Arm yourself with big baits—and knowledge of fall travel patterns—to get the drop on The Silver King.
Long after the traditional spring tarpon madness has melted away into August’s scorching mornings and soggy afternoons, a lesser-known, but highly anticipated event unfolds beginning in mid to late September. The fall tarpon migration can be less predictable than the spring’s northward spawning movement, but is generally only disrupted by a heavy tropical weather system.
This southward, fall migration is precisely timed with movement of mature baitfish that form massive schools following the shallow contours of coastal beaches. Here along Western Florida, the baitfish migration is comprised of threadfin herring; scaled sardines, menhaden and anchovies all can be found within a few hundred yards of the surf. This biomass not only attracts gorging tarpon, but also a gang of false albacore, both Spanish and king mackerel, and schools of blacktip and spinner sharks.
This massive movement of forage produces some of the most-exciting angling action of the year— although the event can end just as quickly as it began. Unlike the spring migration and spawning courtship behavior, these fish are purely interested in packing on the calories and covering ground. Unlike the famed and heavily pressured East Coast fall mullet run, there is relatively light angling pressure following these western fish.
WHERE TO LOOK AND WHY
One of the most-challenging aspects to tarpon fishing is finding the fish. Rarely will an angler be lucky enough to stumble into a school of tarpon without some understanding of their behavior and seasonal preferences. Using these tips as a guide will help you quickly identify key areas where tarpon will concentrate during the fall run.
There are a few quick ways to dramatically narrow down your hunt for coastal tarpon. Taking a look at a detailed nautical chart will get you started in the right direction. I begin by searching for fish and bait schools near inlets and passes.
On the flood tides, tarpon will often roam within a few hundred yards to a mile within the inlet along the beach. The heavy ocean current will concentrate coastal baitfish into dense schools, which the tarpon will feed on aggressively.
These natural highways create a variety of geographic and biologic attractions that will collect and hold passing tarpon. Inlets experience dramatic movements of nutrients and bait throughout the tide cycle. On ebb tides, large flushes of crustaceans are feasted upon by a variety of species in and around the inlet, and attract predators including sharks and tarpon. During this tide phase, tarpon will commonly hold inside of the inlet while feeding.
Oversized Hogy Jigging Soft Baits are perfect for targeting tarpon at night along coastal bridges.
On the flood tides, tarpon will often roam within a few hundred yards to a mile within the inlet along the beach. The heavy ocean current will concentrate coastal baitfish into dense schools, which the tarpon will feed on aggressively. It’s easiest to locate these schools by eyesight; obvious signs are dark blotches of baitfish schools, diving birds or surface feeding activity.
Coastal rivers are an extension of inlets and passes, but can require an entirely different approach to fish effectively. There are many river systems in Central and South Florida that harbor large residential populations of tarpon. The most productive rivers will offer deep-water refuge that adolescent and adult tarpon will use as holdover areas during the cooler winter months. Starting in September over the course of several weeks, fish begin migrating back up the river systems from nearby bays, inlets and beaches. During this movement they will often stop for several days to feed and wait out the first cold fronts of late fall.
I begin searching for these fish near the deepest spots in the lower portion of the river. These can be natural holes in the 15- to 30-foot range. Tarpon prefer to stage around deep water sanctuaries and venture into the shallows for short periods to feed. Deep water bridges along the main river also serve as feeding and resting stations during the fall. Begin your search near bridges closest to the coast, working your way up river as the fall progresses and water temps begin to drop.
PROVEN ANGLING METHODS
Tarpon will readily take a variety of well-presented live, dead and artificial baits. Commonly, anglers will cast-net live mullet, ladyfish or threadfin herring for live bait presentations. During the fall season, most baitfish have reached fully mature size and tarpon will key in on these larger profiles.
Presenting Live Baits
Artificial lures that are able to imitate this large forage can produce excellent results. I prefer to throw oversized Hogy Lures Soft Baits in the 7- to 10-inch range. These lures can be rigged as a topwater presentation when fish are visibly feeding on the surface, or rigged weighted with jig heads when fish are holding in the mid and lower water column.
Strong, sharp hooks such as the Hogy Barbarian Jig Head are necessary for landing large tarpon.
Presenting Soft Baits
Live baits are the most common way to target tarpon, but they’re not your only option! Large Hogy Soft Baits are a dependable artificial option. Large soft baits can easily be rigged to suit a variety of scenarios. While extremely effective along flats and shallow beaches, these large soft baits work great near deep-water channels, bridges and passes. I prefer to use an unweighted circle hook when targeting fish feeding near the surface. When weight is needed to reach suspended fish or those holding bottom in deep water, I like Barbarian Jig Heads paired with oversized UV Eel and Paddle Tail Swim Baits. Both are effective jig options for tarpon.
8-foot heavy-action Sewell Swim Bait Rod
50- to 80-pound Seaguar Fluorocarbon Leader