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Fishing for Atlantic Tarpon in Key West

The Atlantic Tarpon is a large, strong fish and is one of the Florida Key’s premiere gamefish.

Atlantic Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus)
Florida Record 248 lb. The Florida Keys and the waters around Key West are world-renowned for a huge population of big Tarpon. Tarpon Fishing Key West is legendary as one of the great saltwater game fishes. They are big, high-jumping and incredibly strong, with a fighting spirit that makes it difficult for all but the most experienced to land one in less than an hour.

Tarpon are often called “Silver Kings” because of the mirror-like silver scales that cause the fish’s nearly vertical sides to flash in the sun when they jump after being hooked. Tarpon over 100 lb are common, and the largest can grow to 8 feet in length and over 300 lb.

The Tarpon is greenish or bluish on top, with a distinctive high dorsal fin, the last ray of which extends back nearly to the tail as a heavy filament. The tail fin is large and deeply forked. The huge mouth is turned upwards, and the lower jaw extends far down when the mouth is fully open. The Tarpon has very small, fine teeth that cover its jaws, tongue, and skull base. The lower jaw has an elongated bony plate that is used to crush crustaceans and other hard-shelled prey that is consumed whole.

The Tarpon’s most unique feature is a modified swim bladder that can work like a primitive lung to take in oxygen from air gulped directly from the surface. This allows the tarpon to tolerate oxygen-poor waters, and studies have shown that Tarpon must access atmospheric oxygen in order to survive, with juvenile tarpon being obligatory air-breathers. This air-breathing feature causes the distinctive rolling at the surface that often allows an angler to spot a school of Tarpon.

Tarpon Habitat and Behavior
The Atlantic Tarpon has a large range in both the western and eastern Atlantic Ocean. In the western Atlantic, their range extends the complete length of the North and South American continents from Nova Scotia nearly to the tip of Argentina. However, their primary habitat is the warmer coastal waters around Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, and the West Indies. They are also known to migrate through the Panama Canal, and have been found in waters around the Pacific end of the Canal.

Tarpon are inshore fish, usually living in depths of 100 feet or less. They prefer the edges of mangrove forests along shallow estuaries, and the hard-bottom, salt marsh, and sea-grass environments of the Keys. They can tolerate brackish water, and often enter bays and river mouths to travel up into fresh water. They are most active in warm waters around 75° F. The only variable that severely limits Tarpon habitat is low temperature; they become inactive below 60° and water temps of 40° can cause large Tarpon kills.

The Tarpon’s feeding habits depend on its level of growth and development. Larval stage 1 Tarpon absorb nutrients directly from seawater, while stage II and III larvae as well as juvenile Tarpon eat Zooplankton, insects, and small fish. The shallow, warm, life-filled waters near mangroves and sea grass beds are very important nurseries for larval and juvenile Tarpon. As Tarpon grow, they move away from plankton and begin to prey more exclusively on baitfish and larger invertebrates such as shrimp and crabs. Adult tarpon are strictly carnivorous, feeding day and night on mid-water prey such as mullets, pinfish, marine catfishes, Atlantic needlefish, sardines, shrimp, and crabs. Tarpon usually swallow prey whole, and will eat nearly anything either dead or alive.

Tarpon can live for more than 50 years, and the oldest tarpon in captivity lived to be 63 years old. Tarpon reach sexual maturity at about 6-7 years of age and 4 feet of length. They make long migrations to offshore spawning areas, and usually spawn in May, June, and July, although some evidence indicates that they may spawn year-round. Individuals over 90 lbs. are nearly always female, and a female Tarpon 6.6 feet long can release about 12 million eggs. Like the closely related Bonefish, Ladyfish, and true Eels, a Tarpon begins life as a transparent ribbon-like larvae called a leptocephalus, then goes through 3 distinct stages over about 6 months to become a juvenile fish.

Fishing for Tarpon
The Florida Keys and the waters around Key West are world renowned for a huge population of big Tarpon, and Florida fishermen use a variety of methods to fish for Tarpon including live, dead, and artificial baits on spinning, conventional or fly rods. The easiest way to catch Tarpon is to use spinning or conventional gear spooled with line in the 30-80 lb. range to present live baits like crab, mullet, or pinfish, or plastic artificial baits. Baits should be cast 4-5 feet in front of the feeding fish; plugs should be cast into the middle of the school or cast in front and retrieved away from the fish. Feeding Tarpon will strike readily, but it will be difficult to get a good hook set and hold the fish through the first jumps; the fight will be long and hard before the fish is brought to the boat.

The most challenging way to fish Tarpon is sight-casting with a fly rod on the shallow-water flats. Tarpon are the largest fish on the Key West Flats, and during the main run from January to May fishermen come from all over to test themselves against a Tarpon on the Flats. A Tarpon guide will use a shallow-water Flats Skiff to hunt for signs of feeding Tarpon moving onto the Flats on an incoming tide. In good conditions, Tarpon can be seen rolling on the surface with their silver sides, black backs, or tails visible. When a school is sighted, the guide will position the boat to intercept the fish and the angler must quickly false cast out enough line, then make an accurate cast to the fast-moving fish. With a successful hookup, expect a fight several hours long, particularly on fly gear.

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