Tarpon Time At Florida’s Egmont Key

Egmont Key is a small island that lies in the Gulf of Mexico just outside the entrance to Tampa Bay. There is a park here that’s primarily a wildlife refuge, accessible only by private boat. There is a lighthouse on the small island that was built a few years before the Civil War, and it was occupied by the Union navy during that conflict. But the majority of people who come to Egmont Key are not here for the park or its history; they come for the fishing!

And because of the key’s location outside the mouth of the bay, there is a great deal of current and radical changes in depth. The action around the small island is as good as it gets anywhere in Florida, particularly during spring and on through early summer.

Current flows freely here on the spring tides of the full and new moon. And where you have lots of current you have lots of bait, and where there’s bait, the rest of the food chain follows. So it is that May through September tarpon congregate around the key, with peak fishing coming around the full moon May through July. This spot is no secret, and on a spring tide with good weather you are going to find a bunch of boats netting crabs and looking to hook a tarpon.

Long stout rods rigged with 50-pound-test are preferred for big tarpon.

It was a late afternoon in June a day before the full moon when I arrived at Egmont Key just west of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge with four other anglers looking to hook a tarpon. The tide was slack and schools of Spanish mackerel and jack crevalles were tearing through pods of bait close to shore with an assortment of sea birds diving for leftovers. There were about 50 other boats milling around in the late afternoon sunshine waiting for the tide to start moving. The water temperature is in the high 80s, which means tarpon time on the Gulf side of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Key On Moving Tide
Moving tide is the key here and for the better part of an hour we idled about with one guy on the bow holding a long handled dip net looking for the first pass crab. It was a good while before we saw any, but as the falling tide finally began to flow crabs began to show up on the surface. They are about the size of a silver dollar and look very much like blue crabs in the carapace, but the claws are longer and skinny and they are a brownish color. These crabs are tarpon candy, and the faster the tide begins to rush, the more crabs begin to appear. Standing on the bow with a long handled net, catching the crabs is almost as much fun as fishing for the tarpon.

You can buy long handled extension nets made especially for netting pass crabs, but they cost about $60. Or you could buy a small landing net and extend the handle with 8- or 10 feet of PVC pipe. Once you catch the crabs, the best way to keep them alive is in a cardboard beer shell sandwiched in between layers of seaweed. Wet newspaper will suffice if you can’t find a sufficient quantity of sea grass. Put two dozen crabs in a 5 gallon pail of water, and most will be dead inside of an hour, while those kept damp and out of the sun will stay alive much longer.

At first the crabs show sporadically, but that soon turns into a flood as the current picks up steam. Every boat has a netter on the bow and all are busy gathering up the two or three dozen crabs needed to fish. As we net crabs, the occasional tarpon blows up on the surface. They know all about crabs and current so that’s the signal to rig a crab on a hook and start fishing!

To make handling the crabs easier, we first break off the claws — even these little 2-inch crabs can inflict serious pain with their powerful pinchers. Then you take a 3/0 to 5/0 circle hook and imbed it in the corner of the carapace. Now pitch the crab away from the boat, peel out some line and hurry up and wait as the boat drifts past the key.

Armed with heavy spinning tackle — stout rods with large capacity reels spooled with 50-pound braided line tipped with large circle hooks on 80-pound monofilament leaders — we go up current to begin the drift. Tarpon have an abrasive lip, and if you want more than a jump or two out of them, you need a heavy monofilament leader. The tide is ripping and the half-mile drift takes about 20 minutes.

Pass crabs are the bait of choice at Egmont Key.

Braided line is preferred for spinning tackle because the fine diameter makes for greater spool capacity, but most of the conventional anglers I know still prefer 50-pound monofilament. It’s not only harder for the fish to see, but it has a good deal of stretch, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing when playing 100-pound fish that like to jump.

Egmont Key can certainly get crowded, but it’s not like Boca Grande 100 miles to the south, where you can practically walk across the pass from boat to boat. The drift is longer here, and there is more space between the boats, and there are plenty of fish. There are not as many fish as at Boca, but certainly enough to go around.

An Electric Atmosphere
As we drift, we begin to see other boats hooking up — 60- to 100-pound tarpon are launching high into the air. Long stout rods are bent, and you can see anglers putting every ounce of strength into the fight. The atmosphere is electric, and you can literally feel the anticipation between the boats when a tarpon rolls now and again.

When fishing for tarpon in a crowd, you simply can’t give the fish his head. The idea is to put the rod to the fish until it jumps, then you bow to the king. When a 100-pound tarpon falls on a tight line, something has to give. One of the good things about fishing with freelined live crabs is that the hook generally sets well, and it’s hard for the fish to throw it. Break-offs are more common than thrown hooks when fishing with pass crabs.

Crabs are hooked in the corner of the carapace and freelined while the boat drifts in the strong current.

There are several nearby ramps that will put you within easy striking distance of Egmont Key. O’Neill’s Marina is a widely used  ramp on the west side of the bay with bait, tackle and fuel on hand.

This is not a sight-fishing trip, though you will see some fish rolling between the boats.

Unlike the conga line at Boca, the fishing is more relaxed here. And with the current economy, it’s probably not going to draw much more of a crowd any time soon. It is not overcrowded, nor is it likely to be anytime soon. There are just enough boats there to let you know that something special is going on. It’s almost as much fun watching the other boats hook up to leaping fish as it is to play one, but not quite.

Most of the tarpon we saw that night got off after a couple of jumps, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

When they are on somebody else’s line, I invariably find myself rooting for the fish. But since it’s mostly all catch and release, it really doesn’t matter.

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