Live Bait is the Key for Tarpon

Any time I fish for tarpon, I like to use live bait.

Florida Fish and Wildlife/flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

What Live Bait Do I Use?

When I look for live bait, I am looking for one of several baits I have available in my area, depending on the time of year. Sometimes it’s shrimp in the Intracoastal Waterway; sometimes it’s pogies on the beach. But live bait is the key to catching tarpon here this time of year – late summer and early fall.

From Florida up the east coast to New England, menhaden shad can be found in the summer months.

Lots of fish feed on the menhaden. Locally we call them pogies.

Mullet Migration

Mullet and menhaden make a twice a year migration, heading north from Florida in the early spring and then heading back south in the fall. Predator fish like tarpon, striped bass, redfish, bluefish, Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, and flounder – just a whole variety of fish - will follow this migration, feeding along the way.

The Tarpon are Thick

Right now in my area, the tarpon are thick. The south Georgia and northeast Florida areas are currently covered up with tarpon from 20 to as large as 100 pounds. And these fish are absolutely tearing up the schools of mullet in and around the area inlets. And they are easy to hook!

I say they are easy to hook for a reason. The book on tarpon is that you will hook one of every five tarpon you see, and only land one in every five that you hook. But right now, with the mullet migration run underway, that one in five can almost be one in two or even one for one.

They are feeding that much.

Here’s How to Fish Them

If you are fishing an inlet area and looking for tarpon, here is what you can expect, and what you can do to get a hook-up.
  • Most inlets along the coast have some sort of barrier that keeps the inlet open, either a natural one or a manmade one. Sometimes it’s sand bars that have a deep tidal cut channel. In some inlets it’s a manmade pier or jetty that has been placed to keep the inlet from closing in with sand. You need to plan to fish the edge and end of these structures.
  • The mullet schools are moving with the tidal current in a generally southern direction in the early fall. When an incoming tide is in an inlet, the current will send the mullet into the inlet, with a particular concentration of them at the end or along the edge of that structure. You need to plan to fish while the tide is moving
  • I like the last of the outgoing tide and the first of the incoming tide to fish for these tarpon. Other guides will tell you to fish the high tide. In my experience I find the mullet are more concentrated at the end of the low tide. But I do need moving water. At the slack tide, the mullet schools tend to scatter and the tarpon thin out in an effort to stay with them.
  • Find the place in the inlet where the current concentrates the schools of bait. They have to swim around the end of any jetty to stay with the current on an incoming tide, so the end of that jetty is a prime location.

Fishing Method

With all the mullet schools, the easiest way to hook up to a tarpon is to use a live mullet. I use my cast net and fill my live well with mullet. I use spinning tackle in the 20 pound class and braided 40 pound test line. I tie a fluorocarbon leader on the braid and use a 10/0 or 12/0 circle hook. I hook the mullet in the lips and then cast him to the immediate area where a tarpon has just busted up a school of bait. Then I sit and wait. This free-lined mullet will be eaten in short order. I let the tarpon swim with the bait he just ate and I allow the line to tighten. The circle hook usually does its job and hooks the fish right in the corner of his mouth.

Bottom Line

If there ever is a time that you can catch easily an elusive tarpon, it is the early fall along the southeast US coast. These fish are hungry and they are in and around any inlet where there are schools of migrating mullet. Find the mullet and you will find the fish. Try my method, and your chances are good to not only hook one, but to catch one. Remember to only take a scale off the side of the one you catch, take some pictures, and then release this silver king to fight again. They are of little food value, and since taxidermy charges are calculated by the inch, these long fish are expensive to mount.