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Summer is near, and so are tarpon

By Capt. GEORGE TUNISON - | Mar 25, 2022

My first glimpse of summer came last night as dark clouds blanketed the western horizon and orange lightning lit up the sky, also receiving my first mosquito and gnat bite while standing there. Better news is it’s also tarpon time, and definitely time to gear up.

For locals it’s more about maintenance of old favorite gear and boats, but many new to the sport have lots of questions usually starting with, what tackle do I need? What kind of boat works best? Are tarpon everywhere?

The tackle needed will always be defined by your style of fishing. As for boats, a 10-foot Jon with an old Johnson 5-horse kicker, a $125,000 bay boat, kayaks, pleasure cruisers, practically anything that floats, can get you in the game.

Always buy/use tackle stout enough to land and release tarpon in a reasonable amount of time, as in, not playing them to near death exhaustion, which can also mean an easy 50-year-old shark snack. Surly, skilled anglers can subdue huge fish on very lite tackle, but in warming, soon to be sharky local waters, it’s best to get hooked up, watch the amazing aerial display, feel the sheer power, then work hard to get them in. If they pop off during a jump, that’s even better, as it’s the best kind of healthy release.

Do you need a boat to catch tarpon? No! I play with several tarpon each year by walking and scouting, often wading, casting along the endless miles of the Cape’s canal system shorelines, to which I’m constantly told will someday generate an, “Gator Eats Local Angler” headline. Knock on wood, in the last 20 years I’ve had only one close encounter with a big Cape dinosaur and also proved, that if scared enough, humans can almost run on water.

Are there tarpon in the Cape’s canals? Yes. The Cape’s canals host tarpon of all sizes from little 5-pound juveniles that are a blast to catch on ultra-lite rods and tiny jigs, to 100-pound-plus heavyweights that will test angling skills.

Since tarpon are fished for in many different situations, tackle will vary. Some basic guidelines: If you’re a bottom angler enjoying soaking dead bait on the bottom in the river, choose an 8 to 8.5-foot rod and conventional reel, like a Penn 4/0 loaded with 40-pound mono and 60-pound leader. Fishing at night around bridges would require an 80 to 120-pound leader and going to a heavier main line wouldn’t hurt. This same outfit does medium shark and other bottom duties as well.

Will spinning tackle work? Sure! A 7.5 to 8.5-foot medium-heavy to heavy rod, and matching spinning reel, works just fine.

That same spinning outfit also works for tarpon as they move up and down the beaches. In this scenario I’ll typically load up with a 40-pound braided main line and a 60-pound leader, sometimes going lighter if the fish are picky. Works great, for throwing crabs, shrimp and live fish, in front of coastal, beach fish.

Use that same spinning outfit to throw big plugs, big plastics like Hogy eels, and live bait, around local bridges, especially at night. Heart stopping!

Fly tackle will vary. I go after juvie canal tarpon with my old 6-weight rod and step up to a 12-weight for serious fish, including sharks.

Tarpon are opportunity feeders inhaling any bottom bait at one time or another. Crabs, shad, cut catfish and ladyfish, shrimp, mackerel and mullet will get you started. Live baits include pinfish, whitebaits, ladyfish, shrimp, mullet, eels and crabs.

Are they everywhere? Yes and no. Canal tarpon are often incredibly elusive unless you put in the time to pattern them. Our migrating, northbound spring tarpon are often first encountered off Knapp’s point before moving inside of lower Pine Island Sound, the river and northward, with many Boca Grande bound.

Think circle hooks for fish and angler safety.

Capt. George Tunison is a Cape Coral resident fishing guide. Contact him at 239-282-9434 or captgeorget3@aol.com.