Cumberland Island Tarpon
Silver kings offer Atlantic Ocean anglers the chance for trophy-fish status without the long boat rides often associated with big game fish.
If you happen to find yourself in a boat just off the barrier islands this month, don’t be surprised to see big silver fish blasting bait out of the water. And while our ocean waters are known for a healthy shark population, that’s not what I’m talking about in this case. What you are very likely seeing is feeding tarpon!
Every year, during the summer months, these majestic fish cruise up the Florida coast into Georgia waters and gorge themselves on the plentiful baitfish that travel in large schools, and the spectacle is impressive. When the action is in full swing, you’ll see tarpon rolling on the surface and baitfish flying in all directions as big fish attack from below.
The tarpon is by far the most approachable big game fish in the ocean because it runs so close to the shoreline, even up into the rivers at times. In good weather conditions, you can find yourself doing battle with a 150-lb. fish in a relatively small inshore boat right along the beach. This is undoubtedly the best chance an average angler has to land a true big game fish.
No need for an expensive, offshore boat. No pounding ride for 50 miles or more in each direction, just a quick run out through the jetties or sounds and toward the beach, and you’ll be in the thick of things in no time.
I had the opportunity to stalk these big fish with Tripp Lang, of St. Marys, in mid-July. Tripp has been fishing these waters for most of his life and chases tarpon near Cumberland Island every summer. We met at Lang’s Marina at 8 a.m. and were soon on our way.
Heading out through the jetties and turning north, we cruised along the edge of Cumberland Island. The first order of business was catching bait. Tripp drove along slowly looking for diving birds, a sure sign that there is bait in the area. It didn’t take long, and we drifted into a huge pod of bait that was flickering on the surface as it moved north. Tripp set up on the bow with his 10-foot menhaden cast net. The menhaden style net is important because it has a heavy weight band and will sink quickly. Tripp made a cast over the school, and that was it. One cast of the net yielded more bait than we could use on our whole outing. All the pogies were about 4 inches long.
Once we had the bait in the livewell, we were ready to start fishing. We didn’t have to go far because the big tarpon were hanging out around the school and were busting into the pogies all around the boat.
Tripp said the set up was pretty straightforward.
“I basically have three rigs that I use. An adjustable float rig that suspends the bait at a desired level under the surface (basically a bead and stopper rig), a slip sinker that takes the bait to the bottom and allows for freedom of movement and a freeline rig (just a hook tied to a leader) that allows the bait to swim freely to any depth it chooses.”
Using those three methods together, Tripp can saturate the water column and find where the tarpon are most likely to strike. In shallow water, less than about 12 feet deep, Tripp usually opts for the float rig on multiple lines. There’s need for the additional depth.
With the lines set out, we just followed the school and looked for surfacing tarpon. The school was moving really fast to the north, so every few minutes we would have to crank the big outboard and reposition ourselves. We got strikes right away, but unfortunately the first few fish we hooked were sharks.
“You’ll catch a lot of sharks with the pogies,” said Tripp. “But they are fun to catch, too. Sometimes Jack crevalle or even redfish will take the pogies, as well.”
Tripp uses surprisingly light gear in pursuing these big fish.
“I use Penn spinning reels, Conflict and Battle models, in both the 6000 and 8000 series, because the spinning gear is easier for clients to use than big level wind reels. You need a reel with a large line capacity and great drag, and these models fit the bill,” said Tripp.
He couples the reels with 7- to 8-foot, fast-action rods. The rods need to have a lot of backbone so you can get the fish to the boat as quickly as possible and enhance their chance for survival on release.
The reels are spooled with 65-lb. test braided line, and the rig is topped off with 80- to 100-lb. test fluorocarbon leader. The business end of the leader sports a 9/0 Mustad circle hook that helps with hook-ups in a tarpon’s bony mouth.
We have already talked about the pogies which are plentiful in the area in July, and it’s what we used on our outing. Tripp added that in August and September, the mullet show up in numbers and are excellent baits for the tarpon. They can be netted just the same as the pogies.
Look for birds, dark spots in the water and flipping fish on the surface.
Even though we saw plenty of fish, we were relatively early in the season, so the action was not as fast and furious as it will be later in the summer. We hooked two tarpon in a morning of fishing but didn’t get one to the boat. Both cut the leader with their sharp gill plates. Not so with the sharks. We pulled a half dozen to the boat with several longer than 6 feet. Fun but not what we were there for. The tarpon pattern will continue to improve through at least the middle of September, and your chances of success will get better, as well.
We fished just offshore from Cumberland Island for most of our trip. There were plenty of tarpon in the area, but they were reluctant to take the bait. We also dropped baits into a deep hole at the end of the north jetties. Tripp often finds tarpon there hanging out near the rocks. Tarpon will also come up into the river as far as downtown St. Marys. There is a ledge at the entrance to Point Peter Creek that seems to be a good holding spot for the big fish.
Tripp said that in his experience, the tarpon in these waters will average between 60 and 120 pounds, but fish of 150 pounds and more are regularly caught along the Georgia coast. A 160-lb. tarpon is an amazing fish, and with their speed, strength and acrobatic leaps, it is clear how they earned the name “silver king.”
Tough to Land
When the tarpon are in these waters, they are pretty easy to find, but they are hard to hook and even harder to bring to the boat. The mouth is very bony and difficult to penetrate. The circle hooks help, but unlike most applications of a circle hook, Tripp recommends that you make a hook set to try and break through the boney membrane. The fight is equally challenging, and contrary to what you might think, when a tarpon jumps, it is necessary to provide slack in the line, so the fish can’t get leverage and throw the hook. The recommended method is to bend at the waist, lowering the rod tip to the water, thus producing slack. This is commonly called “bowing to the king” and is a must to increase your strike-to-land ratio.
Tripp doesn’t bring the big fish into the boat but pulls them alongside for a few photos prior to release. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, he wants to release the fish with as little trauma and damage as possible. Second, a big, strong fish in a small boat with a couple of anglers can spell trouble.
Now Is The Time
Right now through the end of September may be the best chance you will have of landing a truly magnificent big game trophy. And you can do it right on the beach. Tripp guides for tarpon throughout these months. He is very familiar with their habits, and he stays in touch with what is going on at any point in time.
Give Tripp a call at (912) 674-1085 or visit his website at www.fishsaintmarys.com to book a fishing trip. I’m sure you will have a great angling experience, and you may just catch the best fish of your life.
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