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Tarpon Fishing Guide — How to Catch Megalops atlanticus

Are you eager to go on a tarpon fishing trip?

Let’s learn what it likes to eat and how you can catch a giant tarpon! Get answers to these questions and more in these tarpon fishing guides!

how to catch tarpon fish
A beautiful smaller tarpon. Source: Fishes of Georgia Photo Gallery

Overview

There are two species of tarpons, the Atlantic tarpon, and the Indio Pacific tarpon.

The Atlantic tarpon lives on the western Atlantic coast from Virginia to Brazil throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. The Indo-Pacific tarpon can be found along the eastern Atlantic coast from Senegal to South Angola.

tarpon fish in the ocean
Kevin with another great shot of tarpon at depth. Source: Kevin Bryant

The fish can grow to about 4 to 8 feet in length and has a bluish or greenish back. The tarpon scales are shiny and silvery in color and they cover most of the body except the head. The eyes and mouth are large and it has a prominent jaw.

Tarpon usually feeds on fish, crabs, insects, and grass shrimp. Juveniles survive on zooplankton, insects, and smaller fish. Other common names for this fish include silver king, savalle, sadina, jewfish, big scale, and suwiki.

Freshwater tarpon exists because of the tarpon’s unique ability to gulp air which allows them to survive in both fresh and saltwater environments.

Tarpon Facts

Scientific NameMegalops atlanticus (Atlantic Tarpon), Megalops cyprinoides (Indo-Pacific Tarpon)
Common Name(s)Tarpon, (tarpin fish & tarpun are common misspellings)
FamilyMegalopidae
Identifying CharacteristicsThe scales of the fish are shiny and silvery in color and they cover most of the body except the head. The eyes and mouth are large and it has a prominent jaw.
Depth Range0 to 40m
HabitatThe Atlantic tarpon occurs on the western Atlantic coast from Virginia to Brazil throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean and the Indo Pacific tarpon can be found along the eastern Atlantic coast from Senegal to South Angola
LimitsCheck your local regulations
Biggest Tarpon Caught286 pounds 9 ounces big tarpon (Trophy tarpon usually weigh 150 to 200 pounds)
StatusYes

Tarpon Habitat

The tarpon fish populates a range of habitats but it can usually be found in large numbers in bays, coastal waters, estuaries, and lagoons. These lagoons are fringed with mangroves in temperate to tropical climates.

The fish can also tolerate euryhaline environments due to its modified air bladder that allows it to survive on atmospheric oxygen. If the temperature drops, tarpon seeks refuge in warmer and deeper waters.

Tarpon Fishing: How to Catch Tarpon

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Tarpon fishing is like fishing for dinosaurs. The species has been on this earth since prehistoric times and can live up to 80 years. It has no commercial value but it is one of the most sought after sport fish in the world.

Even though tarpon fish can reach up to 250 pounds in weight, you don’t need a super heavy tackle to reel one in. A spinning reel that is between 4000 to 7000 size range and a medium-heavy rod is the best tarpon fishing gear for catching tarpon Plus, use up to 50-pound test braided line and a 250 – 300-yard spool.

Tarpon Fishing Tactics

  • If you are fly fishing for tarpon make sure that you sharpen the barbless hooks or they will not penetrate the fish’s hard mouth and don’t hook too soon. When you feel a bite take in the slackline and then wait till you feel the weight of the tarpon before striking hard twice. If you are using hard lures when fly fishing, strike as soon as you feel a heavyweight at the end of the line. When fly fishing canals and rivers, use a 5-7 weight fly rod.
  • Silver tarpon teeth are fine and dense and their jaws are quite rough and sandpapery. Use a fluorocarbon leader so the fish doesn’t cut off and increase your chances of reeling one in by using circle hooks. These can remain in the tarpon’s mouth better than J hooks and won’t puncture the gut.
  • If you are drifting for tarpon, position the boat up current of the fish and it will carry you to the middle of the pod. You need to add some weight to your free line rig depending on how fast the current is such as an egg weight.

Tarpon Fishing Tips

  1. Tarpon usually feeds on bait fish such as mutton minnows, pilchard, pinfish, grunts, and threadfin herring. Yet, only use those as live bait that the tarpon encounter naturally. As an opportunistic feeder when the fish moves inshore, it usually ignored live bait fish in favor of blue crabs which are more abundant in such areas.
  2. If you want a challenge, use artificial lures to for tarpon fishing such as topwater plugs, especially when the fish is rolling on the surface. Use a soft plastic swimbait rigged on a jighead if the fish is feeding on the bottom or in mid-water. This is one of the best artificial lures that is quite versatile and can be fished under a cork or bounced off the bottom.
  3. A hooked tarpon will jump high and do several somersaults to try and free itself. Prevent that from happening by giving the line some slack by lowering the tip of the rod and push it towards the fish as it is about to leap. Plus, press the line against your rid to create extra resistance to pull it in.
  4. Use mullet as tarpon live bait in the beginning, then switch to blue crabs.

Tarpon Fishing Seasons

The tarpon fish is highly migratory so you have to be at the right place at the right time to catch one. The fish travels thousands of miles across its natural range which can extend from the Atlantic Coast of Brazil to Virginia and beyond.

Starting in April or May the tarpon swims out from their warm water habitat and head north where they move into bays and passes that range from Texas to the Florida Keys. That is where they feed on blue crabs before spawning offshore.

Tarpon fishing in Florida is very popular especially in Florida Keys. If you’re into tarpon fishing, Florida Keys marina is the best spot. This is home to a lot of tarpon fishing charters.

Boca Grande Pass is also a great spot for tarpon fishing in summer. This is where a lot of tarpon gather to feed during the season.

Even though the fish spawns offshore, the best time to catch them is before they head out to sea. You can also catch it in inshore waters throughout the Gulf Coast.

Tarpon Fishing Frequently Asked Questions

Is tarpon good to eat?

Tarpon is quite bony and not tasty enough to be considered good table fare. That is also the reason why it is not commercially popular. Once caught they are thrown back.

What do tarpon eat?

Tarpons are aggressive feeders and despite being a large fish, they usually go for smaller prey such as shrimp, crabs, and worms. Their main diet includes mullet, pinfish, and sardines.

Do tarpon have teeth?

Yes. The fish has an enormous mouth that is filled with extremely small villiform or densely packed teeth on its jaw, tongue, palatines, and the base of the skull.

Insider Advice

Tarpon may look docile but the fish fights aggressively once it is hooked. Make sure that you have others with you while angling for one for an extra muscle to reel in a trophy catch.

Do you have tips and strategies that worked for you while you’re tarpon fishing? Share them in the comments section and do share this guide if you liked it.

Jon Stenstrom
Founder & Angler
Jon Stenstrom is a fishing enthusiast. He has over 25 years of fishing experience, and 6 years of spearfishing experience, and is currently learning how to boat. Jon has his Open Water PADI Certification and FII Freediver Level 1 Certification. Jon has traveled the world to fish and dive, most notably in the Great Barrier Reef, Baja Mexico, Thailand, and Malaysia. More Articles
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Articles » Saltwater Fishing » Tarpon Fishing Guide — How to Catch Megalops atlanticus