Tarpon Fishing in Tampa Bay: The Complete Guide
Florida is a sports fisherman’s paradise. There are over 200 different species of saltwater gamefish that reside in Tampa Bay’s waters. It’s home to some of the most desirable sports fish you can catch in North America: Snook, marlin, sailfish, wahoo, red drum, bonefish, and of course, tarpon.
Tarpon is called the Silver King for a reason – they’re one of the most prestigious game fish to catch. Some grow up over 200 lbs and are known for their airborne acrobatics and fast long runs. Tampa Bay is great for tarpon fishing, but where should you go and when? And what tackle/techniques should you use? We aim to cover all of that in this article.
We’ll first go over the basics: what are tarpon, the tackle you should use for tarpon in Tampa Bay, and more. Then we’ll go into more detail on how to fish for tarpon in Tampa Bay. It’s one of our favorite places (along with Boca Grande) to fish for tarpon, and we can’t wait to share our experiences with you!
What Are Tarpon?
There are actually two species of tarpon, Atlantic Tarpon and Indo-pacific Tarpon. Indo-pacific tarpon are much smaller than traditional tarpon, and not really on the radar for most sports fisherman. Atlantic tarpon are the species that are best known, and the type that live in Tampa Bay. Tarpon are usually found in saltwater, but they are able to survive in brackish water and often hang out near freshwater inlets.
Adult tarpon grow to be 4 to 8 feet long and weigh in excess of 200 lbs. They are covered with many large, shiny silver scales and have blueish dorsal fins. Tarpon have large eyes with adipose eyelids that are used for nighttime hunting. They also have very large mouths with a prominent lower jaw that extends further than the rest of their face.
Tarpon enjoy eating small baitfish and insects while juvenile, then switch to larger fish, crabs, and shrimp as their size increases. Adult tarpon are ferocious carnivores feeding on midwater prey such as mullets and shad.
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Tackle Needed for Tarpon
Tarpon grow to be very large so you need to be prepared with the correct size fishing tackle to fish for them. We recommend using a large saltwater fishing reel paired with a surfcasting fishing rod. The longer large spinning reel will be able to hold the appropriate test fishing line (40 lb to 60 lb monofilament or braided line).
If you’re planning on using live bait, mullet and shad work especially well. Mullet also often run during tarpon season and make a killer live bait if you can find a school of them. Use a large circle hook and an 80 lb monofilament leader to combat the tarpons hard mouths.
For artificial lures, we recommend using large topwater jerk baits or fly fishing. Fly fishing for tarpon is an acquired skill; you’ll need especially heavy fly fishing equipment and lots of patience. But if you hook into a tarpon your fly rod, prepare for the fight of a lifetime!
Tarpon are catch and release only in Florida unless you have purchased a tarpon tag. One tarpon tag may be purchased per person per year. The tags are only for fishermen looking to land an International Gamefish Association record fish.
Additional rules on landing tarpon are that the fish must remain in the water if it measures over 40 inches in length. This is to prevent unnecessarily hurting the fish after landing it. You should also avoid towing a caught tarpon unless you think it’s necessary to revive it. If you do decide to tow the tarpon, go slowly!
You should also avoid fishing for tarpon when large predatory sharks are feeding nearby. Sharks will jump at the chance of biting a winded tarpon, no matter the size.
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When to Fish for Tarpon in Tampa Bay
The tarpon season in Tampa Bay starts as early as February during warm years. As the water in the bay continues to warm up, the tarpon bit will continue to improve. By March, many tarpon can be found in Tampa Bay with consistent bites for anglers with the right setup. These early season tarpon are the resident fish in Tampa Bay and are often larger than the migratory ones.
In late April and May is when tarpon season kicks into high gear, with north-bound tarpon migrating up from Mexico coming in the thousands. These migratory fish swarm Tampa Bay and can be sight fished with artificial lures and flies. May through July is when most charters fand guides will see the highest amount of action. It’s not uncommon for guides to have +15 hookups a day during peak season.
As August begins the migratory tarpon begin to leave Tampa Bay. The resident fish are still feeding, however, and the bite can remain quite good. September through November brings southern migrating tarpon and solid shore fishing. This often coincides with the local mullet run – which tarpon love. This is the best time of year to use live mullet as your bait.
The winter months are off-season for tarpon in Tampa Bay and should be avoided unless you’re desperate.
Where to Fish for Tarpon in Tampa Bay
So what parts of Tampa Bay are best for tarpon fishing? Glad you asked. Anna Maria Island is the mecca of Tampa Bay tarpon fishing. The small island is often regarded as the tarpon capital of the world. The island has some unique features that make it perfect for tarpon. They enjoy feeding in the shallower waters near shore and around Bean Point, as well as hanging out near Longboat Pass for shelter. Bean Point is known to have over 10,000 tarpon during their migratory summer months. We recommend borrowing a friend’s boat or getting a fishing kayak to access the prime fishing spots.
Passage Key is also another tarpon hot spot during the peak months of Tampa Bay tarpon fishing. Many different types of baitfish live in the waters surrounding Passage Key, which attracts tarpon year-round. During the migratory month, massive schools of tarpon flow through the key to feed. Look for them rolling on the surface.
North of passage Key is Egmont Key – another great place to fish for tarpon near Tampa Bay. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge attracts huge balls of baitfish throughout the year, and both migratory and resident tarpon love to feed there. The extra shade and underwater structure attract all kinds of fish and make Egmont Key a tarpon haven. The nearby flats are also a great location to tarpon fish in Tampa Bay.
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Tarpon are one of the most exciting fish you can fish for in Tampa Bay. Whether you hook a 20 lb baby or 200 lb monster, you’ll always remember your first tarpon. We hope after reading this article you’re prepared to tarpon fish in Tampa Bay no matter the season. If you do end up fishing for tarpon in Tampa Bay, share your story with us in the comments below.