One late afternoon in June a couple of years ago, I was sitting in the office of American Caribbean Real Estate in Islamorada, talking with my friends Geoff and Cheri Tindall about our rapidly declining real estate market. Cheri manages the company, plus she and Geoff are rabid tarpon fly-anglers, so I can usually get a double report from them – real estate trends and the location of the most recent hot tarpon bite.
As we spoke, a battered red pickup truck, a vehicle we all knew to belong to Capt. Skip Nielsen, a top inshore guide, pulled into the parking lot. He burst through the door, looked at Geoff and me and said, “I have a dozen mullet left. Meet me at Bud N’ Mary’s in 15 minutes.” Without saying a word, Geoff and I bolted for our own trucks to head home and change. A tarpon trip with Nielsen is an event not to be missed.
After our rendezvous at the marina, we climbed into Nielsen’s skiff and headed south, parallel to U.S. 1 on the bay side. A short run brought us to Channel 2, one of the most famous tarpon passes in all of the Keys. The sun was about to set, and a hard incoming tide rushed under the bridge as we crossed beneath it to the ocean side, anchoring about 50 yards up-current from the bridge.
Put ’em Out
Nielsen took two live silver mullet from his livewell, hooked them through the upper lip and let them back behind the skiff, suspended beneath oversize floats. Actually, “suspended” isn’t the right word because the strong current stretches the baits out behind the floats and keeps them very close to the surface. Still, the mullet are strong enough to submerge themselves and swim from side to side – the floats just keep them from getting too far away.
A bite came quickly, but it turned out to be an unlucky lemon shark. Most sharks bite quickly through the mono leader, but this one had been hooked perfectly in the corner of the mouth. After a brief fight, we released him and put out a fresh mullet. As the sun crept below the horizon, the tarpon turned on, and we could see and hear them rolling and crashing baits all around us. Suddenly Tindall’s rod bent over hard, and a tarpon of about 75 pounds leapt skyward an instant later. No sooner had the fish hit the water again than Nielsen’s rod bent double as well – double header!
Nielsen and Tindall crossed over one another repeatedly as they tried to bring the big fish to the boat against the strong current. Their antics resembled some sort of crazed, sweaty fish ballet, and I had a hard time helping release the fish because I was laughing too hard. But their determination paid off, and in short order we had released our first two fish. We went on to release a couple more before calling it an early evening, and we were all home by 11 p.m., not bad for an impromptu tarpon trip. But that’s the beauty of tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys: It doesn’t have to take all day because the best methods involve fishing tide changes at certain times of day. You can go out and soak baits for eight hours if you want to, but it’s normally neither necessary nor particularly productive.
Seeing Isn’t Catching
If you’ve spent much time around tarpon, you know that seeing them doesn’t equate to catching them. Their feeding impulse can turn on or off in an instant, and they can roll on the surface all around the boat for hours without ever striking a bait or lure, driving tarpon neophytes crazy. But becoming a successful tarpon fisherman is all about determining where and when that feed switch will turn on.
Tarpon migrate into the Florida Keys each spring, from the Gulf of Mexico primarily, but the fish move back and forth between the bay and the ocean at will, and in June you can find tarpon along both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of Florida in a great many places. But if you study a map, you’ll quickly learn why the passes of the Keys (often interchangeably referred to by the names of the bridges spanning them) are such special places. They are the only ingress and egress points between these two bodies of water for hundreds of miles. If tarpon want to move from the Gulf to the Atlantic and don’t swim around the Keys west of Key West, they are swimming under one Keys bridge or another at some point.
The key to catching them, therefore, is to be at the right pass at the right time. Most savvy tarpon captains choose to anchor in the passes and fish live baits under floats. Anchor lines are rigged with floats and quick-release loops so the boat can be released quickly from the anchor and the tarpon can be chased down immediately after hook-up.
But you needn’t anchor in all situations. When the bite slows down in midtide, fish will often spread out into the deeper waters on the bay side of the passes. In that situation, basically when you stop seeing them in the passes themselves, drifting might be a better solution so you can cover more ground and hopefully elicit a strike.
Top Keys tarpon passes include (from north to south) Indian Key Channel, Channel 2, Channel 5, Long Key Channel (which is spanned by the old Long Key Viaduct), the Seven-Mile Bridge and Bahia Honda. The silver mullet is the bait of choice early in the season, as large schools move through the Keys, with tarpon and lots of other species in hot pursuit.
Later in the summer, after roughly the middle of May, the mullet thin out and many tarpon fishermen switch to crabs. A 100-pound tarpon will eagerly slurp down a small crab the size of a silver dollar, so don’t let a bait-and-tackle shop try to sell you crabs the size of Frisbees – you don’t need them, and they won’t work as well. Mullet can be cast-netted, or you can sometimes buy them from a bait truck at marinas, but that’s not always reliable. You’re much more likely to find crabs on a consistent basis, and they work great. You will also pick up an occasional permit when using crabs for bait, a decidedly wonderful bonus.
I deploy two baits behind the skiff, one fished about 30 feet back in the current, with the second fished about twice that far back. I also like to have an angler pitch a free-floating bait forward and off to the side, letting that bait drift back with the current. Leave the two rods fished behind the boat in rod holders. The combination of circle hooks and the hook-set provided by “Rodney” seldom misses, with the fish hooked perfectly in the corner of the mouth virtually every time.
As an alternative, you can also cast artificials off to the side. I like bouncing a white jig along the bottom, with a long grub tail attached. You can also dredge with a fly rod spooled with a sinking line.
When you hook a fish, get on top of them quickly to maintain control of the fish. The waters surrounding the Keys passes aren’t deep, so the tarpon can’t drop off into a deep hole like they sometimes do in places like Boca Grande. Still, these are large, strong fish, and it takes some power to bring them to the leader and release them.
Bear in mind that Florida law views bringing tarpon into the boat for a photograph as “possession,” meaning you need a tarpon kill-tag to do so. Leave them in the water alongside the boat for a quick photo instead. Using careful release methods will help ensure the continuation of this ancient fish migration for future generations.
Rigging for tarpon is relatively simple. I start with a 3-foot Bimini twist tied to 5 feet of 80-pound leader with a Bristol knot, and with a short piece of 90-pound fluorocarbon between the mono and the circle hook. Of course, you can use all mono or all fluorocarbon, but I think you get more bites with fluorocarbon. Slide your float of choice (brightly-colored foam floats are easier to see than cork versions) onto the leader before you tie on the hook and secure it at the top of the heavy leader. That’s it.
RODS: Spinning or conventional rods with lots of lifting power.
REELS: Spinning or conventional reels capable of holding at least 200 yards of 20- or 30-pound-test with strong, smooth drags.
LINES: Mono or braid, 20- to 30 pound.
BAIT: Live silver mullet, dollar-sized crabs, large pilchards or, in a pinch, pinfish.
The smaller, more popular passes like Channel 2 can get crowded quickly, especially on a tide change or around sunset, so good manners are paramount. If you’re moving into or out of a fleet of anchored boats, do so slowly, and never cross closely behind another boat.
Try to figure out which way the fish are moving, and if you have to get in line, do so down-current, far behind the other anchored boats. Nothing will draw the ire of a fellow tarpon fisherman like moving into position in front of those who arrived before you.
And if you drop off of the anchor after hooking a fish, get on top of the fish quickly and wind your way through the fleet carefully, doing your best not to foul their lines or interfere with their fishing.
By staying right over the fish, you maintain better control, and if the fish decides to go under the bridge, you can easily determine which opening they will go through. If you have lots of line out, you’ll almost certainly get cut off on the bridge abutment.
WHEN: Spring and Summer
WHERE: Florida Keys, Islamorada to Marathon
WHO: It’s easy to fish Keys passes on your own, or you can contact one of the middle Keys marinas listed opposite to book a charter. Many captains offer short four-hour charters around tide changes.
World Wide Sportsman
Bud N’ Mary’s
Hawks Cay Resort
Captain Hooks Marina
The Tackle Box
World Class Angler
Capt. Skip Nielsen