Any number of channels from Big Pine Key to Key West Harbor hold tarpon in the evenings. An outgoing tide is probably best, and the narrower the channel, the easier it will be to spot the fish. If there’s a bend or a deep hole, anchor up-current about 50 yards, and let the bait drift back into it. Almost any channel that has good outgoing water flow will do, so long as water depth is between four and 20 feet, says Trosset. The narrow channels seem to be easier to locate fish in, and look for deeper holes in the channels too.
If you notice tarpon rolling in a specific area, that’s where you should fish. Be sure to have a buoy on your anchor line, because you’ll need to unsnap quickly and chase every fish you hook. They simply head for the ocean, and they are really fast!
These days, a sunset tarpon trip is definitely on my charter menu. I’m sure there are days when the tarpon don’t show up, but on every trip I’ve made, we’ve jumped up to a dozen fish in a few hours on days when the flats guides — who knock off around 4 p.m. — were getting only a few shots in a full day’s fishing. If you really want to catch a 100-pound tarpon, an evening excursion is the way to do it.
Florida Keys Tackle Box
Live bait is the most productive way to fish, and big crabs are preferred because the jacks, snappers and junk fish leave them alone. The best-size crabs are hard to find, and you might have to catch your own if the local tackle shops don’t have any big ones. Smaller permit-size crabs are acceptable if that’s all you can get. Live mullet or pinfish also work well, but your hookup ratio will be 1-to-3 with crabs and 1-to-8 with mullet. Big shrimp are way down the list, because everything that swims in the channel eats them. You’re almost better off casting a big Gulp! jerk bait or some other form of super-size soft plastic.
If you are addicted to fly-fishing, dredging with a slow-sinking line and a big black-and-purple fly can be effective.
Rods: Heavy, 7-foot Van Staal spinning rods with a light tip, or equivalent
Reels: FinNor 4500 or 5500 reels or equivalent, with smooth, powerful drags
Line: 30- to 50-pound braid
Bait: The bait of choice is a crab about the size of your palm, followed by smaller crabs and live mullet.
Rigs: Nine feet of 60-pound fluoro leader, with a D.O.A. Clacker float inserted about three feet up the leader from the hook to keep the crab off the bottom, and a 6/O or 7/O Mustad 39950NP-BN circle hook. Hook should be sized to the size of the crab/bait. If fish get picky or the water is clear, drop to 40-pound fluoro leader and a 6/O hook.
Keys Tarpon Planner
The three-hour window before dark is ideal — you’ll hook lots of fish after dark too, but you can’t see anything, just hear a lot of splashing. Once you’re anchored up, cast the crab up-current and let it drift back with the tide. Every 30 seconds, stop the drift and let the crab rise to the surface. Let it hang for 30 seconds, then go back to free-spool for 30 seconds, and repeat till you’ve covered all the prime water. A crab on the surface drives the tarpon crazy, but you can’t let it hang there forever; no crab swims that well.
The strikes can come at any time, and they are usually explosive. When it comes, drop back, then point the rod right at the fish, and simply start reeling. Circle hooks are designed to be swallowed, and then pulled back out to catch in the corner of the jaw. If you raise the rod to set the hook, you’ll just be wasting a hard-to-come-by crab.
What: Giant tarpon
Where: Lower Keys
When: Late afternoon until dark, February through July
Who: This is a fishery anyone can enjoy on his own with a little bit of exploration. To shorten your learning curve go with a pro:
Capt. Robert “R.T.” Trosset, 305-797-5693, spindriftfishing.com
Capt. Chris Trosset, 305-747-4719, christrosset.com
Capt. Jared Cyr, 305-797-0566