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Tarpon will take a wide variety of baits

By CAPT. GEORGE TUNISON - | May 19, 2023

Capt. George Tunison

Being an opportunity feeder or scavenger, tarpon can be taken on a large variety of dead and live baits. For Keys anglers, mullet seems to be the live fish bait of choice but here locally, ladyfish get more hook time. Hand-sized threadfins and pinfish free lined or under floats are always a good bet along with mojarra and shrimp.

Generally tarpon aren’t too picky, like my largest live bait-caught tarpon taken on a live 12-inch sand trout, although during times of tarpon tunnel vision when they key on one food source like worms or tiny silversides, aren’t too picky goes out the window, often with general frustration taking its place.

Probably the most frustrating tarpon to target are juvenile canal tarpon in the 5 to 25-pound range which, at times, seem to never eat anything, ever. Targeting local juvies on tiny jigs and flies takes time and patience but quite rewarding when the magic happens.

At certain times, maybe the best live bait of all is also one of the smallest like a 2 to 3-inch pass crab pinned to a 4/0 – 6/0 circle hook free lined or suspended two feet under a float when the tarpon are near or on the surface eating pass crabs on the moving higher tides.

If you haven’t already tried it, take a tip from big game anglers and try bridling your larger live baits this season and see if it doesn’t up your tarpon catch-and-release score. A morticians or bridling needle (Bass Pro Shops) and rubber bands are all you need (check out You Tube for simple how-to instructions) to quickly rig a bait. Bridling allows the bait to live much longer, and swim and react to big predators much more naturally than being impaled on a large hook.

Top dead baits choices would include river catfish, mullet, shrimp, crabs, ladyfish and mackerel, with shad maybe a top pick if you have a source.

A wide variety of lures catch tarpon with soft plastic eels and swimbaits more popular than ever. The almost 5-inch DOA Bait Buster has always been a personal favorite but the slightly larger HERCULEZ swimbait by Zman with its molded in head and 7/0 hook is getting more play on my boat. A real sleeper is the old-time DOA Swimming Mullet which can be deadly, especially at night by simply casting it out then swimming it slowly back along the bottom with a simple, no frills, straight retrieve.

In the larger soft bait category, the straight-tailed Zman 10-inch HEROZ eel and the same sized Hogy products in straight and big thumping paddle tail varieties get the nod. Hogy products come equipped with Barbarian jig heads in a variety of sizes and can also be purchased separately. These unique hooks are shaped differently to help lock in and hold reducing tarpon jump-offs.

Larger 3-hook Rapala X-Raps and Bomber hard stick baits with split rings and trebles replaced with beefier rings and single hooks are go-to, time-tested choices in hard baits. Smaller MirrOlures work well but even with trebles replaced with single hooks these lures can get pretty far down a throat and present an unnecessary danger to fish and angler alike looking for a quick and healthy release. Time spent operating on a deeply hooked tarpon at boat side also increases the chance for Jaws to come calling during the procedure, especially at night.

Hard to believe that Jim Holland’s 202-pound, 8-ounce silver king would be interested in a tiny 2-inch fly but fly rods catch tarpon, which is also one of anglings greatest thrills and accomplishments. Back in 2001, angler Holland claimed the first-ever documented, over 200-pound tarpon, using a fly rod and 20-pound class tippet.

There are too many tarpon fly patterns to discuss here but for colors, purple, brown and black are great starting points.

Capt. George Tunison is a Cape Coral resident fishing guide. You an contact him at 239-282-9434 or via email at captgeorget3@aol.com.