Sarasota’s Sensational Tarpon Fishing Options

Words alone cannot adequately describe the immense size, incredible power and spectacular explosiveness of tarpon.

Instead, to be fully appreciated, tarpon must be seen and experienced. Hook up with one of these silver rockets, and the encounter will leave even the most seasoned angler stunned and amazed, with hands trembling and heart racing.

A perfect example is my most recent tarpon adventure, which was in late June, in Sarasota, Fla. Although the entire episode lasted all of eight seconds, it was incredibly thrilling and only further intensifies my fascination with tarpon fishing.

A live blue crab, hooked through the point of the shell, is the top bait for tarpon in the Gulf of Mexico near Sarasota, Fla.

I had cast a live blue crab directly in front of a moving school of tarpon that had just rolled across the surface and sounded. As the bait sank there was one quick “bump” on the line, and my guide yelled, “start reeling.” After about two quick turns on the reel handle the line snapped tight with a powerful jerk, and the hooked fish made a beeline for the surface. The water absolutely erupted as six feet and 100 pounds of angry fish went flying skyward. At the height of the fish’s flight, when it was some five feet above the water, there was a loud “crack” as the 30-pound test braided line exploded. The nearly violent episode was over, and the tarpon was gone. I was shocked and awed, and I wanted more!

Sarasota: A Tarpon Haven
Sarasota, on the Gulf of Mexico, in southwest Florida, is a great place for getting up close and personal with tarpon. In Sarasota, I fish with Captain Rick Grassett. His guide service, “Snook Fin-Addict Charters,” is recognized as the best in the Sarasota area.

During my previous trips to Sarasota, we have hooked and battled tarpon and managed to get them boatside where they were quickly unhooked, photographed, and released. I have traveled to Sarasota to fish for tarpon six times in the last 10 years, and I plan on going back again real soon to enjoy more of that action. Captain Rick is affiliated with “CB’s Saltwater Outfitters,” Sarasota’s leading tackle shop. CB’s is an Orvis-endorsed outfitter and guide service, and Aledia Tush at CB’s can arrange a trip for you with Captain Rick or another local guide.

The best time for gigantic tarpon in the Gulf of Mexico is late May, June and into July. After Captain Rick positions his Action Craft flats boat about 100 yards to 300 yards off the beach, the first order of business is not to fish, but to stand watch. Along with gills, tarpon have an air bladder, and they’ll occasionally roll across the surface to gulp air. Anglers scan the water for any kind of splash or flash that will reveal the presence of air-gulping tarpon. When fish are located, Captain Rick uses his two stern-mounted trolling motors to quietly move the boat to where his anglers can cast to them as they pass by.

With rods in hands, anglers stand poised to cast. When tarpon pop up near the boat the anglers cast directly in front of the moving school. Casting accuracy is crucial — the live bait must land ahead of the tarpon and sink directly in front of them as they swim by.

Tarpon Love Blue Crab
The favorite bait for tarpon is a live blue crab, with claws removed, hooked through the point of the shell on a circle hook such as a Gamakatsu octopus 6/0 4x strong. Working our way up the tarpon rig, the circle hook is attached to an 18-inch piece of 80-pound fluorocarbon leader. Then a uni-knot or Albright knot is used to connect the leader to the main line from the reel, which is 30-pound test Power Pro braided line. Live bait anglers with Captain Rick take on tarpon with Shimano Baitrunner 6500 spinning reels mounted on 7-foot medium-heavy rods.

An angler bows to a leaping juvenile tarpon, which was hooked in a canal in Charlotte Harbor near Punta Gorda, Fla. Bowing and pointing the rod tip at the airborne fish proves line and helps prevent break-offs. (Photo by Rick Grassett)

Anglers also can seriously challenge their casting and fish-fighting skills by fly fishing for these legendary gamefish. For fly fishermen, Captain Rick recommends an Orvis T3 or TLS 12-weight rod with an Orvis Odyssey or Vortex reel. An important feature in a reel is a smooth, large-surface drag, usually cork. An intermediate line is used, and the leader consists of a 3-foot, 50-pound butt section, and a 2-foot, 25-pound class tippet which has two bimini knots and terminates with 1 foot of 80-pound test bite tippet (fluorocarbon). Especially productive tarpon flies include dark bunny flies on 4/0 Owner AKI hooks, and Enrico Puglisi Mullet flies in 3/0.

The key to casting is to present the fly or crab ahead of the fish, while allowing it to sink to the depth the fish are occupying. Fly fishermen need to move the fly straight away, or quartering away, from the fish. Anglers fishing crabs should slowly reel in only enough line to pick up any slack.

Reel Down Technique
A bite on a crab will usually feel like a quick bump. Then, because circle hooks are being used, the angler should reel down quickly until the line comes tight. As soon as a tarpon is hooked expect it to come blasting out of the water, and when it does the angler — whether a fly fisherman or a bait fisherman — needs to quickly bow toward the fish while pointing the rod tip at the fish. One does that in order to provide slack to prevent the flying fish from breaking off. Lean back only after the fish has re-entered the water. If everything goes well and the fish stays on, the angler should expect to spend at least the next hour or so battling a very angry, very powerful, and very determined adversary.

Fly fishermen need to use the butt of the rod to fight the fish, not the rod tip. Hold the tip low; raising the rod tip may result in a shattered fly rod. Captain Rick will move the boat to within 20 or 30 feet of the fish and the angler can apply maximum pressure by pulling directly toward the tarpon’s tail.

My most recent visit to Sarasota in late June featured two days of fishing. My brief and bodacious encounter with the big tarpon occurred during the first day. The next day, our final day to fish, was marred by periods of heavy rain, relentless winds, and ugly seas that made the gulf unfishable.

However, all was not lost. Sarasota is unique in that it offers anglers interesting and exciting options for tangling with tarpon. Along with the heavyweight encounters, featuring the sheer size and power of 75-pound to 150-pound tarpon in the Gulf of Mexico, there’s also a middleweight option. It involves sneaking up on, and casting to juvenile tarpon as they prowl the canals of Charlotte Harbor near Punta Gorda, just south of Sarasota.

A Fine Plan B
The narrow, protected canals near Punta Gorda provide an excellent “Plan B” when windy conditions make the Gulf of Mexico too rough to fish. We took advantage of that option and enjoyed a day of fishing even though we couldn’t get out on the gulf. Trailering south to Punta Gorda to fish the canals for 10-pound to 40-pound tarpon is an exciting adventure of its own, involving lighter tackle than what is used in the gulf. Juvenile tarpon cruise the canals from May through October. Captain Rick uses his trolling motors to silently stalk the canals, and anglers sight-cast to rolling tarpon with flies or lures, including DOA lures such as the TerrorEyz, Shrimp, Swimming Mullet and Baitbuster, and also MirroLures.

Captain Rick Grassett unhooks and prepares to release a tarpon estimated at 75 pounds. When hooked, these huge fish often come flying out of the water, and it can take as long as two hours to bring them boatside.

Even these smaller canal tarpon will go ballistic when hooked. Captain Rick once hooked a canal tarpon that came flying out of the water and crashed into a chain-link fence in the backyard of a home on the canal. We managed to hook up with two, but they earned their escape before they could be brought to boatside. A typical day of canal fishing will feature three or four tarpon jumped, with one or two of those fish brought to the boat and released.

To arrange your tarpon fishing adventure, call Captain Rick Grassett at 941-923-7799 (his website is snookfin-addict.com). Or call CB’s Saltwater Outfitters at 941-349-4400 (cbsoutfitters.com). Most guides carry two anglers at a total cost of $450 per trip. CB’s and the guides can provide you with the names and numbers for affordable, comfortable and convenient hotels and restaurants. The Sarasota-Bradenton Airport is only 10 miles from CB’s.

My recommendation is to plan for at least two days of fishing. That way you can enjoy both fantastic options: huge tarpon in the Gulf of Mexico, and juvenile tarpon in the Charlotte Harbor canals. Both will provide you with a truly thrilling and memorable fishing experience.

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