Welcome to our most popular fishing site (we have 17) – “How to Catch Tarpon Guide” where we share as much information as we ever knew and heard about Tarpon Fishing in Florida, Texas, and the east coast of the USA. Bookmark this page (Windows CNTRL+D, MAC CMD+D) so you don’t forget it!
[Page Updated – 29 November 2019]
WHAT RATINGS DO TARPON GET?
Size: 10/10 Fight: 10/10 Difficulty to Catch: 9/10 Taste: 0/10 – don’t eat Tarpon!
INDEX to Sections in this Guide:
- Tarpon FACTS
- WHY catch Tarpon?
- WHERE are Tarpon found?
- What do Tarpon EAT?
- HOW to catch Tarpon – Techniques
- WHEN is best for Tarpon?
- GEAR to use for Tarpon (our best recommendations)
- LAWS in Your State
How To Catch Tarpon | Guide
TIP – Tarpon are also called Silver Kings in some areas.
Names: Tarpon are known by their two most common names – Tarpon; and Silver Kings. But, when other countries and areas are taken into account, tarpon have a long list of nicknames: abalitsa, Atlantic tarpon, atlantischer tarpun, bass, big scale, caffum, camurupi, grande ecaille, grand-écaille, grande ecoy, madzorfloe, manyofle, mell, ofin, palika, peixe-prata, peixe-prata-do-atlântico, pez lagarto, sabalo, sábalo, sabaloreal, sabilo real, sadina, savalle, savallo, savaloreal, savanilla, silberfisch, silverfish, suwiki, tainha, tainha-congo, tapam, tarpao, tarpão, tarpão-do-Atlântico, tarpoen, tarpom, tarpón, tarpon argenté, tarpon atlantycki, tarpon trapoen, tarpone tarpone, tarponi, tarpum, trapoen, and wallidöër. [Source: https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/fish/discover/species-profiles/megalops-atlanticus/]
Species: Megalops atlanticus. The genus Megalops has been traced back 100 million years in the fossil record. Related to bonefish (Albula vulpes) and ladyfish (Elops saurus), and eels.
Similar Species: I can’t even think of another fish that is similar in appearance to Tarpon. It’s quite a unique fish. Tarpons have huge body scales and massive gill plates. They grow up to 9 feet in length and the biggest weigh-in at nearly 300 lbs. Tarpon are exceptionally strong fighters and jumpers, have no teeth, but they have a very hard mouth.
Description: Tarpon are bright silver-colored fish that look sort of like torpedos, but with big heads and an upturned mouth. Scales are huge compared to most fish. Scales are absent from the head. The mouth opens using the lower hinged jaw to swing open quickly, creating a vacuum inside the mouth which sucks bait right in. If you’ve never heard the smack of a tarpon hitting a top-water plug – my god, it’s something you’re going to remember! Tarpon are long and thin, oftentimes as big or bigger than a man. The top of the back is green or bluish. See image above.
The tail is large and the dorsal fin has a long strand coming off it- easy to recognize as you bring the tarpon to the boat or shore. The eyes are very large. The mouth is massive, you can fish with adult-sized mullet and tarpon can (and love to) swallow them whole).
Length: Tarpon grow to gigantic lengths – 8-9 feet long, at least 7 feet in most locations around their range. On average, tarpon are 4 feet long plus.
Weight: Tarpon grow quickly. A four-foot-long will weight at least 60 lbs. on average. Record size tarpon fish are over 250 lbs. If you catch a tarpon and want to estimate the weight, you can search online for tarpon weight calculators, there are dozens of them – you just need to know the length, but if you know the tarpon’s girth around as well, that will help improve accuracy. Male and female fish are different. Females with eggs can be quite big around.
World Record Size: The world record tarpon – the biggest (heaviest) ever caught was off the coast of West Africa and was more than 286 lbs. and 7.5 feet long. The longevity of tarpon can reach 63 years in captivity. See all tarpon records here.
Range/Distribution: Before I started this website, I didn’t know tarpon were found in Africa, South America… but, yes, they definitely are. There are two species of tarpon. Here in the USA we have the Atlantic Tarpon but there is another one that inhabits salt and freshwater as far away as Africa.
Tarpon in the USA are found in abundance in Florida – especially southern Florida. The water temperature around Miami and the Florida Keys is ideal for tarpon, and they stay there year-round. They also migrate up both Florida coasts. On the west side, you’ll find tarpon the entire way over to the panhandle. On the east coast, you’ll find them thin out around Jacksonville. But, there are tarpon found as far up as Nova Scotia and as far south as southern Brazil in South America! They are not common in the north and other cold places, and few people target tarpons in the northeastern states like New York, New Jersey, and north. But, they’re there in the warm months.
1.) Don’t Eat – Tarpon are not known for their delicious flesh, it has a strong smell and taste, along with hundreds of small bones that make cleaning the fish very difficult. Most states do not allow taking tarpon for consumption. Locals in Panama, the West Indies, and Africa do consume tarpon – some insisting it is delicious table fare.
2.) Tarpon are Dangerous – silver kings are very strong, and can hurt anglers- especially on a boat when it may flip hard and destroy parts of the boat, reels, rods, electronics. Apparently, anglers have died with a thrashing tarpon on a boat. Tarpon have also been known to jump on or over a boat and knock people into the water. Not quite as dangerous as a swordfish, but do be cautious!
WHY Catch Tarpon?
If you live in Florida or Texas, and you fish, you have already heard of tarpon, and you are probably excited about catching them but don’t know how to go about it. That’s why you’re here at this page. Don’t forget to bookmark this page and website so you don’t lose it.
- Tarpon are Perfect Sport Fish. Bottom line, there is probably nothing more exciting to catch in saltwater than big tarpon. I can’t think of anything close. Ok, I can think of a couple that are close. King Macks and Mahi are great fun! But you’re not going to find a bigger, stronger, more acrobatic fish than tarpon!
- Tarpon are Challenging to Catch! We’re not talking catching piranha here… tarpon are difficult to catch for a number of reasons. First, you have to have the right fishing tackle. A strong reel and a strong rod with 50-65 lb. braided test is preferred. Your hook should be 6/0 to 10/0 and super sharp. The tarpon mouth is like a hardboard and tough to hook. We all love to target a difficult fish to catch, and tarpon are certainly that.
- The Bigger the Better! We all love to catch huge fish, and again, there’s not much beating a 6-9 foot tarpon. When you stretch out your arms to show them how big the tarpon was you caught – people cannot help but be impressed!
WHERE To Find Tarpon?
Habitat – Tarpon are found in deep water and shallows – with a sandy bottom. Dark areas are better when on the bottom. Tarpon have the ability to gulp air at the surface, and it gives them a burst of energy to follow hard-to-catch prey over long distances.
Tarpon don’t mature until 7 years old, so while they grow quickly when small, they grow slowly over adulthood.
The best way I’ve found over the years to find the best tarpon fishing areas is to just research on forums. I mean, I’ve wasted two hundred hours reading tarpon reports for sure. Why did I do that? Nobody had a website like Salty101 that I could go to and have every answer in one spot. I finally had to MAKE THIS SITE!
1.) Tampa Bay, Florida – I was lucky enough to have lived here for 11 years on a saltwater canal leading into Tampa Bay and I literally fished the heck out of that place. What I learned about Tarpon is that they are seasonal, but more specifically they tend to stay in the same area for a short time and move a bit. Once you locate them, as you see them roll at the top of the water, or locate them on the fishfinder electronics, you can pretty much be sure they’re going to be there for the next few days – at least in the area. I have found that to be true over and over. I’ve also given up trying to predict exactly where the schools will be based on years past. Find them the first time, and then you’ll be able to focus for a couple of days. Sometimes WAY longer -and they’re in the same spots for a month or so.
2.) Clearwater and Tarpon Springs, Florida – Just north of St. Petersburg is Clearwater and Tarpon Springs on the Gulf Coast. A boat is necessary when fishing these areas for tarpon because from the piers you cannot safely and easily release big tarpon, and you cannot gaffe them. There’s no way to catch a 40-inch tarpon on the Sunshine Skyway Pier to the south, or Clearwater Pier, or any other pier, and walk the fish down to the shallows and release it gently. Don’t fish piers for tarpon. It isn’t good for the fish. It isn’t good for you to set a bad example.
3.) Boca Grande Pass (entire area) – Just to mention a couple of areas that I’m familiar with for catching tarpon daily for months – are listed above. Florida is absolutely full of “tarpon hot-spots” and if you’re planning on catching your first, head straight to the sunshine state in May, June, July and consume all of the information on our site here – and even hire a guide if you want to be 100% sure you can catch them. Plenty of people catch fish without guides, but if you don’t have a boat and don’t want to rent one – having an experienced guide can be an amazing experience on the water and well worth every penny.
Best Coastal Florida Areas for Catching Tarpon
- Tampa Bay (maps above)
- Bradenton coast.
- Sarasota coast.
- Ft. De Soto Park (map) in southern St. Petersburg
- Boca Grande near Ft. Myers (map)
- South of Miami
- Florida Keys (all of them, especially middle keys)
- Everglades south of Ft. Myers.
See our info page on WHERE to Find Tarpon Here >
More on Florida Tarpon
It’s funny that the one Florida game fish that you wouldn’t want to eat even if Florida Law permitted it, is the most sought-after game fish in all of Florida, and possibly the eastern and Gulf coasts. Tarpon fishing brings in tens of thousands of people each year from out of state to fish the number gamefish in the USA. Tarpon fishing brings in an astounding amount of money each year to Florida State, as they are seen as the Tarpon Fishing Capital of the country by far.
Texas can be pretty good for silver kings. Georgia is worth going for tarpon, but if you really want to see hundreds of big tarpon a day rolling at the top of the water – head to Florida with your vacation time and do whatever it takes to land yourself some prize tarpons!
It is possible to catch tarpon from the shore, wade-fishing, from kayaks, small boats, and big boats. Do be aware that when catching tarpon, the fish struggles in a way that attracts sharks and as you’re fighting the fish, you may lose half your fish to a big shark. I’ve seen this happen often.
It’s not so much fun to reel in just the head of your big tarpon and wonder how big it really was! Be careful yourself while kayak fishing or wade fishing for tarpon – or any fish. I once had a shark bump into me hard as it grabbed my bloody gator trout hanging in the water on a stringer wrapped around my girlfriend’s neck. Also not fun!
What Do Tarpon Eat?
The adult tarpon diet consists of fish like menhaden and mullet. These are the primary baits – live and dead, and tarpon eat them voraciously. Tarpon also eat crabs, shrimp, large insects and other fish like sardines, anchovies, catfish, pinfish, and silversides.
While juveniles, young tarpon have the ability to absorb bits of nutrients from the saltwater through their skin. As they grow, they graduate to eating zooplankton, mosquito larvae, small insects and very small fish and brine.
Artificial lures and live or dead bait work well for catching tarpon when they’re on the feed. Tarpon can suck in their food very fast, realize it isn’t food – and spit it – in a fraction of a second. So, you’re best to have your hooks sharpened and ready to go!
There are a number of ways to go about catching Tarpon. Personally, I prefer artificial lures for a few reasons
1.) Fishing for Tarpon with Artificial Lures is more sporting. Personally, I believe that catching any fish on live or dead bait – is easy. It’s just not that difficult because you have to do so little. It’s mindless.
2.) Fishing for tarpon using lures is difficult – once you become adept at finding schools of tarpon and getting them to bite, which frankly I think is not difficult with live or dead bait, you will want to try something a little more difficult. The angler who can catch fish with artificials is the more skilled fisherman (woman) for sure!
3.) Artificial lures are cheaper and less time consuming than catching or buying live bait. I mentioned before in my Salty101 site how I used to buy all my live bait. I’d spend $40 a weekend on live bait – shrimp and pinfish mostly – when fishing off my Wilderness Systems Perception kayak. I like lures so much for saving me more money and allowing me to purchase the bigger things I think I need, like a kayak, great reels and rods, and electronics.
What Eats Tarpon?
When young, just about everything bigger than a juvenile tarpon will eat it. That’s why it helps that female tarpon lay up to 12 million eggs at a time. Adult tarpon predators are: sharks, dolphin, alligators, and crocodiles. Occasionally a large bird can prey on tarpon as they come to the top to gulp air.
How to Catch Tarpon – Platform of Choice
Fishing Tarpon on a Kayak or Canoe
Some people do it. I never did. I loved my kayak and I loved my tarpon, but the idea of even attempting to catch tarpon on my kayak just never crossed my mind. Forty-inch snook? OK! Big Cobia? YES! Giant Trevally or Mahi? Absolutely! Tarpon? The thought never seriously crossed my mind.
Kayak tarpon fishers must, as a bare minimum, take some safety precautions if they’re bent on catching these huge fish from little boats. First one, always wear your life jacket. Second, at least always have someone else on-board. Don’t go alone. If your kayak seats just one – convince someone else to go out on their kayak next to you and buddy-up. There are just too many things that can happen when catching a 150 lb., 200 lb. thrashing tarpon out of a kayak or canoe. Don’t become a statistic. Sure it’s fun to catch bigger fish from tiny boats. But there’s a limit, and for me, this would be where I have to call an end to it!
Angling for Tarpon from a Fishing Boat
I think you have to fish tarpon from a bigger boat – a boat bigger than a kayak. This way you can go with a few people, put some beers in cooler, etc. Make a day of it. A social day. Someone gets thrown off the boat by an airborne tarpon, you throw him a lifesaver and keep fishing. It doesn’t mess up your day as much!
Quite often you’ll be able to see the tarpon on the surface, and know right where they are. It might take a bit of motoring around to find them, but you’ll find them if they’re there. Try the flats, and try different depths on the coast. Fishfinders can find them pretty easily, heck, they’ll be as big as half-pencils on the screen!
Fishing Pier Tarpon?
It isn’t right to try to catch tarpon from a fishing pier, because most of them are too high up off the water – like the Sunshine Skyway Bridge Pier in St. Petersburg, Florida. You can’t possibly haul a 150 lb. tarpon 20 feet up off the water to where you’re standing on the pier. Gaffs are not allowed – and actually, in Florida, you have to keep the entire fish in the water if it’s over 40 inches, so you couldn’t let it go without cutting the line – a poor practice to get into.
If you must fish silver kings from a pier, make it a pier close to the water to facilitate letting fish go.
There are many cases where you can catch a big tarpon right from shore by standing on the bank, or a retaining wall, or other structure. You don’t need a boat to catch tarpon, I’ve seen people do it all the time. Does a boat help you reach spots that are ‘better’? Maybe they do. Sure they do. But, there’s nothing quite like going tarpon fishing from the bank with some artificials and saving a WHOLE LOT of money in the process. Try it sometime!
I didn’t mention wade-fishing for tarpon because, like kayaking, it’s rather dangerous. The tarpon gets that 65-lb. braided fishing line wrapped around you and pulls you under… well, you’ve become the hunted!
When Is the Best Time to Catch Tarpon?
When the water warms up on the Tarpon World Range map areas, you can find tarpon there. Water of 50-60°F is chilly, and they prefer warmer water. Keep in mind, tarpon are massive fish and they never really stop eating. They eat day and night, and any month of the year, you just have to find them.
Tarpon Fishing Gear – Best Tackle for Your Best Chances
Catching tarpon requires the right gear – more so than with most fish. I mean, you can hang grandma’s thread with a safety pin on it and a piece of shrimp and catch pinfish. For tarpon, you had better have serious tackle capable of withstanding a beating. Because that’s what the silver kings will give it!
When I started fishing, I was using bargain tackle. I would go to garage sales and buy people’s junk and try to make tarpon rigs from it. I’d tell myself I could finesse a big tarpon in on a no-name spinning reel if I had to. I was just trying to save money at every opportunity. As time went on and I lost more fish than could stand, I started buying decent gear. First thing was a good reel. I have only used Shimano, Abu Garcia, and Penn reels, and I’ve since dropped Shimano – unless out for small stuff and I need a super-light spinning reel setup.
Today I use one of the best braided lines – usually 50-lb. test, but often I’ll just use the 65 lb. if it’s already on the spool. I change my lines once a year now, I never used to do that. I pull apart my reels and lubricate them with the exact right grease and oil. I check my rods for frayed tips and loose guides. There’s nothing more frustrating than missing a fish because some part of your gear breaks! I’ve had it happen often in the early years. Avoid that if at all possible. There’s a reason guys spend so much money on the right tackle. We hate losing fish!
Best Baitcasting Tarpon Reel and Rod for 50 to 150 lb. Fish?
I use baitcasting rods and reels for everything heavy. Well, that’s just about every time I fish. The only reason I don’t use a baitcasting reel and rod is for very light bait presentation – like trout fishing a stream, or a pumpkinhead plastic worm for bass in a river or stream. Everything else, and especially everything else strong – gets the baitcasting treatment. I just love them – they are so much more accurate to cast, because each cast is so consistent. I like the smoothness of the drag. I like the feel of the bait casters better. Plus, I feel like baitcasting reels are much more solid when reeling in big fish like tarpon. Once you switch from spinning reels to bait casters, I think you’ll never go back. They’re that amazing.
Best Baitcasting Reels
My favorite Penn Baitcasting Reel – choose this size for tarpon and all other smaller fish: SQL50LD – 40lbs/420yd
Best Baitcasting Rods
I’m partial to the Ugly Stiks. Why? I was using them twenty years ago and loved ’em. They’re strong, durable, and not so ugly. Many anglers started using them and just never stopped. You’ll probably like them too.
Best Spinning Reels
Though I suggest getting a baitcasting reel for catching tarpon, I understand that not everyone wants to learn how to use one. You probably grew up using spinning reels – like I did – and everyone I know did.
Many people use the spinning reels below for tarpon, and they love them. Here’s one from Penn that tarpon anglers use a lot.
Penn Spinning Reel for Tarpon for ‘SIZE’ select 8000. Made in America (Seattle, WA.)
For tarpon, you’d best use good braided line – the monofilament is much more prone to breaking because once you get a nick in it, there’s a weak spot in your line and the next hard pull will break it. With braided line it spreads the scrapes out – and frays rather than nicks – and this helps the line keep its strength. Braided lines don’t stretch much either – so you feel everything, every bite. Start with 50# (fifty pound) braided line and go to 65# if you’re trying to get a world record. Some people bring their tarpon in on 30# test, but it’s always better to start with 50# or stronger. As I said earlier, a fisherman can deal with just about anything – except tackle breaking. When a line breaks and you’ve got your first tarpon on – well, that’s a dream breaker!
For the leader – the part holding the hook and bait – use a yard-long piece of monofilament line – 80# because it’s clear and the fish won’t see it nearly as easily as the dark braided line.
For your main tarpon fishing line, I like the braided lines like the one below – either SpiderWire or Power Pro. I have had only good experiences wit both, and I know their quality controls are quite good. I’ve never had a bad line from either. I get my gear online because it saves me many hours of thought, travel, and trying to find the exact tackle I want in stores. So many times Walmart or other shops are sold-out of what I want. The entire internet isn’t usually sold out of anything. It’s fast and I can return it easily if I want.
PPRO 50 lb Braided Line (YELLOW high visibility. I like the yellow, easier to see)
PPRO 50 or 65 lb Braided Line (GREEN – 50 or 65 lb)
The best hooks for tarpon depend whether you’re using live or artificial baits and what they are. Buying online is my favorite way to buy gear anymore. Everything is cheaper and items are almost always in stock. Unlike your local Walmart.
I love Gamakatsu hooks. They are ultra-sharp and strong, and I’ve not used anything else for about 20 years since they first started making them (introduced them in the states).
Size 6 Tarpon Hooks – my favorite brand – sharp, strong, and high quality
How should you rig your line for catching tarpon? It can be very easy, depending on what you’re using. If using live-bait, just hook a mullet or big pinfish under the spine and give it a little toss out there.
For artificial bait, my choice lure was a float on top 10-inch long plastic fish. Since then, I’ve been recommending only one artificial lure for all situations – but in different sizes.
Best Artificial Lures
Everyone has their favorites, but to me, nothing beats the following artificial lures for tarpon. Buy a bunch of these and try a variety of colors to see what is working. What brings hookups one day, might not be good the next day. Fishing is always an experimental process of trying different lures to see what works and what doesn’t.
10 inch Soft Bait for Tarpon – 10″ Size for topwater, and just under the water.
14 inch Soft Bait for Tarpon – 14″ Size for a little bit deeper.
Tarpon are caught and released in every US state that I’m aware of. The reason is because they just don’t make good eating fish, so to keep pet food manufacturers from catching tarpon in bulk to throw in their kitty chow, there is no taking tarpon except in rare cases like in Florida – they allow one tarpon to be taken per year if chasing a record and you want to weigh it. Tarpon tags must be purchased in advance.
See State Laws here.
MORE TARPON INFO Pages
Tarpon Scientific Classification
Family: Megalopidae (DS Jordan, 1923)
Genus: Megalops (Valenciennes, 1847)
Megalops atlanticus (Valenciennes, 1847) – Found in USA.
Megalops cyprinoides (Broussonet, 1782)
Tarpon Guide Resources
Image credits (top to bottom)