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Unveiling the Mystery of Tarpon’s Rolling Behavior

If you’ve ever fished for tarpon, you’ve probably seen them swim up to the surface and roll. It’s an impressive sight to see and can be a great sign if you’re sight fishing. But what are the tarpon doing when they come close to the surface? 

Why do tarpon roll?

The short answer is that tarpon roll to breathe oxygen. They use their swimbladder to augment the oxygen they get through their gills and often roll near the surface when the water conditions have low oxygen levels. To learn more about why tarpon roll and how they breathe, we need to dive into a tarpon’s anatomy.

Tarpon Anatomy

Before we get into how tarpon’s swimbladders help them breathe, let’s quickly go over what tarpon are and what they look like. 

Tarpon are a saltwater sportfish that frequents the southern part of North America’s east coast. They congregate in the highest numbers off the coast of Florida every summer and fall. They can be identified by their large eyes and big silver scales.

Author Note: There are actually two species of tarpon, Atlantic Tarpon and Indo-pacific Tarpon. Indo-pacific tarpon are smaller than Atlantic tarpon and aren’t fished nearly as much as their larger Atlantic cousins. 

Atlantic tarpon are the species that is most fished, and the type that live in populous areas such as Miami, Boca Grande, and many other Florida cities. Tarpon are usually found in the ocean near shore, but they are able to survive in brackish water and often hang out near coastal and freshwater sources.

Tarpon are very large fish. Adults often 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 blue/green fins. Their eyes have adipose eyelids that give them great eyesight.

Tarpon can see well in the dark and often hunt at night. They have very large mouths with a lower jaw that extends further than the rest of their face.

Tarpon Swim Bladders and Rolling

Now that we’ve covered the basics of tarpon anatomy, let’s get into how they use their swimbladders to breathe (which is why they roll). A tarpon’s swimbladder is connected to their gut which allows them to swallow air to get oxygen.

When the swallowed air gets to the swim bladder, the swim bladder uses an alveolar to remove the oxygen from the air and allow the tarpon to breathe. 

This is a unique advantage, as a tarpon’s swim bladder can help the tarpon get more oxygen in its system if the water it is swimming in is low in oxygen. It can also optimize between its gills and the swim bladder depending on the environment.

Tarpon are often seen rolling and using their swim bladders to breathe early in the morning when oxygen levels are low in the water. This is because the plants and algae that live in the water haven’t seen sunlight for hours and haven’t produced oxygen. It’s also because the tarpon may have been resting or sleeping recently.

As the day progresses the water living plants will photosynthesize and produce more oxygen. 

Tarpon also roll more frequently when the water temperature they’re in rises above 79 degrees. It’s at this temperate that the oxygen density in the water begins to decrease and tarpon supplements they’re gills with their swim bladders.

Lastly, you’ll often see tarpon roll at the end of a fight. This is because they’re exhausted from fighting and swimming and need more oxygen to recuperate. 

Why Do You Bow to Tarpon?

You’ll often hear the phrase “bow to the king” when fishermen talk about fighting tarpon. So why should you bow to tarpon? 

What they mean by bowing is to point the tip of your rod down towards the water. This is because tarpon are one of the hardest fighting fish and will almost always jump out of the water when hooked. If a tarpon jumps out of the water and your rod tip is high, it can be easy for them to throw the hook.

This is because there won’t be enough pressure applied to the fish as it flips through the air. 

Author Note: If you hold your rod tightly against where the tarpon is jumping, another issue can happen. When a tarpon leaves the water and flips through the air, extra tension can build up on the line and rip the hook out.

This is also resolved by pointing your rod tip towards the tarpon and lowering it close to the water. Not too much tension, or too little.

Is Tarpon a Good Fish to Eat?

Tarpon is most definitely NOT a good fish to eat, and for many reasons. First and foremost, tarpon are illegal to keep in the United States unless you have a trophy tarpon permit. A trophy allows you to keep one tarpon per year and is specifically used for going after size records. 

Before tarpon became protected and you could keep them, most fishermen quickly learned that they are riddled with small sharp bones. These bones make both cleaning and eating them very difficult and not worth their time.

On top of that, fishermen that have tried them report that the meat is quite tough and does not taste particularly good. So if the above two reasons weren’t enough to dissuade, maybe the bad taste will be. Stick to other good-tasting saltwater fish like redfish or cobia.

Can Tarpon Bite You?

The short answer is yes, tarpon can definitely bite you – but they don’t have any teeth so it most likely won’t hurt much. The inside of their mouths are rough like sandpaper to help them grip their prey.

We still recommend getting a good pair of saltwater fishing pliers to help pry your hooks out of a tarpon’s large jaw. The pliers will prevent you from hurting yourself on either the fish or the hook.

How Long Do Tarpon Live?

Tarpon can live up to 50 years old, and grow to almost 300 lbs if left alone. They often grow over 6 feet long and feed on migrating mullet and other baitfish. 

Tackle Needed for Tarpon

You need to be prepared with the right size fishing tackle to fish for the Silver King. If you show up with something too small, a tarpon will make quick work of it. We recommend using a large saltwater fishing reel paired with either surfcasting fishing rod or a pier fishing rod.

The longer rod and 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 going after 100 lb or over monsters, we recommend going with a 100 lb test braided fishing line. 

We also recommend getting a pair of fishing sunglasses under $100 or polarized sunglasses for sight fishing. They will help you spot rolling tarpon.

As we mentioned above, tarpon are catch and release only in most waters unless you have purchased a trophy tarpon tag. This is to keep their numbers high and prevents them from being overfished. One tarpon tag may be purchased per person per year.

Depending on where you fish for tarpon, there may be additional rules on landing them. In Florida, 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. It also allows them to properly recuperate after a long fight.

You should also avoid towing a caught tarpon on the side of your boat unless you think it’s necessary to revive it. If you do decide to tow the tarpon, go slowly – this means absolutely no wakes. 

You should also avoid fishing for tarpon if you spot large sharks nearby. Sharks will recognize a golden opportunity to bite a tired tarpon and easily kill the large fish.

How to Catch Tarpon

There are many ways to fish for tarpon, so we’ll cover the basics on each below. We’ll start with the most common techniques for tarpon and end with some of the more exotic/difficult.

Catching Tarpon with Live Bait

The easiest way to catch tarpon is to fish with live bait. We like using one of the tarpon’s natural prey like mullet. If you’re wondering how to hook a mullet, we’ve written up a guide you can check out. Mullet are a great option for many saltwater sports fish, including tarpon. You can fish for tarpon with live bait either from shore or from a boat.

Author Note: Once you’ve properly rigged your live bait, you’ll need to cast it near where tarpon are hiding. If you see tarpon rolling, this is obviously a great place to cast your bait.

Other solid places to look for tarpon are under bridges, near docks, and anywhere you see schools of baitfish or birds on the surface of the water.

Catching Tarpon with Lures

Another great way to catch tarpon is to fish for them with different types of lures. Check out our article on the best lures for tarpon, and use a similar size setup as what you would use for live bait.

Cast your lure in front of where the tarpon are rolling, or into a school a baitfish that is near them. Retrieve your lure like a wounded fish. This is what the tarpon are looking for – an easy bite to eat.

Tarpon on the Fly

If you’re up to the challenge, you can also catch tarpon by fly fishing. Many large saltwater flies will work well, but be warned. Fly fishing for tarpon is very difficult and should only be attempted by experienced fly fishermen. You’ll need a lot of patience and a heavy fly set up to succeed.

Once you’ve spotted tarpon near the surface, carefully cast your fly directly in front of them. Pop your fly rapidly back towards by stripping line, and pray that they go after it. If you do end up hooking a tarpon, be ready to let out lots of fishing line as it fights.

Most tarpon will be able to overpower the drag on a fly reel, so you’ll need to be able to tire them out with time.


We hope that you now know the answer to why do tarpon roll, along with many other fun facts about tarpon. You might have even learned a few extra tricks and skills for how to catch them!

If you end up using anything you learned to catch your next Silver King, let us know about it in the comments below. And if you are looking for a guide, check out our write up on the best tarpon guide in the Florida Keys!

Happy Hunting!


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