 and Mir­rO­dine XXL are my go-to choices. The black­back flu­o­res­cent-or­ange-belly pat­tern (808 color) works well morn­ings and evenings when the light is low. With the sun high and bright, I switch to lighter Mir­rOlure pat­terns in sil­ver (S color), mul­let (21 color) or char­treuse (CFPR and CH col­ors). Te­jera prefers darker col­ors like black and pur­ple in stained wa­ter. He also likes the slow-sink­ing Egret Baits Vudu Mul­let that stands up well to the abuse of mul­ti­ple fish fights. Th­ese are made of TPE — ther­mo­plas­tic elas­tomers, a much stronger plas­tic poly­mer used in many new lure de­signs.

Ra­pala’s new X-Rap Twitchin’ Mul­let in bonechartreuse, mul­let and man­grove-minnow pat­terns has proved highly ef­fec­tive for big tar­pon in the back­coun­try. The lure has a slow sink rate and wide, twitch­ing, walk-the-dog swim­ming ac­tion, and comes stan­dard with high-qual­ity 2/0 in-line VMC hooks. Other great choices in­clude the sus­pend­ing Shi­mano Waxwing, Bomber Long-A and Badonk-A-Donk, and the sus­pend­ing LiveTar­get Mul­let Twitch­bait.

“If I had a per­sonal choice for tar­pon, I’d throw big soft plas­tics on sin­gle hooks over plugs,” says well-known Flamingo guide Capt. Benny Blanco

(in­sta­­ben­ny­blanco). “We’re all more con­ser­va­tion-minded now, and tre­ble hooks are sim­ply not good for any catch-and-re­lease fish­ery.” In wa­ter no more than 4 feet deep, Blanco has his clients pitch un­weighted Salt­wa­ter As­sas­sin S.W. Shad and Hogy 7-inch plas­tic jerk­baits with heavy-duty 4/0 or 5/0 Mus­tad KVD Grip-Pin soft-plas­tic hooks. If the fish run deeper, Blanco puts the baits on a jig head or on ¼- to ½-ounce weighted Mus­tad Grip-Pin worm hooks.

“While the long-term ef­fects on the park’s ecol­ogy re­main to be seen post-Hur­ri­cane Irma (2017), I do see pos­i­tive signs,” Blanco says. He be­lieves the storm helped clear out silt brought in from ear­lier hur­ri­canes, and in many ar­eas pushed out the de­cay­ing sea grass from the die-off a year prior. De­cem­ber 2017 of­fered some of the best tar­pon bites Blanco can re­mem­ber, with mul­ti­ple days hook­ing 20 or more tar­pon. “It was truly magical,” Blanco says.

While hooked tar­pon might sulk deep when they’re able to, shal­low waters in the Glades can deny them that op­por­tu­nity — so they go air­borne, a lot.

Tar­pon might school up in chan­nels (above), though often an­glers sight­cast to solo fish laid up shal­low. Right: There’s no short­age of by­catch in the Everglades, with snook at the top of that list.

While tar­pon in the 25-to-50-pound range abound and of­fer fab­u­lous sport on lighter lines, plenty of triple-digit be­he­moths prowl the same tan­nic waters.

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