Winter Dreaming: Florida Tarpon

by Ross Gallagher


Looking for a unique angling adventure? Nighttime is the right time for Biscayne Bay’s shrimp-hungry winter tarpon.

WintTarponLEAD600“Nothing stays the same,” the old saying goes. How true it is. As I write this it’s late December and I’m in my office, with some time to reflect on another successful fishing season here in Southwest Florida. Late 2015 saw us blessed with an unusually mild transition to winter, which resulted in extending the local tarpon season a few extra weeks, right into the Holiday Season. A merry Christmas indeed.

It’s common for outdoorsmen to get into a comfortable rhythm in our sporting activities. Most of us are creatures of habit and patterns, and few species bring out these qualities like the tarpon. We follow our quarry day after day, joining their mysterious, prehistoric rhythm as those days turn into weeks, and then, months. Fortunately, for anglers here in Southern Florida, nearly eight months of the year offer favorable temperature and conditions for tarpon fishing, starting in March and holding well into the late fall.

Few species captivate me as an angler like the tarpon. It’s hard to argue the Silver King’s position as the ultimate inshore saltwater game fish. These animals have migrated across the warm southern oceans for millions of years. They follow ancient routes along the Caribbean through the Florida Keys, pausing along the immense labyrinth of islands and mangroves that make up the Ten Thousand Islands region then moving northward, along the upper Gulf of Mexico, and back again. Frequently reaching sizes upwards of two hundred pounds, the tarpon will test the best anglers’ wits, tackle, and stamina. Some days the fish feed with reckless abandon, devouring almost anything crossing before them. And then there are days when you might watch hundreds of tarpon swim past you, ignoring even the most-delicate presentations.

Indeed, tarpon are both predictable, and wholly unpredictable at the same time. One minute you’ll find yourself feeling confident, even cocky, only to be quickly humbled as the fish suddenly disappear on a single tide change. This supreme challenge—the hunt, the presentation, the strike and the battle—melds into one of our sport’s greatest achievements, a goal that has spawned many an angling obsession. There is a brotherhood of guides and anglers that targets these fish exhaustively for months on end, only to patiently wait out the brief winter months, and eagerly begin the process all over again in early spring.

LateTarpon600Late-season tarpon can reach epic proportions, as this South Florida monster proves.

The last few weeks of extended tarpon activity have indeed been unusual and special, but I always try to hold onto the memories of the last couple local fish of the season. Those brief, electric moments of excitement will be rehashed again and again over the next few months, and likely, not until you’ve been bitten by the “tarpon bug” will you be able to fully understand why. There’s just something special about recounting past battles of strong gamefish over a few strong beverages, a much-needed salve that helps dedicated tarpon anglers await the springtime return of the Silver King.

For anglers like myself who can’t go more than a few weeks without hunting tarpon, know there are dependable angling opportunities even during the coldest winter months—if you know where to look. It’s not exactly a secret, but word doesn’t travel far about one of the best “off-season” South Florida tarpon bites. Every winter, during the coldest of fronts and despite the strongest of winds, a truly epic bite unfolds under the cover of darkness along Miami’s Biscayne Bay and its connecting inlets. When the tides are right, shrimp migrations of massive proportions begin pouring out of Biscayne Bay toward the ocean to spawn. This massive movement of food can gather tarpon by the thousands as the fish gorge on the large, tasty crustaceans. A few select anglers have followed this migration for years, and can accurately predict the best tides and winds to fish this epic bite. The most productive techniques include “matching the hatch”—drifting palm-sized shrimp on light-wire hooks along the inlets. Strikes can be explosive for those brave enough to battle the typically inclement weather, looking for a few of South Florida’s shiniest hidden gems: Ravenous, and marvelous, winter tarpon.



HuntStand is the #1 hunting and land management app in the country. It combines advanced mapping tools with powerful map layers to allow users to create and share the best hunting maps possible.