May is prime time for tarpon fishing in the Central West Region, as fish migrate their way up the west coast of Florida and into the inshore areas for the summer months. That means we have two types of fishing: beach fishing and inshore fishing. Both styles are really productive, so it just depends on where you want to target your fish.
If targeting tarpon inshore is your passion, it’s hard to beat the Skyway Bridge. The fish come into Tampa Bay and naturally find their way to the bridge because of all the bait in the area. The Skyway Bridge is basically structure in the middle of the bay with a huge volume of food around it—exactly what the tarpon are looking for. There are large schools of threadfin herring, sardines and pilchards that the fish can lock in on and feed until they are content, so those are the best baits to target tarpon with.
The thing about fishing the Skyway Bridge is that the fish like to hang around the structure like the bridge bumpers and fenders. You want to anchor up-current of the structure using an anchor ball or float for a quick-release system that allows you to disconnect for the anchor and chase hooked fish. Once anchored, you can freeline the baits back to the bridge, fishing the up-current shadow lines at night and the shade sections during the daytime.
The fish will also stack up in the passes on the new and full moons and feed on the crabs that are flowing out with the strong outgoing tides. The majority of crabs going out the passes are brown pass crabs, but blue grabs will work just as well for bait. Hook the crabs in the corner of the shell and freeline them in the current. You can anchor up on the back side of the bars and drift the crabs back on a cork rig and do very well.
If beach fishing is your game, you want to get an early start and run the beach about 300 yards from shore looking for floating or rolling fish. At dawn, the fish kind of float to the surface and don’t move a lot, and those are the fish that are really easy to catch on fly. The schools may have anywhere from 20 to 200 fish or more, and they’ll mill around for a while and then start to swim up the beach heading north.
By mid-morning the sea breeze comes up, and it’s easier to approach the fish, but they’re moving fast so it’s a bit harder to get a bait in front of the fish. Threadfins, pinfish and live crabs are the top baits for beach fish. The standard tarpon rig is a 6,000 to 8,000 size Okuma spinning reel with 30 to 50 pound Suffix braided line, 60 to 80 pound Suffix fluorocarbon leader and 6/0 to 9/0 VMC Circle Hook. You can freeline the baits or fish them with a cork. A lot of guys like the corks because it helps them know where their baits are at all times in relation to the school of fish.
A couple of things to remember when beach fishing tarpon: Don’t chase fish on the trolling motor or big motor. If they get ahead of you, wait until they get several hundred yards away and then start up and run way around them to get ahead of the school and then shut down and wait for them to come to you again; and always lead the school, don’t throw right on top of the fish. You want the fish to swim up to the baits so they feel like it’s natural for them to find them. When baits plop on their heads, they will usually shut down and quit eating for a while.
The beach fish will be cruising through the middle of the day, and then will lay up and daisy chain in the afternoons. A live crab is probably the best bait to throw to the daisy chaining fish, along a fly like a purple and black baitfish or yellow and white Lemon Drop style of fly.
Our tarpon this time of the year average 70 to 120 pounds, so you want to have a good 7 to 7.5 foot rod with a fast tapered tip so you can cast a bait a good distance, and still have enough lifting power to move hooked fish. Be sure to bow to the fish when they jump, and always apply maximum pressure to get the fish in quickly, or you could go hours on a single fish.
Once you get the fish to the boat, never take it out of the water. You want to control the fish by grabbing the leader and then grabbing it’s lower jaw, then remove the hook, shoot a photo with the fish still in the water and then take the time to revive it before setting it free. Take care of the fish while it’s at the side of the boat and make sure it’s ready to go before you release it. Remember, the fish you release tomorrow will be larger the next time you catch it!Captain Tips