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Tarpon Techniques from the Experts

edited by Reid Martin

May and June is the time of the year when serious anglers start thinking about chasing one of the most exciting gamefish available, the Tarpon. Whether you’re a fly angler or a spin fisherman, or maybe even a user of live bait to catch fish, hunting a Tarpon can be thrilling or frustrating. Whether you’re a beginner or experienced, here’s a few tips that we think can help.

The Basics

Whether you are targeting Tarpon on the beach, backcountry, or in the passes there are basic techniques you should know; tackle, hook setting, fighting, and handling.


Size your tackle to land the fish without wearing out either the fisherman or the fish. Targeting juvenile Tarpon in the backcountry does not require as heavy tackle as pass fishing.


Understandably, to land a fish you need to break it down to the point where it quits fighting and can be handled. It is better to get the fish to give up in as short a time as possible; it is in the benefit of both the fisherman and the fish.

Conventional Tackle

Casting to Tarpon requires a good spinning rod able to cast a dollar size live crab to a Tarpon. Look for a 7’ Moderate-Fast action rod rated for 3/8 to 1 1/2 ounce lure and up to 20 lb. line. The reel should hold 240+ yards of line and have good bearings.

Jigging for Tarpon in the passes can be done with a stiffer, shorter rod.

Fly Fishing

A 9 weight rod is sufficient for small juvenile but the bigger fish requires a minimum of a 10 weight, but a 12 weight is preferred. A large arbor reel with a good drag system is best.

Hook Setting

Tarpon have boney mouths and getting a hook to hold on a Tarpon requires a good strong hook with a super sharp point. Buy good quality hooks and always test for sharpness. One method used by the experts is to drag the point of the hook over your fingernail. If the hook slides over your nail then it is not sharp enough. Use a hook file or stone to sharpen the hook until it no longer slides but rather digs into your fingernail.

When we are fishing for Tarpon with a fly rod and you can see the fish take your fly the first reaction is to lift the rod and set the hook. The problem is we are using the weakest part of the rod (the tip) to set the hook and the fish will be able to throw it on the first jump.

In the book ‘High Rollers Fly Fishing for Giant Tarpon’, Bill Bishop tells us “No matter what you see, don’t react in any way until you feel the fish come tight. Don’t’ bring the line tight with your rod tip. Let the fish do it for you.”

FightingFighting a Boca Grande Tarpon on Fly

You would not go to a gun fight with a knife, so go into battle with a big fish with the proper sized equipment. Even with the right sized equipment you have to be aware of the weakest links; reel drag, and knots.

With conventional and fly tackle you can set your drag to hold the fish while still allowing it to surge without breaking your line. On a spinning reel or fly reel, you can cup the reel with your hand to apply additional drag and quickly release when the fish surges.

Another technique to apply to the fight is learning how to ‘bow to the king.’

A big fish in the water weighs one tenth of its weight out of the water. Putting 15 lbs. of pull on a big fish will slow it down, at the same time, when that same fish jumps, he lands with all of his weight. If he lands on your line when you are pulling with 15 lbs. of pressure your knots are going to break under the impact of a 150 lb. fish.

So, when the fish is coming out of the water, bow and extend your rod in his direction. This provides slack in the line reducing the impact of the fish landing on your line; hopefully your knots will hold.

Gaining line on any big fish is most effective when done with short pumps; this keeps pressure on the fish. Keeping the rod at a small angle to the fish useing the butt of the rod to fight the fish instead of the tip, which is the weakest part of the rod. When trying to gain line use your arms to extend and pull back, reeling line in while extending and applying extra drag by cupping the reel while pulling back.

Positioning the boat during the fight is very important. Bill Bishop writes in ‘High Rollers Fly Fishing for Giant Tarpon’, “Boat position relative to the fish is critical to beating a tarpon in a reasonable period of time. The perfect position of the boat is almost always directly behind the tarpon.”

Trying to pull on a fish when it is perpendicular to the boat is the least effective method. You want to be behind the fish where the fish’s profile is the smallest. This method maximizes your pressure on the fish.

To get a feel for how much pressure you can put on a fish (especially for fly fisherman using various class tippets) I like Andy Mill’s method of lifting a bucket filled with sand equal in weight to the strength of the class tippet. He runs his line through a pulley and attaches it to the bucket handle. Standing back about 20 feet, he pulls with his fly rod until the bucket is lifted from the floor. You would be surprised how much pull you have to put on your rod to lift the bucket.

Sebastian River TarponHandling Fish

While landing your fish as fast as possible is preferable, trying to land a ‘green’ fish that is still full of fight is not recommended.

We all want the photo to show to our friends and family. Be sure to get the fish back in the water as soon as capturing that ‘Kodak Moment.’ If possible, take the photo while holding the fish in the water.

Lions, tigers, and sharks, Oh My!

Make sure to revive the fish before releasing it. A fish released before it has had time to recover from the fight is susceptible to being attached by sharks and not being able to get away.

Wrap Up

Buy good equipment, keep it maintained, learn how to get the most out of the fight, and release the fish healthy enough to be able to escape shark attacks.

Check out the next article in this series to learn how the Experts Find Tarpon.


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