Tarpon fishing is becoming more popular year after year here. We get calls daily asking us, What is the best way to go tarpon fishing in Key West? Here in this post I am hoping to answer that based on my 26 years experience as a professional Key West tarpon fishing guide.
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Best Way To Go Tarpon Fishing
The first thing we need to determine is how would you like to catch your tarpon? Would the angler like to use fly fishing rods and reels or is spin fishing with artificial or live bait the ticket to get them happy? Those might be the two most important questions that should be asked. Secondarily maybe asking how many anglers would like to go on one boat to go live the dream catching the silver king? Then Third and somewhat important for some anglers whole experience is the environment to where you would like to catch or fish for your tarpon here in Key West. So, Lets explore.
Spin fishing for tarpon is without doubt the most popular way to fish for the Silver King here in Key West. Mostly because more people are comfortable with spin fishing gear than they are with fly rods, But also due to the year round ease and accessibility of tarpon with this type of gear and the visiting anglers desire to pursue them as a sport fish.
We start to spin fish for tarpon steadily in Late February and early March. Tarpon Are usually a little deeper that time of the year and the water is a bit dirtier then, so fishing the channels and edges with live bait or artificial lures is more popular to catch early season tarpon. As the fishing calendar year goes on the water gets calmer, clearer and the tarpon get shallower and a bit more sensitive. In my opinion more interesting as they tend to be a bit more “sporty” and sight fishing for them is much more common with the conditions.
Across the board Backcountry fishing charters on board a 22-25 ft bay boat is the best and most popular solution for spin fishing for tarpon year round. Shallow or deep, around bridges or edges of channels and for many of the reasons below. Backcountry fishing is typically done on a bay boat. With the new technology making bay boats lighter and shallower, equipped with certain accessories that make them fishing machines and not weather affected as their flats skiff counterparts. Bay boats are hard to beat for spin fishing for tarpon here in Key West for the larger portion of anglers.
Fly fishing is a very special way to go sport fishing for tarpon. In my opinion at it’s higher levels there is more to it than just the catch. It’s about the whole adventure and the relationship with the fishing guide, the outdoors, the tarpon and the equipment. Though the years I have seen colleagues and clients get extremely passionate about the next level of this sport. Always fine tuning and looking for the next big thrill. They all have one thing in common. A load of time on the bow of a boat in front of tarpon to hone their skills.
Thats not to say a visiting angler will not have a chance to catch a tarpon on the fly. Its all about how they set up their trip experience. Skill levels and number of persons will dictate the needs for each experience. This is something that only the angler can determine and covey to us as to help them chose the right path and have a happy experience fly fishing for tarpon in Key West. There are so many levels of skill in fly fishing this lends itself to a potentially lengthy discussion of what trip is best for a prospecting angler. So, I will keep it simple.. The two feasible options a fly fishing angler that wishes to pursue tarpon is really based on the type of boats used.
Fly Fishing Skill Levels
During the migration many of our anglers wish to target tarpon using a fly rod. These are pretty tough fish to catch on fly so let’s talk about skill level. In order for anglers to be successful in fly fishing for tarpon they must be pretty proficient with a fly rod. There are few things a fly fishing guide can do to Help an angler along with their cast when the fish are right there and ready to eat. A base line for fly fishing for tarpon would be a strong ability for line control, line speed and distance. Line speed and distance is achieved by the double haul technique in the cast, without it, one might be wasting their time and money, if the goal is to have a tarpon eat the fly.
Last note – Although we will take 3 persons fly fishing for tarpon on our bay boats, we never recommend it. Things get complicated with that many people on a boat with a fly causing by at 200 miles per hour. One off cast and its painful.
Fly / Spin Combo Tarpon Trips
Fly Fishing / Spin Fishing Combo trips are a whole other subject. We always recommend a bay boat backcountry fishing charter for this type of trip. plenty of room for both types of fishing equipment and loads of room on the casting deck. Most folks that want to have both are either unsure about their casting ability or trying to appease other anglers in their party.. Either way.. Bay Boat is your best bet across the board.
The Different Types of Tarpon Fishing
Here in the Keys tarpon can be found just about anywhere there is slightly salt water and food source. Some of the more particular anglers like to fish for them in specific areas that promotes their idea of the best day. For the sake of confusion I will stick to the places that tarpon fishing charters will fish for them and maybe shed some further light on how to choose the right one for you.
Flats Fishing For Tarpon
Let’s start off with the flats. Flats fishing for migrating tarpon is very popular in May, June and sometimes into July. a huge time of the year for our fly fishing on board the traditional flats fishing skiff or bay boat. Reproduction behavioral patterns such as daisy chaining can be seen here along with long strings of fish numbering sometimes in the hundreds slowing making their way down the edges of the flats.
We call them babies, but… They range in size from 10 – 30 lbs. On our backcountry fishing and flats fishing charters we guide folks to our “babies” spots where we have groups of smaller fish that are just hanging out. They eat a fly or light artificial lure really well. Baby tarpon fishing has been an extremely popular way to fish for tarpon for years and best in the late Summer and fall months. o.
Backcountry And Channels
The most popular tarpon fishing charter in Key West. Tarpon start to push into the channels and the backcountry waters early in the year. These can be larger fish that eat live bait well and don’t mind a bit of stirred up or cooler waters. We see these tarpon sometimes as early as late January and mid February depending on how cold the winter was for us. The backcountry channels are all in between the flats. Easily navigated while fishing in a bay boat with a trolling motor with live bait. When the migration starts these fish are also targeted on fly fishing gear. Bay boats and flats fishing boats are the best solution for this.
Harbor And Bridges
Tarpon love the harbors and bridges but in most cases so do waves, ripping current and tough conditions. These large hearty tarpon eat well up and down the Florida Keys bridges and in Key West harbor. This fishery gets good in the spring through June. Bay boats with super strong trolling motors do well here and center consoles would be my second choice for comfort and a traditional way to fish the consistently harsher conditions. Can be bouncy to the norm but some spectacular rare days can be smooth calm and easy to fish in a flats skiff.
Tarpon Fishing Boats
Here in Key West we use three different types of boats when fishing for tarpon. Bay Boats which are 22-24 ft in length and flats fishing boats that are 16- 18 ft in length. Center console fishing boats that are up to 36 ft in length. All have their pros and cons. It boils down to the casters experience, physical ability and then the number of persons that are requesting to be on the trip.
Flats Fishing Skiff
Traditional flats fishing boats or technical skiffs are the most preferred vehicle for 1 or 2 experienced casters that know the game and can coordinate casting with the fishing guides commands. Flats fishing boats can be tippy and tarpon are not always in the calmer waters so we recommend asking if there is a casting platform or stabilizer stanchion for a crutch to help balance if that may be an issue. My flats fishing skiff is a Beavertail Elite 17ft.
As a flats fishing guide there are few things more fun that fishing on my flats fishing skiff with a skilled salt water fly fisherman. An angler that can make a strong 40- 60ft cast with 12 – 24 inches of accuracy in 2 false casts without touching the water with fly line or fly until the presentation is made. Making our way through the day with shots at tarpon and hopefully a good eat or three.
The majority of our tarpon fishing anglers enjoy the use of our technical bay boats. Trolling motors make a world of difference when getting on the fish. Incorporated with Power Poles to keep us in place at the desired angles for our casters the bay boats are the most effective way to get more shots at all versions of tarpon mentioned here on a very stable casting deck.
My personal bay boat is a Yellowfin 24 Carbon Elite. Specifically designed to be shallow, light and extremely maneuverable. Great ride for 4 anglers or less and shallow enough to fish for bonefish. Quite possibly the Ultimate Key West fishing boat.
Tradition often outweighs logic but in some cases tradition is logical. Center consoles for tarpon fishing can be that exception. Center consoles range in size from 26- 35 ft in length with loads of room and amenities. A great tarpon fishing platform for 4 or more anglers and arguably the best platform for sheer numbers when the tarpon are pushing through in the droves as they do most every May. The advantages are, comfort ride, the only option for 5 or 6 or anglers, heavier tackle and versatile options of heading offshore after tarpon fishing. Cons would be anchoring every stop, chumming and dead baiting for tarpon, most expensive option.