- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
Tarpon! The name of this great fish, Megalops Atlantica, gives goose bumps to anyone who has had the chance to joust with it, especially a big one. They grow to more than 350 pounds (one that size was caught by a commercial fisherman) but the sporting record is 283 pounds caught off of Venezuela in 1956.
In the 1920s, writer/sportsman Zane Grey called them the "silver king" and this inshore sport fish is surely king of the shallow water zone, as the blue marlin is king of the blue water, offshore scene. Not long ago it was generally thought impossible to catch a big tarpon due to their great power, and reel and hand burning ability.
Tarpon can jump 10 feet or more straight up in the air and over 20 feet horizontally. The fish is so strong that no matter what tackle you use, you don't just reel them in without an exhausting battle. Some anglers, me included, actually have commented on how when a big one gets loose (more than 100 pounds) that we were released rather than the other way around.
After fighting a tarpon, run fresh water through its gills to give it a chance to revive from the gas buildup in its muscles.
Where Do They Lurk?
There are tarpon in Florida Keys waters as well as off the state’s east and west coast. The silver king is also in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana on around to Texas waters. They are found in Mexico on the east coast, and up and down the eastern coasts of Central America. There are some tarpon in the Pacific, but the inshore waters of the Southeastern Atlantic are their preferred habitat.
There is so much habitat in the thousands of miles of shoreline areas Florida is known for that you can find tarpon somewhere in Florida almost year-round. May is the big month when tarpon begin moving towards the Keys from the west coast. For first timers, I always recommend going with a guide. The guide knows where they are, what they eat, and the techniques for putting a hook in their bony plated mouths. Also, as large tarpon are so strong, you want someone with experience for your pleasure and safety, too. They have been known to jump into boats, thrash around and knocking the socks and gear off anyone unlucky enough to get in the way of their muscular bodies. (Just ask baseball's Ted Williams about it. He has had that experience and personally told me about it).
Ok! If you can’t or don't want to use a guide, go with a pal that knows tarpon. When I'm in unfamiliar locales, I visit a real mom and pop bait and tackle shop. These folks want you to come back, so they most often give you the straight story on the Five W's: Where, when, why, what to use, and who to talk to, or visit to talk to, about hooking up to a tarpon or two.
Tarpon are suction feeders, as in they protrude their jaw forward when getting near their prey, and instantly get closer to it that way to suck the mullet baitfish, crab, shrimp or just about any small or even larger fish that swims in for a crush and a swallow. Ram feeders such as dolphin, wahoo, billfish, tuna and jacks slam into the bait and stun them and then bite and swallow. Other fish, usually inshore and reef varieties such as grouper, bonefish, snapper, drum and snook as well as tarpon also protrude their jaws and suck in their prey.
Not every tarpon is a monster, but they're all great battlers!
Tarpon love mullet, pigfish, pinfish, catfish, crabs, big shrimp and even cut bait lying on the bottom will be picked up by tarpon. They hit nicely trolled lures that imitate mullet, jigs that imitate shrimp, small crabs and small baitfish, as well as streamer flies that also imitate minnows, and flies that imitate crabs and shrimp as well.
Tarpon feed and hang around bridges where tides bring them a smorgasbord of food prey. They are found in passes, and hold down deep in channels as in Boca Grande, Florida and major cuts through Keys bridges. A novice tarpon angler should wet his or her line fishing for smaller tarpon that hang in and around mangrove roots at the edge of channels and around islands. There is shallow water and then undercut banks around these islands caused by the natural tide erosions. Tarpon love these protected spots to hang out around and ambush prey.
Smaller tarpon will take white, pink and yellow jigs in and around islands and undercut banks and deep holes. I like Rapala jerk baits that look like little finger mullet, and Rebels that have a dark back with silver bellies.
I generally like to use medium-action spinning, bait-casting and fly gear. Sneak up on them, but don't get too close and don't hit them on the head with your cast; it isn't natural to have your food fall out of the heavens and onto your head or tail. If you get a "take" (bite), remember these fish, large and small have hard bony mouths, so set the hook hard if you want to hold onto them, eventually bring them to boat for a picture and release.
The fish will jump and run into the mangrove roots and try—far too often—to cut you off there. So your rod has to have backbone and the reel needs a strong reliable drag, too. I like to use at least 20-pound test monofilament for spinning and bait-casting, and at least 40-pound test leader with a shock tippet for fly gear. Fly gear for large tarpon should be at least a 9 foot rod with 12-wt. fly line, plenty of backing, and a reel that has a smooth, high quality drag:
Big fish need heavier gear in say 3/0 conventional Daiwa and Shimano, Penn and Garcia with a matching rod that has plenty of backbone, 6-7 feet in length. Tarpon have fine but very sharp jaw denticles, and they are so rough and abrasive that a mouth full of them can sandpaper down that line to weak and gone in short order. Even small ones in the 5- to 30- pound size slots can eat up the strength of your line. When fishing for larger fish—50-to 100-pounders or more—a minimum of 80- and sometimes 100-pound test leader is in order. Smaller tarpon can be held nicely on 3/0 to 5/0 circle hooks, but really big tarpon are sought using a minimum of 6/0 to 9/0 heavy duty hooks in circle design.
Tarpon are the most fun to catch using a cork bobber above a live 12-inch or so mullet. When the big fish show up for a strike and a slurp, they scare the mullet, which often goes airborne a moment or two before the tarpon strikes. There is a boil and the tarpon begins moving off, so let your rod begin bending and then strike, one, two, three times, and then it's usually off to the races. If you are staked up or have an anchor out, be prepared to use a buoy and clip the anchor line, or push pole rope to it, so you are free to chase the silver king, especially if it's a big fish in the 125 and up class.
Be prepared to run fast and steady to catch up to this powerful running and jumping fish if you wish to get a photo finish close-up of it. Get a Bogan or Berkley Big Game Lip Grip so you can handle fish for unhooking and release, and don't ever put your hands on the fishes lips or in its mouth, it will easily take off lots of skin and cause you to be in pain as if you fell off a motorcycle and skinned your hands raw. Whatever you do, try tarpon fishing, you'll never be the same old angler after a tarpon strike!