From mid-June through early October, they're found in the passes and bays of the Panhandle, and many are hooked right off the beach piers.
For most of us, the opportunity to hook a fish that's literally bigger than we are is remote — it costs a whole lot of money and usually takes a whole lot of trips way offshore to connect with a bluefin tuna, a blue or black marlin or a giant swordfish.
But that's not the case with the "silver king," sort of everyman's big game fish. Tarpon regularly exceed 100 pounds and five-feet long, with fish approaching 200 pounds and more than 6-feet long always a possibility.
Even better, the tarpon come to you; from mid-June through early October, they're found in the passes and bays of the Panhandle, and many are hooked right off the beach piers.
Tarpon are basically tropical fish, and anytime water temperature drops much below 80 they start heading south. Panhandle fish spend their winters offshore around the keys and along the coast of Central America. But as the water warms, the fish come back, traveling in schools that may number anywhere from a handful to over a hundred.
Tarpon numbers and sizes appear to be rising, most likely to the state imposing a "kill tag" system in 1989 which made it illegal to kill a tarpon without a $50 tag. Before that time, at least 4,000 adult fish were killed every year, but since the number has dwindled to a few hundred annually.
State biologists tell us that tarpon are exceptionally long-lived fish, reaching up to age 50, and that it takes many years for them to reach the maximum sizes in the 200-pound range. (The current all-tackle record is 286 pounds, 9 ounces for a fish caught off the coast of Africa in 2003.) Several fish that may have been heavier have been caught in U.S. waters in recent years, but none have been officially weighed in as the conservation ethic has pretty much put a complete end to hauling fish aboard.
Tarpon are not considered edible in the U.S. (they are sometimes eaten in Central America) so there's no reason to kill them. They are, however, spectacular game fish. A 6-footer can leap 10 feet in the air, and can rip hundreds of yards of line off a reel in seconds. Battles with big fish in deep water can sometimes run an hour long, particularly on overmatched tackle or on fly gear.
Tackle Up for Tarpon
The advent of dependable braided line about 15 years ago gave tarpon anglers a silver bullet for the silver king — it became possible to go after the fish with heavy-duty spinning tackle and line testing 50 to 65 pounds and still allow for easy casting. Anglers load up 6000-size and larger spinning reels on heavy 8-foot rods and they're ready to wear out even the largest tarpon in short order.
Conventional lever drag reels like the Fin-Nor series and Penn Internationals also work fine for tarpon in situations where the bait is presented by trolling or dropping it vertically, but these rigs do not allow for casting. And some long-seasoned tarpon anglers can still manage a "cracker cast" from the tower of a boat with a star-drag revolving spool reel, heaving a big bait on a cork float, but that's definitely doing it the hard way.