Tarpon On!

Live bait, a chum line, the right terminal tackle and an anchor float, and you’re set to chase silver kings.

Ron Brooks | August 3, 2016

The book on tarpon is that you will hook only one in 10 tarpon you see and only one in five that strike a lure. After that you will boat only one of five that you hook. They are notorious for being difficult to hook and get to the boat.

Tarpon have a very hard mouth. It is extremely difficult to get a hook through the hard, inside surface of its mouth. The outside of the mouth is equally hard, and as such, tarpon are difficult to hook at best.

That’s why you need to have your hooks as sharp as possible. Whether it’s a Zara Spook artificial lure or a circle hook, it needs to be the sharpest hook in your box.

Circle hooks are preferred for using natural bait for a couple of reasons. First, the circle hook ensures that we won’t gut-hook a big silver king. The hook naturally makes its way to the side of the tarpon’s mouth as he moves away with the bait. And that brings in the second reason to use circle hooks—the side of the mouth is the softest part and consequently the easiest place to hook one.

If this doesn’t excite an angler, it’s time to take up hunting. Little, if anything, is more exciting in the realm of Georgia fishing than doing battle with a tarpon. This tarpon was caught by Ben Ricks, of New Bern, N.C. Photo Credit: Will Ricks, of Brunswick.

August is the prime month for tarpon up and down the Georgia coast. These big, hard-fighting fish are patrolling from behind the breakers out to as much as a mile off the beaches. They are in search of food, and if you provide them with the right food, they will eat! The food? It’s pogies and mullet. Huge pods of pogies are along the beaches this month, as they have been all summer. In addition, large schools of mullet can be found in the sounds. Both of these baitfish are favorites of the tarpon.

On a previous tarpon trip, we were fortunate enough to quickly locate a pogy pod, and using our 10-foot cast net, fill a 128-quart cooler with them— no water, just pogies. We also put about 20 live pogies in our livewell to use for bait.

Tarpon fishing is actually quite easy. The only work involved is catching the bait and fighting the fish. It’s a toss-up as to which one will wear you out the fastest. You have not lived until you have 100 pounds of flashing, jumping, rattling silver on the end of your line.

Once we had the bait, we moved to an area just off the entrance channel into St. Andrew Sound, about a half mile off the beach. We were along the edge of what charts call the North Breakers. It’s actually a small sandbar that runs east and west. It drops from around 4 or 5 feet deep down to about 20 feet deep. Tarpon like to move along the channel edge into the tidal current looking for food. This habit of theirs is what makes them fairly easy to find. Hooking and catching them is an entirely different story.

We anchored the boat along the south edge of the sandbar and attached an anchor release float to the end of the anchor line. Anglers use these floats offshore to release an anchor in deep water and bring it to the surface. What we use it for while tarpon fishing is to allow us to make a quick release of the anchor, which then frees us to motor wherever a tarpon decides to take us. Even with 400 yards of line on your reel, a big tarpon can and will spool you.

Once we have the boat solidly anchored in the right place, we immediately put up the Bimini top. Folks, it’s hot out there in August, and the worst thing you can do is plan to sit in the blazing, 100-degree sun for several hours.

With a cooler full of the pogies, we maneuvered the box around to make for easy access. Each of us then sat along the gunnel of the boat with a knife and cutting board. At this point the chumming begins. We usually cut the pogies up into thirds and toss them over the side.

There is no rush to get them all cut up. We just need a steady flow of pogy pieces going back behind the boat. Pogies, or menhaden, are oily fish with what some people think is a horrible smell. But, to a tarpon that smell means dinner. We chummed like this for about 15 minutes; we needed to get a good chum line going.

At that point we broke out the four rods. We used Penn Slammer rods, each with a Penn 4/0 reel spooled with 40-lb. test monofilament line. You can use heavier line if you like, but you will need a larger, heavier reel. We like the size and weight of a Penn 4/0 or Super 4/0 (the high-speed retrieve version) because we can get several hundred yards of line on it, yet the whole rig remains light enough to be able to handle easily.

Two of the rods had 4- or 5-oz. slip sinkers rigged for bottom fishing. The other two had no weights. All four of them had 5-foot long, 100-lb. test, fluorocarbon leaders tied to 12/0 circle hooks.

We planned to have two pogies on the bottom and two pogies being free-lined behind the boat to cover the water column.

We set the two bottom rigs out first, hooked each pogie through the back and put one far back on the starboard side of the boat, the other closer to the boat on the port side. This helps keep them from being tangled underwater by the changing current.

This tarpon was caught by Codey Elrod (left), of Savannah, while fishing with Will Ricks, of Brunswick.

We took the freeline rigs and baited them with live pogies, as well. These pogies were hooked through the lips so they could freely swim around. We sent one of them far back on the port side and the other close in on the starboard side. This arrangement of having a short and long line on each side covers the water well, and the staggering helps keep the lines straight.

All four rods were in the rodholders as we sat under the Bimini top. Did I say it’s hot? Folks it’s hot out there. Shade is a welcome commodity. Fortunately the wind was moving just enough to give us a slight breeze.

The reels were placed in free-spool mode with the clickers on. The clickers on these Penn 4/0 reels are strong enough to hold the line on the reel in a strong current situation. When the fish takes the bait, the clicker will sound off.

During all of this time getting ready, we never stopped feeding the chum line with chunks of pogies. It is important to keep that chum flowing. If you stop, the fish that may be coming up behind the boat will lose the smell and turn away before getting to your bait.

Lots of tarpon, but hooking up and getting one in is a battle.

We brought plenty of water with us. Neither sodas nor beer will rehydrate you as much as plain water. The sodas and beer actually tend to dehydrate you in the long run. Gatorade works well, also, but we chose to just bring water. The point is, when it’s this hot you always need a bottle of water in your hand.

The first rod to sound off was the long line on the bottom. The clicker started and stopped; started and stopped. We were sure it was not a tarpon. Tarpon generally move off with the bait, and the clicker is sounding off in one long run.

Short strikes, as we call them, usually means a small shark. They grab the bait, move a few feet and lose it. Then they grab it again. Large sharks will act like a tarpon, only they will run faster with the bait than a tarpon. Redfish also move off in a steady run, and yes, you may hook a big red out there.

We started reeling the fish in, and the circle hook did its job. It moved right to the corner of the shark’s mouth and provided a perfect hook-up.

This was a small blacktip shark that we brought to the boat very quickly. Rather than be injured trying to remove the hook, we cut the leader right at the hook. Non stainless steel hooks will disintegrate in a fish over a few weeks, so the shark was none the worse for wear.

After an hour of waiting and chumming with no pick-ups, we decided to move. We headed farther out the channel and anchored between markers two and three. The tide was still going out, and we thought maybe the tarpon had moved a different direction away from the chum.

The same setup with the rods put us back under the Bimini with water bottles. Did I tell you it’s hot out there? Folks, it’s hot out there!

After about 30 minutes of chumming, we saw them. We estimated five or six big tarpon slowly heading toward the boat, rolling on the surface and gulping chunks of pogies near the surface. Our chum had done its work.

Suddenly the short freelined reel on the starboard side began sounding off—a steady run away from the boat. We had a tarpon on! We grabbed the rod and moved the freeline lever to its locked position. The line tightened, and the rod began bending. We hoped the circle hook would do its job, and thankfully, it did.

As soon as the fish realized it was hooked, it began running faster, away from the boat. We quickly untied the anchor line and float and tossed them overboard. Then we cranked up and moved toward the still running fish. As we moved, we looked at the reel spool, and it was almost empty. This fish ran off several hundred yards of 40-lb. test line. But we were gaining ground on him. While the boat moved toward him, we reeled like mad and put the line back on the reel.

After that long run, the fish never got more than about 50 yards from the boat. He would make a run and then leap out of the water. Then he would sound and circle the boat. This was a big tarpon, and he was fighting hard. We estimated he weighed around 175 pounds.

We only managed to get three jumps out of him, but they were spectacular. Often we catch tarpon like this that never make a jump. It appears to us that the tarpon we hook on an artificial lure will jump more than one hooked on natural bait. It may be because he is hooked in the side of the mouth that he does not jump, or it may be that he jumps because the artificial lure is inside his mouth. He jumps and shakes his head trying to rid himself of that lure. And, four times out of five he will be successful.

We fought this fish for almost 45 minutes, passing the rod back and forth as we became tired. Even in cooler weather, these big fish will do you in if you aren’t careful.

When we got the fish to the boat, we lifted his head up for a picture or two and plucked a couple of big scales from his side. Then one of us held on to his bottom lip while the other grabbed his tail. We put the fish upright in the water and gently moved it forward and backward to run fresh seawater through his gills. It took about 15 minutes of this before the fish revived well enough to swim. Then, with one powerful kick, he was gone, swimming away in the current.

These tarpon are all up and down the coast from St. Marys to Savannah. While they can be caught off the beaches, we suggest looking at the mouths of the sounds and fishing along the channel edges. The tarpon seem to like these areas better than just an open, sandy bottom.

Remember to take care of yourself by being hydrated all day, and take care of the fish. You must revive them after the catch to ensure they live to fight again another day.

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