A Pro’s Guide To Georgia Tarpon

August is tarpon time off the Georgia coast. Here are tips for catching the silver king.

Capt. Spud Woodward | August 1, 2005

Coastal Georgia has never been known as a premier destination for tarpon anglers. Folks know and appreciate the area for speckled trout, redfish, and king mackerel, but places like Boca Grande and the Florida Keys get all the glamour press for the silver king. Yes, these places have earned their reputation, but Iʼll let you in on a little secret — Georgia has tarpon. Big tarpon.

Each year, anglers report catching fish weighing 150 and 200 pounds based on length and girth measurements. Fish in the 100- to 125-lb. range are so common that no one really brags on them. The length-girth estimation method (square the girth, multiply by the length, and divide by 800) is used since most people prefer not to kill a tarpon just for the sake of a photo or to get an accurate weight. Plus, state law prohibits the harvest of more than one tarpon per angler per day, and that fish has to be over 68 inches in length.

The waters just off the Georgia coast in August offer excellent chances to hook into a big tarpon.

Tarpon arrive as early as May, but peak numbers occur from mid-July to October. August is the prime month for fishing, with September a close second. Based on tag returns, it appears the fish that summer in Georgia migrate northward from wintering grounds in south Florida. So, you can imagine they have seen their share of baits, lures, and anglers by the time they arrive. Once here, tarpon can be found along the barrier-island beaches, in the tidal rivers and sounds, and prowling the sandbars near the inlets that connect the ocean to estuaries.

Capt. Greg Hildreth of Brunswick has a love-hate relationship with the tarpon. He loves the challenge of getting one to bite for his clients, and he loves to see the smiles on their faces when a big tarpon goes airborne. But the dawn-to-dusk routine during the oppressive heat of August can make for a long month, and the fickleness of tarpon could try the patience of Job.

A 26-year veteran of tarpon fishing with the past 18 spent in Georgia, Greg has developed a set of tactics and an extensive local knowledge that makes him one of the Golden Islesʼ most consistent producers of tarpon strikes. While he specializes in fishing the nearshore waters from the beach to about six miles offshore, heʼll venture into the estuaries when the conditions are right and the fish are there. Wherever the tarpon are youʼll find his 23-foot CoastLine center-console, Minner Skinner.

I had high hopes of joining Greg on a tarpon trip, but the weather and work schedules foiled my plans. Instead, I took the opportunity to pick his brain for some information that will help the reader develop a Georgia tarpon game plan. Fortunately, this plan doesn’t call for anything other than a seaworthy boat, some heavy tackle, a strong back, and a healthy dose of patience.

Home Of The King: The Georgia coast is a paradise for marine life, but a challenging place for anglers. The twice-a-day tides that make it such a productive ecosystem rise and fall from six to nine feet depending on the moon phase and wind. The currents caused by these tides combine with the geology of the coast to create a mix of shallow and deep areas, all of which are great habitat for species like the tarpon. Yet, the sheer abundance of fishing spots can be overwhelming when itʼs time to make choices.

Capt. Greg Hildreth said August is the best month to find good numbers of these silver kings along Georgiaʼs coast.

Fortunately, tarpon are creatures of habit, and you can expect to find them in the same general areas each year. However, year-to-year variations in climate, especially rainfall, can drastically affect the salinity and temperature of coastal waters, as well as the distribution of baitfish. So, there is no substitute for exploration and constant contact with the other tarpon addicts in your area.

Greg fishes from the Golden Isles Marina on St. Simons Island but covers a lot of territory through the course of a tarpon season. Although he always prefers to fish the closest productive spot so that he can have more time with baits in the water, he will make a long run when the fishing report is good.

“During the summer, I fish from the mouth of the Altamaha River down to the north end of Cumberland Island, a length of coast about 30-miles long which includes three estuaries. The list of known tarpon spots in this area includes Wolf Island Bar, Pelican Spit, and 90-Degree Bar, just to mention a few. Thatʼs a lot of water, but I know that somewhere thereʼll be tarpon. This year, the area east of the St. Andrews estuary and Little Cumberland Island is producing good numbers of fish. In fact, itʼs the best Iʼve seen since the late 1990s. Iʼve jumped almost 40 tarpon so far this year, and weʼre just getting into the best part of the season.”

Greg has to make tough choices since his clients are looking for hook-ups and not just a boat ride. Over the years he has learned to think like a tarpon when making his daily game plan.

“When I scout an area, Iʼm looking for bait, primarily schools of menhaden. No matter how good a spot may have been in years past, if I donʼt see an abundance of menhaden, Iʼm not going to spend my time there. I donʼt worry about the size of the menhaden as much as numbers. Tarpon are opportunistic and will eat just about anything, but thousands of menhaden washing over a shoal is hard to ignore. Thatʼs where the fish will be, so thatʼs where I want to have my baits.”

Greg sets up on the shoals that flank the deeper waters of the inlets. These bars may be as close as a few hundred yards off the beach or they may be several miles out into the Atlantic. Regardless of distance from shore, the tide carries baitfish back and forth over these shallow areas. Plus, the tidal currents create eddies that momentarily disorient baitfish, giving the predator an advantage.

“Tarpon will work the down-current edge of a shoal, looking to ambush the menhaden and other baitfish moving in the current. On an outgoing tide, Iʼll anchor the boat on top of the shoal in six to eight feet of water and put my baits back at the drop-off in depths of 10 to 15 feet. When the tide turns, I reverse position. Anytime Iʼm on anchor, Iʼm watching the movement of baitfish in the area. If I see a part of the shoal that is getting more bait traffic, I donʼt hesitate to move,” said Greg.

Tarpon Temptation: Freshly caught menhaden is Gregʼs bait of choice. This oily baitfish is found in abundance near the tarpon fishing grounds and can be caught with a heavily weighted cast net. A flow-through, circular or oval baitwell is a necessity for keeping a couple of dozen menhaden alive. Extra menhaden go on ice in a cooler.

Greg uses a four-rod spread with a mixture of live and dead baits that covers the water column. Once the boat is anchored, the first bait out is a live menhaden under a float, which is drifted down-current to 30 yards. Next out is a free-lined or lightly weighted (1/4-oz. egg or rubber-core sinker) live bait set at 15 to 20 yards behind the boat. Both of these baits are hooked through the nostrils. Then Greg pulls out two fresh dead menhaden, cuts off the tails, and hooks them through the eye sockets. These go on the bottom about 15 yards behind the boat

After the baits are out, itʼs time for the nastiest, but perhaps, most important chore of the trip. Greg likes to have a minimum of a 48-quart cooler full of dead menhaden for a half-day trip. These are turned into tempting tidbits designed to lure a tarpon into the bait spread. Greg prefers the chunking methods versus the grinding method of chumming favored by other anglers.

“I use a pair of game shears to cut each menhaden into three pieces. I drop these chunks overboard creating a sinking chum slick that will whet the appetite of a tarpon but wonʼt fill it up. The sinking chunks donʼt attract the gulls like floating chum nor the small sharks and Spanish mackerel that seem to show up when you use the finely ground chum. Each time you have to replace cut-off bait or fight a small shark, you might miss having bait in front of a tarpon,” he explained.

While tarpon do not have teeth, the inside surfaces of their bucket-size mouths are very abrasive. So, leaders are a necessity. Monofilament in the 80- to -150-lb. test range is the leader material of choice for most tarpon anglers including Hildreth.

“I make my leaders from 130-lb. test Cajun Red Lightinʼ monofilament. Theyʼre four-feet long, finished off with the surgeonʼs loop on one end and either a conventional or circle hook on the other. The surgeon loop is used to attach the leader to the 150-lb. test coastlock-style snap swivel at the terminal end of the 50-lb. main line.

“For my bottom baits, I thread the leader material through a 2-oz. egg sinker and pull it snug against the surgeonʼs loop. Then, I go down about six inches and tie an overhand knot. That way, the egg sinker stays in place on the leader and doesnʼt go sliding up and down the leader during the fight. Sometimes all it takes is the leverage of an egg sinker to pull the hook from a tarponʼs jaws.”

Both conventional J-style hooks and circle hooks work for tarpon. Most guides, including Greg, have success with the Mustad 7766 in a 6/0 or 7/0 size. Although these hooks are sharp straight out of the box, Greg takes no chances. He uses a file to touch up the point to ensure the best chance of driving it into the hard mouth of a tarpon. He repeats the process after every jumped fish or hook-up.

The debate over circle hooks for tarpon continues to rage as Golden Isles guides have had mixed results. Greg uses them on his dead baits, and has had some success. When choosing a circle hook keep in mind that the distance between the point and hook shank is the limiting factor. So regardless of the model or assigned size be sure to pick a hook that has a gap-width of at least three quarters of an inch. This will usually be a hooked designated as a 10/0 or larger.

The Fight Is On: Regardless of whether heʼs using conventional or circle hooks, Greg lets the rod holder do the work of setting the hook. “I have strong gunwale-mounted rod holders on my boat, and Iʼm using Shakespeare Ugly Stick rods that can take the shock of a tarpon strike. So, I leave the rods in the holder with the reel in gear and about 10 pounds of drag. Usually the fish makes one jump before I can even get to the rod. If the hook stays in after that first jump, weʼve got a pretty good chance of keeping him on the line,” said Greg.

Once the angler gets over the shock of realizing that an airborne silver missile is attached to the rod in their hand, itʼs time to get to work. The contest might only go 20 minutes or it could last for an hour or more. A fighting belt is a necessity both for leverage and comfort.

No two tarpon are created alike. Some stay close to the boat and others head off on a blistering run down the coast. Some make multiple jumps, others only a few.

Although he keeps a float ball on the anchor rope just in case he has to chase a fish, Greg prefers to have his clients fight the tarpon from the anchored boat. In his words, “Youʼre playing the tarponʼs game when you leave the anchor and follow it.”

Greg uses heavy-duty conventional reels like the Pflueger G30L spooled with at least 400 yards of line. This set-up provides plenty of capacity for the fish that tries to leave the county.

Tarpon are a very primitive species and have retained the ability to gulp air to supplement the function of their gills. Oftentimes during a fight, a tarpon will rise to the surface and do just that. When this happens, you can count on another 10 minutes of battle. Greg instructs his clients in a technique designed to foil this behavior.

“When I see the line coming up, I know the fish is either going to jump or itʼs trying to gulp air. If it looks like a jump, I tell the angler to lower the rod tip or bow to the fish. This can prevent a break-off if the body of the tarpon happens to fall on the leader or mainline. If the fish makes an attempt to gulp air, I instruct the angler to quickly sweep the rod tip in the opposite direction of the tarponʼs movement. This serves to disorient the fish. In the confusion, the fish apparently forgets about gulping air.”

When the fish gets close to the boat, be on your toes. Many a person has been rudely surprised when an apparently exhausted fish made one last jump at the side of the boat.

Greg handles the fish with gloved hands. He explains, “As soon as the leader is within reach, I grab it and take a wrap being sure to keep the line in front of thumb and wrist. I pull the fish to the boat and leaning over the gunwale use my free hand to get an overhand grip on the tarponʼs jaw. This leaves most of the tarponʼs body in the water reducing stress on the fish and the risk of damage to the boat or injury to a client. With this grip, I can quickly push the fish away in case of a jump. Once Iʼm confident with my grip, I release the leader and do my best to remove the hook. If itʼs too deep, Iʼll cut the leader.”

Tarpon fishing is one of Georgiaʼs great angling adventures. August is certainly a hot month for tarpon, but consider September and October, too.


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