Tarpon - Behavior Patterns and Reading Fish

It has been a great tarpon season, albeit a bit odd at times. It was unfortunate that we had major weather events on four moons in a row in May and June. The fish were still around, just hiding in undisclosed spots. Tarpon move around frequently, if you want to catch them for long periods of time, you have to hunt. Hunting tarpon is one of the most enjoyable parts of the fishery in my opinion. When you hit the motherload and have it all to yourself there is nothing better. A lot of people have helped me over the years, so I wanted to pass some knowledge on to others that want to put in the work and learn.


Feeding Periods and Behavior Patterns
Tarpon have very small periods during a day that they will feed. Understanding how this works and when they feed is the difference between going out on an 8-hour trip and getting 1 bite vs. fishing for 1 hour and jumping half a dozen fish. There are several different factors that go into this equation, all of which tie back to environmental changes to the tarpon.

These factors include the sun, the moon, and the currents… not a big surprise. In general, tarpon are going to eat at sunrise every single day, especially the warmer it gets. Solunar periods should also be taken into consideration, majors, and minors alike. Minors are moon rise and set. Majors are moon over and under, otherwise known as nadir and zenith. Last, tides and currents will influence tarpon behavior. There is a big difference between tides and current, study it to figure out the differences.

When any of these two or more factors are combined, your chances of getting bites are much higher. When I see a major solunar period, during sunrise, with a good tide, it is a recipe for success. The hard part is being on the fish during this tiny window of opportunity, as well as having the correct baits and presentation which we will get into later. Once you figure out when they are eating, you can strategic strike the fish the next day.

As an example, a couple of weeks ago we fished 2 days in a row. On Saturday, we jumped 5 fish in 50mintes, the next day we jumped 4 fish in 40 mins. That is 9 fish in an hour and a half. Not surprisingly, the tarpon bit roughly an hour later Sunday compared to Saturday. During those windows, 3 of the factors in the equation were at play, the moon, sun, and current. Another recent trip we planned when the tarpon were going to bite based on these factors, we jumped 7 fish in an hour and twenty minutes that included a double and a triple hookup. We landed 4.
With all of that being said, the tarpon still do surprise you and eat whenever they want a lot too. But, when I plan a trip based on these factors, I call it a strategic strike. There is no wasted time.

Reading Fish to Properly Present Baits
Having your baits properly presented to tarpon is 70% of getting a bite, including your boat handling techniques. I can’t articulate the amount of importance this plays. There are two major scenarios that I will touch on, staged fish and moving fish. Below are just a couple of techniques that are effective, there are so many more but I will touch on just a couple.

Staged fish are what I would describe as tarpon that are hanging out in a spot, only moving around in a small area. The current will dictate whether I anchor or drift on these fish, both are effective. If the current is strong, it is better to drift. You can generally get an idea of what portion of the water column the fish are hanging in by either looking at your depth finder or noting how the fish are rolling, if at all. As a basic example, if I am fishing in 20ft of water and the fish are hanging out in the top 8ft, I am not going to be firing baits to bottom (and vice versa). If you are in a high current area, Rodney the rod holder is utterly useless, you need to feed the baits out by hand or drift with the bait, then start over. The main thing to note is that the baits must be in the fish’s face. Not 4ft above, not 1ft below. It has to be at the depth they are in. I also pick which baits I am going to use based on where they will swim in the water column. That is why having a variety of baits is important. Ex. Pinfish swim down, mullet stay on the surface, threadfins stay in the middle. If I know the fish are holding near the bottom, I'm not going to throw out a live mullet.

Moving fish are fish that are traveling down an edge, line, or highway. Consider this beach fishing at its most basic form… fish are moving down the beach to another area, traveling in a particular depth along the way. Tarpon have highways they use to travel on different tides. They will use these highways to travel from spot to spot, eating along the way sometimes. They roll less when they are traveling vs when they have arrived at their destination, which makes these spots difficult to find. The best way to present baits in these areas is to, first, figure out when the fish move through. When they fish are moving through, anchor up and let them swim into your baits if the current allows it. I prefer anchoring, putting out a spread of different baits and having a couple more rods rigged with plugs that are ready to fire.

In ideal conditions (calm wind, good crew, variety of live and dead baits), we will fish 6-8 rods at a time. We will have anywhere between 4-6 rods out with dead baits that are laying on the bottom, FRESH shad is the #1 choice, mullet will also work. We caught a fish recently on Spanish mackerel because we ran out of shad. These rods should be deployed in a spoke pattern around the boat. We will also have a couple of spinning rods with live baits under corks out the back about double the distance than the deadbait rods to avoid tangles. Last, we will have a couple more rods that are rigged with plugs, usually baitbusters or hogys to fire at rolling fish that might swim by, these keep us busy while waiting for bites. This is one of many effective techniques that can be used on moving fish.

For more detail on positioning and bait presentation, reference this previous post: http://forums.floridasportsman.com/showthread.php?221767-Tarpon-2016


Spot Rotations and Etiquette
Spot rotations play an important role in your ability to consistently fool these fish. Tarpon have not survived for 100million years because they are dumb, they have an amazing sense of the safety levels of their environment. If you go to the same spot every time you fish for tarpon, the fish will learn this and change their behavior. These fish learn what a boat sounds like, which baits to eat, when people are fishing for them, etc. Rotate the spots you fish and you are constantly fishing fresh, unmolested fish that will eat much, much better.

Etiquette certainly plays a large role as well, not just with boat handling either. I recently witnessed a medium sized school of fish make an appearance in a popular fishing spot. Not long after, a few boats had some success. The next thing you know, they posted on social media with visible backgrounds and told their friends. The next morning, 9 boats were anchored on this spot, the fish left. They moved to another spot miles away where we found them later that morning. Experienced tarpon fishermen will tell you that too many boats will cause the fish to leave. This is not the first time this has happened, it is always disappointing. Live and learn, hopefully they learned their lesson.

Importance of Fishing Logs
Taking detailed notes of successful and failed fishing trips with information such as dates, moon phases, solunar periods, wind speed, wind direction, water clarity, baitfish movements, time of day, etc. all help when you analyze your logs after years of keeping detailed notes. I am like the vast majority of the crowd on this forum, I work Monday through Friday at a desk job and am able to fish on weekends. So, I don’t have any time to figure out where the fish are during the week so that I can get on them on the weekends with my friends. But, I do have my brain and some basic analytical skills to look at my fishing logs and say, “ok, it’s the full moon in August, we have a south wind this weekend at 10knts, an incoming tide in the morning, there is a major from 8-10am, the water has about three feet of visibility and there is nothing but fry bait around – I am going to go here and use this technique”.

Tackle
I have played around with so much tackle, broken dozens of rods and reels along the way. I have invested in the following setups and been really happy with the longevity of them. It is important to use stout tackle to make sure that you can quickly release these fish. Fighting them with 5000 reels or less will not only blow through your tackle, it is not in the fish’s best interest because of prolonged fight times which inevitably lead to shark attacks or fish dying from exhaustion.

Spinners
Rod: Star Stellar Light 8ft 15-30lb(shallow water/low current) or 8ft 20-50lb for (deep water/high current)
Reel: Penn Spinfisher 6500
Mainline: 50lb braided line
Mainline to Leader Knot: improved Albright knot
Leader: 60lb fluorocarbon leader
Leader to Hook Knot: Canoeman loop knot
Hook: 8/0 Mustad 39951bln

Conventional rods for deadbait fishing –
Rod: Star Delux 8ft DLX35H – 40-50lb
Reel: Penn Senator 4/0
Mainline: 50lb Ande Mono
Mainline to Leader Knot: 3 turn Uni onto swivel
Leader: 6ft of 150lb Ande
Leader to Hook Knot: Crimp
Hook: 8/0 4x Gamagatsu Octopus

Replies

  • mjrudd1mjrudd1 Posts: 249 Officer
    Great info, thanks for taking significant time out of your day to share it. Nice pictures too.
  • TarponatorTarponator Under a BridgePosts: 8,345 Admiral
    Great photos and solid advice, Trent. You remind me a lot of me a decade ago or so. :)
  • FusionZ06FusionZ06 Posts: 875 Officer
    Slayers gonna slay - good info.
  • stpetebaitmanstpetebaitman Posts: 862 Officer
    Thanks for the kind words guys
  • Reel-LuckyReel-Lucky Oldsmar, FLPosts: 2,858 Moderator
    Outstanding. Thanks for that, Trent.
  • keenerbenkeenerben Posts: 71 Deckhand
    Great information. Thank you for your kindness in taking the time to pass that along in such a well written and detailed post. Tight lines!
  • releasegearreleasegear Posts: 651 Officer
    Awesome - Thanks Trent!!
    bornoffshore-sig.jpg

    Mike Wilhite - Fisherman/President

    Born Offshore Gear
    www.bornoffshore.com

    'Performance Fishing Apparel'
  • SaltygatorvetSaltygatorvet Posts: 1,725 Captain
    Good stuff, thanks for posting
    You should have been here yesterday
  • Marty McFlyMarty McFly Posts: 53 Deckhand
    Crushed it!
  • permit_mepermit_me Posts: 743 Officer
    thanks for the great info and sharing those pics! inspiration...
  • brinkleybrinkley Posts: 184 Officer
    Thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge.
  • mcsnookmcsnook Posts: 154 Deckhand
    Great info thanks! I ran into them the other day, we jumped a couple and the boats show up. Question, I had no live or dead bait, what are the artificials you would recommend?
  • stpetebaitmanstpetebaitman Posts: 862 Officer
    Thanks guys
    Great info thanks! I ran into them the other day, we jumped a couple and the boats show up. Question, I had no live or dead bait, what are the artificials you would recommend?

    I like to keep a stockpile of DOA Baitbusters (trolling model) in assorted dark colors. 10inch Hogy Black lures also work, depending on the water depth we either put them straight on a circle hook (shallow water/laid up fish), or put them on a 1oz jighead.
  • BarnakillerBarnakiller Posts: 90 Deckhand
    That was a good post from someone who has certainly put their time in. My only question is what is your favorite brand of braided line? I'd like to think I tarpon fish a lot, but I have targeted them less than 10 times so far this year. My braided line busted not at the knot on the best fish I had on. New line, just not good I guess. With as few times as I get after them right now, I at least want to know that if I hook up I stand a chance of landing it.
  • LobsterificLobsterific Posts: 17 Greenhorn
    Very nice.Thanks for taking the time.You forgot to tell them one thing.
    (If you want to catch fish you have to spend time on the water)
  • TarponatorTarponator Under a BridgePosts: 8,345 Admiral
    Try this on for size:

    When feeding a tarpon, more of a reaction strike, you want the bait in its face. Like a dead bait on the bottom or a crab in the crystal clear water of Bahia Honda. To do so with a lure in most instances spooks the fish.

    When getting a tarpon to eat, trying to get a tarpon to chase something, you want the lure above it. Like a fly or a baitbuster or a hogy...or even a crab on the beach around here.

    There's a reason a tarpon's eyes are near the top of its head and it's mouth is upturned.

    tarpon_face.JPG

    It chases and eats from below....generally.

    But sometimes they'll even flip sideways or even completely upside down to eat -- even in mid or near the surface of the water.

    They are an amazing and confusing fish.
  • FusionZ06FusionZ06 Posts: 875 Officer
    That was a good post from someone who has certainly put their time in. My only question is what is your favorite brand of braided line? I'd like to think I tarpon fish a lot, but I have targeted them less than 10 times so far this year. My braided line busted not at the knot on the best fish I had on. New line, just not good I guess. With as few times as I get after them right now, I at least want to know that if I hook up I stand a chance of landing it.

    Hard to beat 65lb Maxcuatro Power Pro.
  • stpetebaitmanstpetebaitman Posts: 862 Officer
    My only question is what is your favorite brand of braided line? I'd like to think I tarpon fish a lot, but I have targeted them less than 10 times so far this year. My braided line busted not at the knot on the best fish I had on. New line, just not good I guess. With as few times as I get after them right now, I at least want to know that if I hook up I stand a chance of landing it.

    I use Powerpro. I'm not convinced the line matters as much as your line to line connections. However, I respool all of my reels once a year as it gets worn down.
  • stpetebaitmanstpetebaitman Posts: 862 Officer
    Mike (Tarpon70) is correct in the placement of baits as well. There is a box in a tarpon's vision, about 2ft in front to 1ft over its head that they will track and eat baits if it is in that small window. They will not go out of their way to hunt something down, in general.
  • TarponatorTarponator Under a BridgePosts: 8,345 Admiral
    They ate at moonset yesterday.
  • BarnakillerBarnakiller Posts: 90 Deckhand
    I use Powerpro. I'm not convinced the line matters as much as your line to line connections. However, I respool all of my reels once a year as it gets worn down.

    The super slick or the original? I bought a 1500 yard spool of super slick and had it break a few times on the water, and more in the garage when getting rigged up; sometimes at the knot but often "not". User error I guess. Good post!
  • stpetebaitmanstpetebaitman Posts: 862 Officer
    They ate at moonset yesterday.

    That is an extremely valuable piece of information for anyone that plans to fish for tarpon over the next couple of days. Don't be running around looking for tarpon between 1-2pm today, you need to have baits in tarpon at that time.

    That also coincides when the wind has been laying down and the fish are easy to spot rolling on the surface. This is when you can cast baitbusters their direction. Watch those bubble trails and be ready to cast fast, the longer you wait to cast the lower your chances are of hooking the fish.
  • stpetebaitmanstpetebaitman Posts: 862 Officer
    The super slick or the original? I bought a 1500 yard spool of super slick and had it break a few times on the water, and more in the garage when getting rigged up; sometimes at the knot but often "not". User error I guess. Good post!

    I use the original. I have not used the fancy slick stuff.
  • TarponatorTarponator Under a BridgePosts: 8,345 Admiral
    That is an extremely valuable piece of information for anyone that plans to fish for tarpon over the next couple of days. Don't be running around looking for tarpon between 1-2pm today, you need to have baits in tarpon at that time.

    That's why I shared it. ;) I may not post pictures or spots any more, but figured someone might find this info useful...

    We were in fish all morning yesterday. Found them before sunrise, and throughout the morning I made 50 casts that I thought were good enough to get bit while my two nephews were blind casting. Nothing. Fish just weren't in an eating mood, as they all too often are.

    Right about the time the moon got low on the horizon about to set, they started to eat. The first sign were they started busting on bait in the area. Sure enough, those bad casts all of a sudden turned into good ones.

    That's tarpon fishing....where paying attention to the moon is probably the single most important factor, IMO.
    That also coincides when the wind has been laying down and the fish are easy to spot rolling on the surface. This is when you can cast baitbusters their direction. Watch those bubble trails and be ready to cast fast, the longer you wait to cast the lower your chances are of hooking the fish.

    Yesterday, it also coincided with a thunderstorm in the area we were fishing. Had to run not long after it started. But that's OK. They'll be there this week as well, I expect, as there was plenty of bait in the area (the reason they are there in the first place) and we still have some time left in this moon before the tarpon cards are shuffled and they likely move around.

    The best thing of all? Not another boat fishing near me the entire day -- on a weekend no less -- except the three googans (and a pair of jetskis) who motored right past me on plane completely oblivious that we were surrounded by tarpon from 40 to 150+ lbs.

    I love late summer.

    Have fun...>Mike
  • TarponatorTarponator Under a BridgePosts: 8,345 Admiral
    As far as lines, I think that brand is more personal preference than anything else, but here are a few things I think about when spooling my reels...

    If I'm fishing around structure, let's say one of the bay bridges at night or fishing around the the Skyway, where casting distance isn't important, then I choose the heaviest line I can get away with -- that's generally 80lb.

    If I'm fishing in open water, where casting distance is paramount, I'll go light. 40 or even 30lb braid. Think casting crabs along the beach or casting plugs or jigs in the backwater. Times when that extra 5 or 10 feed can make a difference between a bite and nothing, but you don't have to worry about them getting you into structure.

    If I'm fishing in deep water vertically -- let's say a crab fished with heavy weight near the bottom -- then I use mono. After two seasons getting my butt handed to me by my girlfriend who used to fish with this old Penn Senator conventional reel spooled with 50lb mono, I finally got a few reels set up like that and I instantly upped my production by more than 2x. The theory is that braid fished with a weight in high-current areas like Egmont or Boca Grande pass "hums" and the fish hear it. Regardless of the theory, I do not question the results any more. If I'm fishing vertically with an ounce to four ounces of weight, that rod will have 40 or 50lb mono on it.

    If I'm freelining/splitshotting crabs or whitebait in deeper water while drifting, let's say fishing the upper or middle part of the water column during a crab flush, then I go with a medium weight line -- say 50lb or 65lb -- so you can put some extra pressure on the fish when they decide to be grouper and stay deep or you get tangled with another boat in the area, as there often is in these situations.

    Having at least two spools for every spinning reel really helps as well. I'll usually keep one on the light side and one on the heavier side. For instance, if the reel is smaller (say, an 6000 shimano), I'll spool one with 30lb and the other with 50. If the reel is bigger, like my old 10k stella (that I've had for so long it's name is now "the grinder") then I'll spool one with 50lb and the other with 80. That way, depending on where I end up that day I have some flexibility by simply changing out the spools.

    As far as line brand -- to be honest I've just about fished them all...and they all work. I prefer Suffix 832 or Spiderwire Stealth for casting distance, and Tuffline XP or old school PowerPro for abrasion resistance. But YMMV. The only problem I ever had with braided line was I got a bad spool of PowerPro -- the line had some clumps and suffered from snapping at well below the rated strength. This was many years ago right when PP became popular. I simply called them and they replaced the spool for free. Haven't had a quality control problem since.

    Every season I try to make it a point to try something new -- hooks, baits, and, in this case, line. This year's line experiment is PowerPro Maxcuatro. The jury is still out, but it seems to be better than the regular stuff -- casts quite a bit better off the spool that's for sure. And I just ordered some P-Line TCB to experiment with as well after hearing some good things about it from a guide friend.

    Spool 'em up and let 'em rip....Mike
  • mjrudd1mjrudd1 Posts: 249 Officer
    Wow, thanks guys for that awesome info. You are very kind to share your knowledge & experience. :applause
    In contrast to my typical return to the states, I get to fish again in a few couple of weeks. I'll try some of those tips. As far as line goes, this year I respooled one of my 7500 reels with 65 lb Jerry Brown braid. It was recommended to me by a tackle shop on Big Pine Key and the stuff has lasted for 4 years! I turned it around once, then later took the center 150 yd section out and backed it up with other line. Never a break, just replaced it because it was getting old - better safe than sorry. I'm keeping the best part for backing at a later date. Green before, white this time for visibility. JB is stiff at first but loosens up quickly, and is real tough. I also bought some Power Pro hollow core for another reel, tried splicing my leader to get a smooth connection. I liked the splice very well except for time it took to do it. Also tried the FS knot - that is awesome, I can do it pretty quick & easy in my kayak. Important since I usually replace my leader after a good fight. Reels right through the guides and even onto the reel, then casts out smoothly again with 65 lb braid & 60 lb flouro leader and nothing but a threadfin and hook. The PowerPro hollow core is expensive but soft - casts very well. Have to wait and see how well it holds up.
  • stpetebaitmanstpetebaitman Posts: 862 Officer
    Right about the time the moon got low on the horizon about to set, they started to eat. The first sign were they started busting on bait in the area. Sure enough, those bad casts all of a sudden turned into good ones.

    That is tarpon fishing summed up in a couple sentences. The most important thing to do when you sit in fish for a long time is to keep at it. Very, very unlikely that you'll find another batch of fish that will eat when the fish you are in are not eating.

    Now, if that was me yesterday and planned to fish the next day (today), you could bail on the sunrise session and the 4 hours of downtime in the fish to fish from say 12-3 today. Hit the minor solunar, get your bites, not melt in the heat, and head in after catching a couple of fish.
    The best thing of all? Not another boat fishing near me the entire day -- on a weekend no less -- except the three googans (and a pair of jetskis) who motored right past me on plane completely oblivious that we were surrounded by tarpon from 40 to 150+ lbs.

    I love late summer.

    It's amazing how many fisherman drive over tarpon spots and have absolutely no idea the fish are there. Including me, I'm certain.

    We went exploring yesterday into a new area I'd never fished or driven a boat through. Found two new spots that I plan to go back to soon, quite a few tarpon around, and big fish which means there are many more not showing. We were forced to head in early due to storms approaching as well. Didn't hook any fish, but it was mission accomplished in getting two new GPS marks. Did manage to bring a 25lb cobia back to the dock that we found on a marker on the way home.
  • FS ShelbyFS Shelby Posts: 680 Officer
    Great write up, thanks for sharing with the FS forum community!

    You will now be entered in our forum giveaway! Keep posting new reports until September 31st for more chances to win the fishing trip of a lifetime with Fishing Nosara in Costa Rica!

    Check out http://www.floridasportsman.com/2017/06/12/win-costa-rica-fishing-adventure/ for more details.
  • TarponatorTarponator Under a BridgePosts: 8,345 Admiral
    The most important thing to do when you sit in fish for a long time is to keep at it. Very, very unlikely that you'll find another batch of fish that will eat when the fish you are in are not eating.

    This time of year, I completely agree. Earlier in the season, let's say pre-spawn on the beaches, I would probably take issue with that statement. Allow me to explain...

    This time of year, most of the fish inside the bay are generally lazy and located in the generally deeper areas of the bay. They are just hanging out in these areas for the most part, all post-spawn fish with some juveniles mixed in. The fish are spread out but in a general area. They all act just like we were talking about -- they all seem to go on the feed at the same time. They also somehow all seem to roll just about the same time -- it's weird and I will never understand how they do it. These are the fish you are probably better of just sitting on and waiting for them to eat.

    Earlier in the season, let's say pre-spawn along the beach in May, you find pods of fish in very different moods. Some are milling (not unlike the fish in the bay were were just discussing, but more tightly grouped in a school), others are zipping down the beach, others are daisy chaining. In this situation, I will often leave a pod of fish (or not go after them at all, for instance if I see a pod of fish zipping down the beach at 5+mph as they often do) to find better fish.

    But this time of year inside the bay, if one group of fish isn't biting, then there's a really really good chance none of them are. It's almost uncanny in that regard -- talk to someone fishing in Hillsborough Bay when you're fishing in Old Tampa Bay and compare notes -- they will be extremely similar.
    Now, if that was me yesterday and planned to fish the next day (today), you could bail on the sunrise session and the 4 hours of downtime in the fish to fish from say 12-3 today. Hit the minor solunar, get your bites, not melt in the heat, and head in after catching a couple of fish.

    Had I fished a few days already and was confident in their pattern, I agree. Couldn't fish yesterday or today, so I'll probably have to do the same thing tomorrow. There's always the morning bite, and now we'll have another minor with moon overhead in the AM as well. It's a huge advantage when you can fish for a few days in a row....and a bit of a challenge when you go more sporadically.

    I could always go at night, which is a bit more of a sure thing, but, man oh man, I just love tossing jigs....
    It's amazing how many fisherman drive over tarpon spots and have absolutely no idea the fish are there. Including me, I'm certain.

    We went exploring yesterday into a new area I'd never fished or driven a boat through. Found two new spots that I plan to go back to soon, quite a few tarpon around, and big fish which means there are many more not showing. We were forced to head in early due to storms approaching as well. Didn't hook any fish, but it was mission accomplished in getting two new GPS marks. Did manage to bring a 25lb cobia back to the dock that we found on a marker on the way home.

    I'm sure I run lots over as well.

    Exploring is something I think we all should do more of.
  • 77 mako 2377 mako 23 Posts: 187 Deckhand
    Wow, great info. Thanks for sharing!

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