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April 29, 2013

Florida Keys Tarpon Fishing

High-grade the day for a near-sure bet on giant Keys tarpon.

[Be sure to click through all the images above.]

Key West’s Tarpon Show: Of the many distractions available to visitors in Key West, fishing always comes up as one of the most popular. That’s because Key West offers more variety in terms of saltwater-fish species than just about anywhere else in the United States. Of all the fish available there, many anglers prefer tarpon above all others. These magnificent fish have much to offer, including strength, beauty, agility and, most of the time, a willingness to bite. Tarpon fishing can be addictive. 

One of the most pleasant fishing trips I’ve ever had in the Florida Keys came about quite by accident. Several friends and I had chartered Capt. Robert “R.T.” Trosset for a weekend of offshore fishing out of Key West, and as I drove down Friday afternoon from Miami, I gave Trosset a call to see how his day had been. It was just after daylight saving time had begun, and as it turned out, his charter for the day had decided to return to the dock early, so he planned to use the free time — and the bonus daylight — to do a bit of evening tarpon fishing. He asked if I’d like to ride along. Let me think: Yes!

I pulled up to Trosset’s dock on Big Coppitt Key at about 5 p.m., and we loaded spinning rods rigged with 40-pound braid into his skiff. Within 10 minutes of his dock are half a dozen channels that hold tarpon from February through July. A short run brought us to a calm channel with a falling tide on the ocean side of US1, where we dropped anchor. 

Drive ’Em Crazy

Trosset selected a crab from the livewell, hooked it through a point of the shell and cast it upcurrent. The rig was simple: five feet of 60-pound fluorocarbon leader tied to a D.O.A. float, followed by three more feet of 60-pound leader tied to a 7/0 circle hook. The float is an essential element in this type of fishing. “It’s the same float you’d use for trout and redfish,” says Trosset. “Without it, the crab would head to the bottom and burrow in.”

Suspended by the float, the crab drifts at the tarpon’s eye level, carried by the current. The float helps you keep tabs on the drift as well.

“Let the crab drift slowly back in the current,” ­Trosset ­explained, as he handed me the rod and began rigging ­another for himself. “Stop it every 30 seconds or so, and let it swim to the surface, and then free-spool it again so the crab tries to swim down. That drives the tarpon crazy.”

Trosset’s crab hadn’t drifted 50 feet before he was tight to a fish, and it was huge. He vigorously explained that I was the mate now, and I’d better throw the anchor and start the motor, because his fish was more than 100 yards away with no sign of slowing down. We estimated that first fish at 150 pounds and, typically, as soon as we got the engine going and began to gain some line, it went into another series of jumps and spit the hook. No matter — the fun part was over, and the work was about to begin, so we were pleased with the encounter and the abrupt ending. 

Good As It Gets

We had barely returned to the anchor and set out two more baits when another tarpon was in the air. This one was around 100 pounds and a bit easier to control. We chased it around a few markers until it was in optimum photo range, then set about letting it jump for the camera. The soft light of the setting sun cast a golden hue on everything, adding to the beauty of the scene: calm seas, a light breeze, and jumping tarpon against a magnificent Key West sunset. It doesn’t get any better than that. 

Over the next hour, we had three more tarpon in the air. Strikes came subtlety during the drift or exploded when the crab hung in the current, and the fish were always big. The size of the crab alone discouraged anything under 75 pounds from trying to consume it, and the heavy spinning tackle kept the fight reasonable. In two hours, we jumped nine tarpon and landed three of them, all more than 100 pounds. By 8:15, we were in Babalu’s restaurant ordering dinner.