John Skinner is the author of Fishing the Bucktail and A Season on the Edge. He’s the creator of the fishing log software FishersLog. He’s a consistent producer of trophy striped bass and holds the current New York State false albacore record.
A giant fish scale along with some destroyed swimshads and straightened hooks sitting on the back seat of my rental car - these were the products of a successful night of tarpon fishing from the shore of a Florida Keys channel on my recent trip. This blog entry isn't entirely about Florida, but I'll need to start there. I would say that the tarpon fishing was "off", but I didn't have a right to because I simply didn't know enough about it. The first night produced five brief hookups, three of which threw the lure in the air, and two others lost thrashing on the surface. For a day that started before 5 a.m. and included a 3-hour flight and a 190-mile drive, this was a great start for the 2-hour effort of prime tide. Given that this was December, and I was dealing with the resident Florida Keys tarpon rather than the big schools migrating through in the spring, I wasn't sure what to expect. The next night yielded zero hits, then only a couple hits each night over the next two nights. I lost them all, usually on jumps, but that was tarpon fishing. I've heard that the average is about one tarpon landed for every ten hooked, and most of that is on boats. I believed it. I was something like 3 for 34 from shore on my April trip. The slow tarpon fishing didn't bother me a bit because my daytime kayak barracuda trips on the flats exceeded expectations, and I figured any tarpon hookups at all were only icing on the cake. The first few days were very warm. The car's thermometer never went below 77, even pre-dawn, but the highs were a manageable 85. The fourth day of the trip was different. A cold front, if you can call 70 degrees "cold", came through on a 20-knot northeasterly. I stayed off the flats that day and bucktailed jacks and mangrove snappers at one of the bridges instead. My first clue that the tarpon situation was about to change should have been that afternoon when I went to the channel where I had been tarpon fishing at night. I was still focused on mangrove snappers and jacks when I felt a "nice fish" on the end of the rod I use casting for fluke at home. All sorts of expletives flew from my mouth as I watched an easily 100-pound plus tarpon launch into the air as if it were on one of those Saturday morning fishing shows. I knew I didn't stand a chance with the light rod, and sure enough the fish went through the 25-pound test leader on the next breath-taking jump. It was a shock considering I was unable to produce a single hit standing in that same spot the two previous nights. That night was the first that I wore a long-sleeve shirt. After several days of warm weather, the windy 70-degree night felt downright chilly. I had my timing down and arrived at the very first sign of the ebb current, which was a little hard to detect in the choppy, yet gin-clear water. As I slid the swimshad toward some structure I buried the hook on a hard jolt. In a split-second I had a respectable winter tarpon in the 40-pound class in the air, and then in the water, and in the air again. The third time was the charm for the fish, which left me with only the internals of my swimshad after the last jump. I tied another one on quickly and repeated the delivery. This hit was harder than the first, and again I was dealing with an airborne fish. After the fourth jump I realized that this one was likely hooked well and I focused on getting down the rocks to a pre-determined landing point much like I would when striper fishing a jetty. This was a small one, lucky to break 20 pounds, but I was happy to grab the leader while it was still hooked. I was in again on the next cast, and then again and again as mostly 30- to 40-pound tarpon beat on the swimshads. The highlight of the night was landing one of the larger tarpon after a nearly 10-minute jump-filled battle. Not wanting to stress that fish further, I passed on trying to get a picture, but it left me a scale on the rocks as a souvenir. The relative chill in the air, stiff wind, and intense bite reminded me of so many nights of striper fishing when the wind, tide, and water conditions combined to turn on previously uncooperative fish. In striper fishing, I think I understand the feeding triggers and can anticipate them to some extent. It's what allows me to do pretty well on a consistent basis. In tarpon fishing, I'm clueless. I can guess only that the cold-front triggered a bite. I don't see why it would have been temperature related, since the water temperature was already on the lower end of the tarpon's preferred range. The water was definitely rougher than previous nights, so could it have been an oxygenation issue? Each night roughly 5 boats would pass through the channel within casting difference. Likely due to the wind, there were none this night. Did the lack of disturbance put the fish in a better feeding mood? Was there something bait-related about the bite? Maybe the weather pushed some baitfish through that were a good match for my swimshads. Or did the weather rid the water of a smaller bait that distracted the tarpon and interfered with my previous efforts? It's possible. On the nights the fish weren't hitting, I saw an occasional flash in the lights as a tarpon turned to hit something that I could never see. At the end of the last slow night, I got curious enough to try something different on a few visible tarpon. I put a 3-inch Gulp shrimp on a 1/2-ounce fluke jig and flipped it into the current. It lasted less than 5 seconds before it disappeared into a brown shadow that turned into a bright silver flash as my line tightened. On the last nights of my trip, when the tarpon fishing slowed again, I got smart enough to target the tarpon with the Gulp shrimp on some high-quality jig hooks. Even on the 80-pound leader material, a few tarpon still hit these jigs while they ignored the swimshads. The point of all of this is the need to keep at it through the slow times and be a keen observer. With time, you'll acquire an understanding of fish triggers and be able to anticipate bites. I hit the good tarpon bite because I was simply going to fish every night I was in Florida no matter the conditions. It was a brief brute force approach of trying to be in the right place at the right time. Outside of vacations, few of us can fish every night, so the understanding and anticipation part becomes that much more important. The second point is to be careful not to lock yourself in to a particular offering. This would be a no-brainer for me when striper fishing. In this different setting of being inexperienced with the tarpon, I clutched on too firmly to what worked so well for me on previous efforts, and likely missed some opportunities because of that. I know better now, but I should have known better then. There sure is always room for improvement.
The smallest tarpon that I hooked. A "baby" at probably less than 20 pounds, but still plenty of fun on a December night.
A pair of kayak barracuda videos. A pencil popper from my surf bag was my hot cuda lure.