You know that feeling when you finally get to do something you had wanted to do for years? It feels amazing. Fishing for migratory tarpon in the Florida Keys had been on my bucket list since I first heard about them – known for being some of the most powerful fish you can catch on saltwater spinning equipment. Lucky for me, I connected with one of the pros in the business – who I think is the best tarpon fishing guide in the Florida Keys: Captain Brandon of Bahia Honda Tarpon Charters.
Why do I think he’s the best tarpon fishing guide in the Florida Keys? Keep reading to find out!
Bahia Honda Tarpon Charters: Best Tarpon Fishing Guide in The Florida Keys
There are so many reasons why my experience with Captain Brandon was outstanding, so I’ll go ahead and just start from the beginning.
After reserving two half days at very reasonable rates (they prefer to do 4-hour sessions as it allows them to focus on optimum tide change and location for each session), Brandon called me the night before to check in on timing and explain where to meet up.
Author Note: Both of my sessions were in the afternoon, so no break-of-dawn wake-ups or scrambling to get to the boat dock. Great for someone flying in from the west coast!
On our first day, we started at 2 pm. Another great thing about fishing for migratory tarpon is that they often congregate near the numerous bridges that line the Florida Keys. This means that our preferred fishing spot was (I kid you not) a 5 min boat ride from the dock. Something else to note: the water is very calm in the Keys, so no swell to worry about for people who get seasick. As the tide changes and begins to go in/out there are some very small waves, but nothing major.
Captain Brandon uses a beginner-friendly open float tarpon rig/technique with a bobber and live bait. You simply drop your bait and bobber into the channel where the tarpon are swimming and let it drift down current. For fishermen who fish for salmon in rivers with roe or beads, it’s a very similar technique – only on heavier equipment.
For the conditions we were fishing, Captain Brandon used 50 lb test braided line with a fluorocarbon leader and large circle hooks.
Within 10 minutes we had our first fish on. I’m going to take the time now to indulge myself and explain what it’s like hooking a tarpon for those who have not. It’s like you’ve lassoed a rocket ship and get to hang on for dear life. And much like a rocket, tarpon almost always go air born when they are first hooked. Captain Brandon explained that when a hooked tarpon jumps you need to lower your rod tip and “bow to the king”. This helps keep pressure on the line and prevents them from throwing the hook.
In my excitement/panic of hooking my first tarpon, I didn’t react nearly fast enough and it threw the hook the first time it left the water. No matter, Captain Brandon had another one on about 15 minutes later. This one only jumped once then preceded to tear line off my reel unlike any other fish I’ve hooked. If you fantasize about the sound of a spinning reel’s drag being taken out at insane speeds (like I do), then this is as good as it gets.
During the fight Captain Brandon did an expert job of navigating the boat around the bridges, keeping the fish going where we wanted it to, and generally helping make sure we landed it. I can’t say enough about how diligent you have to be when hooked up to a fish this size. He is an absolute pro. It took us about 40 minutes to wear the fish down to the point where we could unhook it and snap a few pictures.
Author Note: Captain Brandon thought it was around 100 lbs, as most migratory tarpon in the Bahia Honda region are. Unreal!
In total, we hooked four fish my first day out and landed one. The landing rate of tarpon is notoriously low for a multitude of reasons (you have to use a relatively light leader (40 to 50 lb test) so they don’t see your line, it’s easy to get tangled around the bridges, their mouths are as hard as a bone, etc.), so I was very happy to get a picture with one. The third fish we hooked never left the water and really bullied us around the bridges before breaking us off – Brandon thought it could’ve been one of the +150 lb females. Guess we’ll never know.
By the time my four hours were up, I was exhausted. I don’t think I’ve ever been so tired after a fishing trip – my arms were toast, my back was yearning for ibuprofen, and my Gatorade had been drunk hours ago. If you’ve ever considered conditioning a bit for a fishing trip, I can tell you I wish I had for this one. But as anyone addicted to fishing knows, none of that stuff really matters. You just had one of the best fishing outings of your life.
Wondering if I was supremely lucky/spoiled on my first day, I met back up with Brandon the following day at 1 pm. He decided we should hit the water slightly earlier than the first day because the tide tables had shifted a bit. While it can depend on the season, he had been having the best luck on outgoing tides.
The water was much clearer to start the afternoon than the first day, so the first hour was spent watching tarpon roll right next to us but not biting. I couldn’t help but feel like they were teasing us. Being able to see such large fish so close to the boat is slightly unnerving, especially when they come up to gulp air every few minutes. Why do they gulp air?
Author Note: They can actually breathe through their air bladders for an extra boost when they are swimming. If you see your hooked tarpon come up for air, get ready for a potential run (or jump!).
Just as I was starting to think the first day was probably the highlight of my trip, Brandon slammed his rod back and we were back in action. He handed me the rod as the adrenaline started to flow once again and my forearms protested at the thought of another round of combat. Unfortunately for them, this was just the start of an even longer workout.
Our second day ended up being even better than the first. We hooked five fish and landed two, both over or around 100 lbs. We also got to see another apex predator that patrols the waters around Bahia Honda: a 15 foot Great Hammerhead shark.
Unfortunately for the tarpon, hammerheads love taking a swipe at them after you’ve worn them down in a fight. The unspoken rule is to open your bail as soon as you see a shark so the tarpon can escape. Even though the sharks are much bigger, a green tarpon can usually easily outmaneuver them and head back to safety in shallower waters.
When I think of the best fishing guide trips I’ve had, my experience with Captain Brandon and Bahia Honda Tarpon Charters trumps all. From his unparalleled hook-up rate (we got into more fish than any of the boats around us both days) to his fun and professional attitude, it was an amazing experience all the way around.
If you’re looking to have the fishing experience of a lifetime, go with them next time you are in the Florida Keys. In my opinion, Captain Brandon is truly the best tarpon fishing guide in the Florida Keys.