There's one reason anglers crave tarpon engagements; but there
are multiple ways of making it happen. The first part of that
equation is easy - it's the fight.
No doubt, this beast's relentless runs and legendary leaps keep
many folks dreaming of their first tarpon, longing for their next
and living every second of every battle with a zeal for
completion matched only by a desire for perpetuity.
Sure, it's cool when a pod of 'poons charges down the beach with
metallic head after metallic head breaking waves to gulp the air
that'll augment gill breathing during aerobic exercise. And who
can resist those boat side bragging pics showing six feet of
silver warrior catching its breath before release?
Good stuff, all; but that's icing on the cake. Tarpon lovers seek
this fish for the thrill ride of tethering oneself to a silver
cyclone just to see who breaks.
For advice on doing so, one of the top Gulf Coast tarpon guides,
Capt. Jeff Hagaman, shared his insights on summer techniques.
Spending May-July in world-famous Boca Grande, he runs a 24-foot
Sheaffer towerboat and targets these truly peerless fish during
their annual aggregations in and around Charlotte Harbor.
Essential to Hagaman's game are the Raymarine eS12 and eS9 units
he has installed in his deck and tower consoles, respectively.
We'll look at his sonar strategies in a moment; but for now,
Haggaman's trident of tarpon tactics provides a playbook that
anglers can follow throughout the species' Gulf Coast range.
Harbors, bays and any backwaters linking to the Gulf beaches
through coastal passes create natural flushing scenarios. Here's
how Haggaman approaches each scenario.
Harbor Patrol: Tarpon like to roam the flats, channels and rocky
outcroppings of inside waters, where they can drop into a deeper
area to chill or feed on bait schools, crustaceans and any
pinfish they can scare out of the grass.
Passing Time: Flowing between Cayo Costa to the south and
Gasparilla Island on the north, Boca Grande Pass provides tarpon
a broad and fertile passage to and from Charlotte Harbor. Average
depth of the rocky bottom is around 40 feet, but two major
chasms, the Lighthouse Hole and the Coast Guard Hole plunge as
deep as 80.
Hagaman says the fish are active on incoming or outgoing tides,
but when new and full moons accelerate the latter, anglers gear
up for crazy action on the "crab flushes" - thousands of
crustaceans pulled from the harbor's shallows by swiftly falling
water. Capitalizing on this briny buffet, tarpon rise for
big-time surface feeds.
"That's when the tarpon really stack up," Hagaman said. "That's
why the tarpon are there - they come to eat all the crabs and
shrimp flowing out of Charlotte Harbor. So, the outgoing tide can
be the best feeding tide."
Beach Blast: Many times tarpon run within clear eyesight of
beachcombers, so anglers may be fishing just a football field off
the sand. Mornings often find beach tarpon clustered around rock
piles or small ledges, but the morning sun prompts north or
southbound strolls. (Getting baits in front of fish right at
daybreak yields fireworks.)
Baits and Tackle
Tarpon will eat various artificials from shallow-running plugs to
flies, but Hagaman finds them most agreeable with live bait. His
top choices are pass crabs, pinfish and threadfin herring -
depending on what the fish are doing.
"If the fish are moving in one direction, like a school leaving
The Hill (east end of Boca Grande Pass) and heading to the pass,
or if they're traveling on the beach, we'll get in front of them
and use the trolling motors to slow troll threadfins off the back
of the boat," Haggaman explained. "If the fish are daisy chaining
(swimming in circles) or mudding (feeding on the bottom) on the
beach, I'll throw a pinfish with a split shot right above the
hook and fish it on the bottom.
"If I'm crab fishing, I'm generally going to be sight casting
those at schools that are moving up and down the beach or out the
harbor. When the fish sit still and start daisy chaining, they're
usually on the bottom, so I'll go back to a pinfish."
The ideas, Hagaman said, is to keep the bait where the fish is
looking. Tarpon can show incredible feeding aggression, but they
can also be highly particular in their preferences.
For beach fishing, which often requires long casts, Hagaman uses
heavy spinning outfits with 50-pound braid, 10 feet of 40-pound
fluorocarbon leader and 8-10 inches of 60-pound fluorocarbon
"bite guard" to resist the tarpon's bony, raspy jaws.
"In the harbor, I'm going to beef it up a little bit by using
65-pound braid (on spinning outfits), 50-pound leader and 60- to
80-pound bite guard," Hagaman said. "I want to get them out of
the school quicker and I'm not having to cast as long of a
distance because the water is usually dirtier.
"If we're dragging baits, I will free line them; but if the fish
are sitting still, I'll put a float on the line. I use slip
floats so I can reel the leader right into my rod tip and that
float slides down to the bite guard (between presentations). That
allows me to make a long cast and when the bait hits the water,
the leader slides through the slip float until the float reaches
In the pass, Hagaman often employs a blended strategy, with heavy
spinning gear off the front of the boat and heavy conventional
outfits off the stern. The logic here is to leverage the speed
and rigging ease of spinning gear with the stump-pulling strength
of conventional outfits.
"I'll use the spinning outfit off the bow of my boat with a
1/16-ounce rubber core crimp-on sinker and throw the bait out to
my water depth," Hagaman explained. "So, if I'm in 40 feet of
water, I'll throw out 40 feet of line, but if I'm in the 60- or
80-foot hole, I'll throw out 60-80 feet. I'll back up and the
bait will sink and end up (hanging vertically). On a hill tide,
if the fish come up and start popping crabs on top, we'll just
remove the lead and free line the baits."
Off the back of the boat, he'll use a couple of conventional
outfits with 160-pound braid with an 80-pound wind-on leader and
12 feet of 125-pound fluorocarbon leader. These rigs get 4 ounces
of lead to keep them straight up-and-down for precise placement.
"You can put a lot heavier line and leader and use a lot more
drag to muscle the fish in easier," Hagaman said. "You can have a
2- to 4-knot current in the pass that the fish is going to use
against you, so the heavier tackle makes more sense.
"The advantage of the spinning gear is that you can set it up a
lot faster than the conventional, which also takes a little
longer to reach the bottom. With conventional outfits, it's takes
to get your baits out every time you drop; but with spinning
gear, you can have a crab in a bucket sitting in the corner and I
can put him out really quick."
Recon for the Ready
Clearly, Hagaman knows the hardware and how-to of tarpon fishing,
but if there's one variable he cannot control, it's fish
movement. Sight casting to surfacing fish or the dark shadows of
deeper tarpon is pretty straightforward, but when the fish play
hide-and-seek, Haggaman said his Raymarine units' user-friendly
simplicity never leaves him hanging.
"Using my CHIRP sonar down view with my SideVision set on 150
feet on each side, I'll drive up-tide of my spot and mark the
fish on my SideVision," he said. "That way I know which side the
school is sitting on as I drive up and then drift back to them.
"On the beach, if the fish aren't showing a lot, I'll use my
SideVision in the tower and know where the fish are sitting,
which side of the boat they're on and which side to cast to; even
if they're not coming up and gulping air."
As far as fish location, Hagaman said Raymarine's clarity and
ease of operation have made his job a little easier by removing
the guesswork. In the old days, waiting for a fish to roll and
reveal the school's location was Hagaman's only option; but
today's technology keeps him in the game longer.
"Now, you can make casts and be in the fish every time by just
turning your boat a little bit," Haggaman said. "If you can run
an iPhone, you can run a Raymarine machine. Everything you need
is right there and it's easy to set up.
"If I lost my school of fish and I need to change my (SideVision
beam) out to 200 feet, I can change that pretty quick on the fly,
turn the boat, find the fish and get back on them."