Waterman's Journal

Jun 07, 2022



With their brute strength, prehistoric looks, and super explosive fighting ability, the mighty Tarpon is considered by many to be one of the greatest gamefish in the world. Simply known as “The Silver King,” anglers from all over the globe travel to Florida’s prolific waters to face off with these real-life sea monsters that will leave even the most experienced fishermen baffled at their sheer power and canny ability to spit the hook during the fight. Watch as PELAGIC PRO Captain Tyler Kapela shares his secrets for targeting the giant tarpon of Tampa Bay, while he puts Captain Ron to the ultimate angling test…

Pelagic Pro Tyler Kapela with a Tarpon landed on the beach in Tampa, Florida.

Why do anglers dream to catch the trophy Giant Tarpon?
Tarpon are considered one of the greatest saltwater game fish not only because of their brute strength, prehistoric looks but also their explosive fighting ability when hooked. They are incredibly strong, weary to the lightest of tackle, and are known for their spectacular aerobatic leaps which allow them to spit the hook. The water literally erupts as a Tarpon takes flight to evade being landed boat side. It is no wonder why Tarpon are known by experienced anglers as “The Silver King" due to their incredible size, beautiful color, and fighting spirit.

The majestic Tarpon is considered one of the greatest gamefish in the world.

How do you identify a Tarpon?

Tarpon are shiny metallic silver on the sides and appear as greenish or bluish on top. Their large mouth is turned upwards and the lower jaw contains an elongated, bony plate. This plate is very hard and rarely allows for a solid hookset even when using light wire hooks. On its back the last ray of the dorsal fin is much longer than the others, reaching nearly to the tail. Tarpon have a reputation for attaining astonishing sizes and having impressive armored scales across its body. Unlike many other fish species, a tarpon is capable of filling its swim bladder with air, like a primitive lung. This gives it a predatory advantage when oxygen levels in the water are low.

The “silver king” has a large mouth, large eyes, and shiny silver scales.

Where do you find Tarpon?

Tarpon inhabit both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In the western Atlantic tarpon are principally found to populate warmer coastal waters primarily in Florida, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico. Seasonally, you will find large numbers of tarpon feeding on baitfish and crabs in the shallow waters and bays of South Florida, the Florida Keys, and up into the Gulf of Mexico, and of course Tampa Bay.

PELAGIC PRO Captain Tyler Kapela puts Captain Ron on a big one.

The beaches and bridges of Tampa Bay are prime tarpon waters.

Tarpon can also be found swimming along the coral reefs of the Caribbean, the Bahamas, throughout the Virgin Islands, and down to Belize. In the eastern Atlantic, some very large “world record sized” tarpon have been caught recently along the coast of West Africa, most notably in Gabon and Senegal.

Tarpon chasing baitballs in the Carribean.

How big do Tarpon get?

Tarpon are well known by sport fishermen for their astonishing strength and size. Any fish over the 100-pound mark, is considered a “bucket list” trophy of a lifetime for most anglers. The current IGFA world record tarpon weighed in at 286 pounds and was caught in 2003 off the coast of West Africa. Several larger tarpons, over the 300 pound mark, have also been reported but not verified for the world record. Scientists believe that these large female tarpons could be 50-plus years old, which is why so many areas have ruled them as catch and release only. Conserving these giant fish is important to allow future generations of anglers a great challenge and introduction to the world of big game sportfishing.

A trophy tarpon being released after an intense battle.

A Tarpon does what a Tarpon does best, incredible aerial displays.

How do you catch Tampa Bay Tarpon?

Tarpon fishing in Tampa Bay can be done with live bait, dead bait, or on the fly. Tarpon have very large eyes, so when the water is clear bait presentation is absolutely critical to getting bites. Up in the darker waters of the bay or at night under the bridges, live bait does the best but at times the artificial soft plastics can also work. The best live bait for Tarpon fishing in Tampa Bay (and probably all over the world) are live crabs and shrimp. However, when the tarpon are feeding on fin-bait, they will readily take a well presented Threadfin Herring, Pilchards, Menhaden, and Pinfish. Each bait works best at different times and under different circumstances.

Tampa Bay’s picturesque beaches and bridges are prime tarpon habitat.

What kind of fishing tackle and gear is needed to catch Tarpon?

The goal of the Tarpon fishing tackle is not only to get bites but to get those fish to the boat to be safely and released to fight another day. To do this effectively here’s what we recommend.

Spinning Tackle - a 7’ rod with a parabolic bend paired with a salt water rated spinning reel. 65-lb braid backing with a 10’ 60-lb flouro leader and an 7/0 light wire hook.

Fly fishing Tackle - a 9′ 11-13 weight rod paired with a high-end reel with strong drag backed with 300 yds 30 lb plus 100 yds shock absorbing 25-lb mono and a quality tippet.

Threadfin herring are a favorite food of tarpon in Tampa Bay.

Close-up of the unique Tarpon mouth – notice the large scales and eyeball.

When is the best time to fish for Tampa Bay Tarpon?

Tampa Bay tarpon season peaks May through July when the spawning migration is in full force. The bay area does have a tarpon fishery throughout the year, but May to July is when the giant spawning fish pour in by the tens of thousands. This makes for great fishing as most spots will hold an impressive amount of mature tarpon ready to test any level of angler.

Tarpon “rolling” on the surface in Tampa Bay.

PELAGIC PRO Captain Tyler Kapela is an expert tarpon guide in Tampa Bay.

Where are the best places in Tampa Bay to find Tarpon?

You can find tarpon throughout Tampa Bay year-round but there are several spots that stand out:

Anna Maria island - This is the epicenter of Tampa Bay tarpon fishing located on the south end of the bay.

Passage Key - This is a favorite for local fly-fishermen. Passes are entrance points for migratory tarpon and exit points for resident tarpon heading offshore to spawn.

Egmont Key - Has two massive passes that hold an incredible amount of baitfish that and literally millions of crabs that flow in and out with the tides. It is this tremendous amount of food that makes Tampa Bay Tarpon fishing in this key known world wide.

Sunshine Skyway Bridge - The giant structure is loaded with bait, along with migrating and resident Tarpon. The Bridge structure does make for more challenging angling but it still is a solid Tarpon fishery and a great staging area for migrating Tarpon.

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge holds just about every species of fish found in Tampa Bay.

How do you fish bridges for Tarpon?

Tarpon are usually caught holding to bridge pilings or chasing bait around the pilings. When fishing bridges start use your electronics to determine if the Tarpons are up current or tucked into the eddie down current this will save you from wasting time casting to empty water. Then position your boat parallel to the fish to effectively drift bait past them. Cast up currant to allow your bait to drop and drift as naturally as possible with as little tension on the line as you can. Adjust the speed and angle of approach by using a trolling motor until you get the right drift and find the Tarpon's strike location.

Using sonar helps locate the fish as they hide behind the pilings of a bridge.

Soaking cut bait is the textbook method to catch Tarpon here, this can be paired with a steady line of chum to activate the Tarpon's feeding habits. However, many top anglers choose to free line live threadfin herring while working the bumpers and pilings beneath the bridge. When fishing these bumpers cast towards the center and open your bail to allow the bait to be swept around the sides. Reel in and repeat the process until you have a strike.

A trophy silver king attempts to spit the hook.

Battling it out with a large Tarpon at the Skyway can be a huge challenge. The thing about bridge fishing is that there number of obstacles you need to maneuver around. These include pilings, floating debris, anglers lines, other boats, and more. Captains need to be on their "A" game to avoid this web of trouble. As soon as a Tarpon is hooked all other lines should be reeled in, obstacles avoided and the boat should be running in the direction of the fleeing fish. All this needs to be done rapidly to give the greatest chance of landing the fish safely. Once clear of the bridge, be ready for a fight of a lifetime. Tarpons are known for strength, long drawn-out battles, and testing the endurance angler. This is the stuff from which both lifelong memories and great fishing stories are created.

PELAGIC PRO Captain Tyler Kapela routinely puts his clients on trophy tarpon.

Finding the right boat and captain.

Trophy size Tarpon are a very elusive fish with unusually great eyesight and intelligence. They tend to spook easily in shallows and move fast in the deeper water. In Tampa Bay, only a handful of captains account for over 90% of the Tarpon catch and releases. It is important to use all resources at your disposal to find the right boat and captain. Do not hesitate to ask a local tackle shop employee or fisherman for a guide. Remember you have to be put on the fish before you can catch them.

Final thoughts on Giant Tarpon.

Tarpon Fishing is the most exhilarating type of fishing you can ever do on the flats, inshore, and nearshore in Florida. Tampa Bay is a hotspot for the migration and spawning of these majestic monsters. Watching thousands of rollers in front of your boat is a point of excitement, but getting that hook up will put you on a next-level wild ride that has no comparison. From the strength these fish display to the aerial jumps they make to shake the hook, landing a large one will not be easy. Fighting a large 100+ pound fish will literally take all you have and more. Fishing in Tampa Bay, you are as likely to hook up to a larger Tarpon as not. Do not go light on the tackle since these fish will test your tackle as much as they test you. Most importantly, when fishing for tarpon, take time to be thankful and grateful for this amazing resource that mother nature has provided.

Ronald “Captain Ron” Kawaja: Captain Ron is the president and founder of Pelagic clothing company and a world-class angler who has traveled the globe for the past 20+ years in search of big fish, exotic fishing destinations, and pure ocean adventure. His voyages have included fishing & competing in the world’s largest sport fishing tournaments; pursuing the elusive “grander” (1,000+ pound marlin or tuna) on rod and reel; and seeking out the world’s ultimate fishing destinations in places like Australia, Africa, Ascension Island, Bahamas, Belize, Brazil, Cabo, Cancun, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Madeira, Nicaragua, Panama, and Puerto Rico.

Over the years, Captain Ron has won and placed in numerous fishing tournaments around the world, including the prestigious White Marlin Open in Ocean City, MD where he was named “Grand Champion & Top Overall Angler” - to win this title, Kawaja competed against more than 2,000 anglers and finished in first place. As recently as October 2021, Captain Ron led his team to a first-place victory against 189 of the world’s top sport fishing teams at the world-famous Bisbee’s Los Cabos Offshore Tournament in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

As an angler, he has extensive experience in a diverse range of fishing situations, from fighting giant fish up to 1,000 pounds on stand-up tackle to chasing light line world records, and he credits 100% of his success to all the pro captains and crews he has fished with and learned from over the years.