|This tarpon fishing
Florida and Boca Grande fishing mini-series uncovers the tarpon
fishing secrets of Florida tarpon guide, Captain Robert McCue,
including the actual techniques he employs on his tarpon fishing
charters. In this segment we learn about Florida tarpon fishing in Boca
Grande, the tarpon fishing Capital of the World. The complete
mini-series offers information on flyfishing tarpon, light tackle
tarpon fishing, fishing tarpon in Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg,
Clearwater, Boca Grande, Sarasota, Bradenton, Port Charlotte, Orlando
and Disney (Disneyworld) area of Florida. Whether you are a expert or
novice, this tarpon mini- series will better improve your skills
in the quest for Giant Florida Tarpon. Please visit our entire Florida
fishing site by simply following the links. Boca Grande tarpon
fishing... The World's Best Tarpon Fishing.
Part 3 of a series of 4
With a typical 80-day season (Boca Grande) producing an average 5,000 tarpon landed, it's no secret that the world's best tarpon fishing hole yields more tarpon than any one location in the world.
Where is this unsurpassed tarpon domain? Boca Grande Pass is the only conceivable answer. Located on the Florida Suncoast at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor, Boca Grande and its surrounding saltwater reaches boast some of the best fishing and charter fishing in Florida, not to mention the continental United States. Charlotte Harbor itself has the distinction of being one of the nation's largest undeveloped estuaries. Its nonchalant atmosphere is surrounded by an unspoiled serenity and world renowned fishing, particularly tarpon.
Tarpon congregate and spawn out of passes along most of the entire rim of the Gulf of Mexico. The massive attraction to Boca Grande Pass is unknown and subject to many theories. I prefer to refer to it as a natural phenomenon or the Bermuda Triangle of Tarpon. In the spring, it appears that many of the fish's habits all along the coast are in orientation to Boca Grande Pass.With depths reaching near 80 feet, it is the deepest natural pass in the state. It is the only major outlet of Charlotte Harbor which is feed by two major rivers, the Peace and the Myakka. As the bottleneck of the harbor, the currents are strong and serve as the Autobahn to many species of fish and bait.
This Florida location also has deep roots in history. From the time of about 1,000 A.D. the terrain was inhabited by the only real native of Florida, the Calusa Indians. Though the Calusa had no written language, the history we know of them comes orally from Seminole Indians, and from written accounts of Spanish explorers. From these accounts we know the Calusa were a great fishing tribe. Their entire life and religion revolved around the harvesting of the Gulf of Mexico and its interior Florida bays. Upon the arrival of the white man in the 1500s, the Calusa Indians fended off Spanish attempts to barter and colonize their land (a Calusa arrow wounded Ponce de Leon on Pine Island and he subsequently died from that wound in Havana, Cuba 1521). By the early 1700s the Calusa all but disappeared - the victims of slavery, warfare and European disease.
The place of the Calusa Indians was taken by Spanish and Cuban pilgrims. They too harvested the adjacent Florida waters and exported much of their catch to their homelands. During the 1870s descendants of the Spanish and Cuban settlers established several fish ranches, and the area became a mecca to a then fast growing seafood industry. It is likely the Calusa and Spanish pilgrims harvested tarpon for food. Harpooning tarpon is documented back to the late 1700's by British settlers.
There is some debate among historians on who caught the first tarpon on rod and reel in Florida. This, simply because those who had caught them did not know what to call them until the fish gained fame from an 1885 story published in the magazine "Forest and Stream". The article detailed an event that took place on March 12, 1885. On that date, a New Yorker by the name of W.H. Wood landed a 93 lb. tarpon at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River. While it may have not been the first tarpon caught on rod and reel, the fish's capture generated much publicity and is at least credited as exposing "tarpon fishing" to the world. Soon after, tarpon were given a gamefish status to protect them from harpoons (known as "striking" or "graining") and nets that were common methods of taking tarpon.
Wood often shared accommodations at the "Tarpon House" in Punta Rassa with another wealthy outdoorsman, Chicago streetcar magnate John M. Roach. Roach was very familiar with the cachet of fishing that the area had to offer, especially the tens of thousands of tarpon that visited Boca Grande Pass annually. In 1894, the Yankee Roach bought Useppa Island. From 1894 to 1898 he built the first fish camp, " The Tarpon Inn". Roach would invite his wealthy friends from the North to visit the island and fish the virgin Florida waters. Southwest Florida gained more fame by the publications of several other tarpon pioneers who too laid claim of landing the first tarpon on rod and reel- before Wood- from Homosassa and the 10,000 Islands . A then modern railway system had been completed that gave the area access to the outside world. Soon sportsman from the north as well as from Britain stormed the area in quest for giant tarpon. Southwest Florida and the Florida Keys soon became the new headquarters of the sport fishing world. The area took earnest when in 1908, Barren Collier bought Useppa Island from Roach and built another "Tarpon Inn" on Gasparilla Island and made the island's town of Boca Grande world famous as the "Tarpon Fishing Capitol of the World". "Build it and they will come." Collier did, and do they ever!
The tens of thousands of tarpon that visited Boca Grande Pass during those times still come today. For those sportsman who have never witnessed this phenomenon, it is something you must experience yourself to believe. It is tarpon fishing second to none!
Back in the days of Roach and Collier, the pioneer fishing guides employed a spoon drifting in the tide behind their primitive wooden row boats while the guide oared against the tide. The technique proved effective until the evolvement of combustion engines, large keeled pass boats and the paragon live bait. For decades live bait was considered the only productive way to fish the pass. Today there is a forest fire ablaze of yesteryear. The synthetic baits are in vogue again, the jig is taking the pass by storm. In fact, jigs were responsible for a 10-to- 1 ratio in tournament wins in recent registry. Jigs and the pros who employ them have been so deadly, they actually have been banned in many high dollar tarpon tournament events. It was written in the late 1800s, “Verily, the lover’s jealousy may be a green eyed-monster, but compared with the jealousy of the tarpon fisherman towards his brother sportsman it counteth as nothing.”
Actually jigs are nothing new to the pass. In fact, they are fished at the same stages of tides and in a similar fashion as the early pathfinder guides did fishing from wooden row boats. Jig use in Boca has been documented virtually throughout pass fishing history. Fishing legends Herb Allen, Vick Dunaway, Charlie Cleveland, and Left Kreh had much success with them in the 60's into the 70's.Legendary Harold LeMaster too had success with a heavy weight version of his MirrOlure around the same time period. The drawback to jigs and tarpon was that the tarpon have an uncanny ability to throw them out of their mouths during awesome aerial displays. The heavy amount of lead needed to reach the deep depths of feeding tarpon acts as a dislodging device to the angler's hook.
Tarpon fishing Florida and Boca Grande
In recent times, an unaccredited angler decided to utilize a highly effective jig used in Louisiana. Dubbed the " Coon Pop " after the person who popularized a modified Costa Rica Coast Hawk, Capt. Lance " Coon " Schouest, the problem of the heavy jigs was all but eliminated. The " Coon Pop " rig consists of a weighted body which has a piece of soft copper wire molded through it. With a plastic jig tail attached, the soft copper wire is loosely wrapped around the hook. When a tarpon " goes bad " the weight is thrown from the hook, and most times the hook remains buried in the bucket mouth of the tarpon.
Unfortunately for Boca Grande jiggers, the " Coon Pop " was not heavy enough to reach the deep holes in the ripping tides of the tarpon honey hole. A whole series of homemade " Coon Pop " spin-offs rushed the pass. The lure company 12-Fathom held the early market on a production model "breakaway" jig that was a 2 to 4 ounce jig head attached to a circle hook via a plastic wire tie. In 1996,I brought the 12 Fathom Jig to the attention of jig Steve Marusak, president of Cotee Industries redesigned the jigs that were already in use. Steve worked marketing in close conjunction with one of the winningest tarpon tournament teams in Boca Grande Pass "Team Sidewinder". Cotee was not looking to make a monetary profit in sales of the limited use rig (in fact they knowingly lost money due the lure's exclusive use to short period of time and location), but to hold its name as one of the world's leaders in jig manufacturing. Team Sidewinder was looking for a major sponsor and a relationship was formed on the principal of mutual desire for exposure in both jig market presence in return for tarpon fishing fame and fortune. Murusak designed the the breakaway jig was dubbed " The Reel Tarpon Jig." I actually did all of the line drawing for instructions on the packaging. The 4- ounce jig features a pair of soft molded ears that are wrapped around a 13/0 circle hook. A soft body shad tail is attached to a peg situated at the rear of the head. During the fury of a wild tarpon fight, the ears release the jig head. The circle hook is notorious for escape- proof hookups on tarpon and is effective in hooking tarpon in the "sweet spot" at the corner of their mouths. "The Reel Tarpon Jig " boasted Cotee's "Liv' Eye " and the shad tail peg is adjustable to keep the lure drifting at a 90-degree angle to the bottom. Among other highly profitable accomplishments in tournament fishing, the "Reel Tarpon Jig" and "Team Sidewinder" , gained a wealth of notoriety, fame and fortune when in 1997 they shattered the Pass tournament record with a 200lb tarpon. The catch was the largest tarpon ever caught in competition (since toppled in 2001 by a 208lb fish and then again in 2005 by a 216 lber ).However, tarpon exceeding 250 lbs have been taken on my boat and in 2004 there was a fish caught that was estimated at 276 lbs in Boca Grande Pass.
*Captain's Note: In the 80s, I was participating in Boca Grande Pass jig fishing with a fixed jig. I too was there as the jig morphed to a "breakaway". Then we had no idea what was to come to a head years later. The jig provided a means for anyone to have a legitimate chance of catching a tarpon in Boca Grande Pass. No-tarpon fishing in Boca Grande Pass is not easy. The crowds began to build. Entered high profile and nationally syndicated television shows and tournament fishing. Back in the day, I gave near all I had as a steward to tarpon fishing and tarpon fishing with equal access to all. I (we) successfully preserved that privilege. However, in the following years, I learned that the fish were being highly affected in their behavior and I was certain that is was directly relative to the unprecedented fishing pressure-particularly in the mornings. For several years I sat on the fence as to what my position is now to be. In 2010, I decided that I would withdraw from the jig. User group conflicts began to flare-this time it got really ugly. I sat silent. After decades of fighting in fishery and user group conflicts, I just had no more to give and the price of my inner peace was just not worth it. 5 years later, in 2015, a well funded effort to eliminate jig fishing had some success in modifying how the jig is fished in hopes to "backdoor" a limited entry that would reduce the pressure on the tarpon in Boca Grande Pass. The jury is still out on how effective that has been. The "issue" is not just Boca Grande Pass, the matter is that the fish are under unprecedented pressure wherever they roam. That has always been the tarpon's nemesis. The solution? That's complex to say the least. However, one can overcome the challenges of this modern era by fishing different locations and fishing at lower volume hours. One must adapt, improvise and overcome if they wish to stay in front of the fleet. That is what professional tarpon fishermen do and too-that is my forte. Is Boca Grande still ground zero for the masses of tarpon to meet in a central location to spwn from? Without question-yes!
The standard set up is easy. A quality reel is loaded with 50 lb. test line and at least a 300 yard capacity. The line is doubled by tying a Bimini twist. A double uni-knot is used to attach a 3-to-4 foot section of 100 lb. test leader. The lure is connected to the leader via a loop knot. The soft ears of the lure are wrapped around the hook. A 7-foot stand-up medium heavy rod is a standard tarpon tamer.
Generally speaking, the fish will be feeding on the up current side of the holes and ledges that line the pass floor. Start your drift at the top of the pack. Never cut through the pack, set up at the bow of another boat, or attempt to drive through the pack to mark fish behind others. Never raise you engine at anytime above idle in the confines of the fishing area. Once properly set up, lower the jig to the bottom. Once the lure hits the bottom take a turn or two of line onto the reel. No jigging action is necessary while fishing during a moving tide . Do not use a heavy jerking action in an attempt to snag tarpon-it will not work. This is unethical, unnecessary, and sure to bring you some very unwanted attention. Careful attention should be paid to your quality sonar to make important adjustments in the effort to fish close to the bottom where the fish are holding. Anglers should be instructed to reel up to the surface as you approach the ledges of the holes in effort to not hang the bottom. If the current is such that you are hanging the bottom on every drift-mark your lines at 40 and 60 feet and fish those depths according to your sonar, fish the surface or leave and return to the area later. If you do hang the bottom, reel up all remaining lines and move the boat up current. Once you are over the snag, wrap the line around the reel twice and continue directly up tide. A swift sweep of the rod as the line becomes completely tight will pull the lure off the snag. If not, it will break leaving the minimal amount of terminal tackle at the bottom.
It is also advisable to make mental notes of where you mark tarpon, especially if you should record "false bottom". Tarpon often are so thick in the pass that your sonar will black out with tarpon from top to bottom. Be sure to hit those spots on your next drift. Go around and up tide of them being careful to not disturb them. Once a bite is detected, don't jerk. Let the tarpon pull your rod tip down. As the fish begins to take drag, slowly raise the rod and the hook will set on its own.
Do not chase rolling fish and pay attention to the depth. Never attempt to jig tarpon outside the holes. Tarpon outside the holes and in shallow water require stealth. Never run your outboard near fish in shallow water-particularly when they are being worked by others who are fishing in a non intrusive way. It is best to have an electric trolling motor or to drift with your main motor off. Let the fish come to you. If you are working fish with another boat, make your presentation to the fish and let them get well past you before you refire your engine. Move outside the fish and position your boat at the end of any line that may be formed. This techniques is referred to as "leap frogging" and is the only way to effectively fish for tarpon in this situation.
Fishing with monofilament in the pass is tricky business. The bottom is lined with jagged coral and limestone. Always keep full pressure on your fish and stay directly over the beast while the fish is green. You should fish with a strike drag of 10lbs with 50lb line. Every effort should be made to move outside the holes to insure a successful release. Light tackle pass fisherman most often fight their fish from the bow. After the fish has settled from it's initial hook, the boat operator should put the fish on one of the bow's quarter and begin to "coach" the fish outside the fleet and to shallow water. Fighting a fish by following it after the fish has settled is improper! Other boats fishing will extend a courtesy of moving for newly hooked fish. However, it is bad etiquette to expect them to keep doing so if you are not fighting your fish with maximum pressure and continuing to follow it. Anglers moving to allow you to pass with your fish IS A COURTESY! It is your responsibility to get your fish out of the school so others may continue to fish without disruption. While tarpon fishing in Florida and Boca Grande, it is proper etiquette to get your fish out of the school in a timely manner. Often experienced guides may not move their boat, but will pick up their lines to allow you to pass. This practice IS "MOVING" for you and often a silent way of suggesting that you are not properly fighting your fish. If you are not sure how this is done, watch me!
There are many scenarios in which jigs are ineffective. In fact, they make up just a small amount of the fishing done in the immediate area. If you do not have what you need (ie. livebait, proper tackle, electric trolling motors etc.) do not harass the fish or intrude on those who are fishing in a non intrusive manner. Return later with what you properly need.
There are many "rules" in fishing the pass, far too many to discuss in a short story. I have hit the main ones. I highly advise novices and angling experts alike to hire a guide prior to attempting to fishing Boca Grande Pass on their own. If you try it on your own spend some time quietly watching the pros from a distance is strongly encouraged.
No Boca Grande Pass story would be complete without mentioning the " hill tide ". Most years during the spring tides of the full and new moon, millions of "pass crabs" are washed out from Charlotte Harbor en-route to spawn. During this natural phenomenon, the tarpon cruise well inside the pass to an area called the hill. Anyone who gets a rush from seeing a largemouth bass slam a top water plug, hasn't seen anything until they've experienced giant tarpon intoxicated on crabs. A good hill tide will see the tarpon in a frenzy and near everyone you see will be hooked up. In fact, we have had doubles, triple and quadruple hook-ups on our charters. CHAOS!!! The crab run is difficult to predict. Further, it seems to happen in less degree of frequency the past few years. A sign of changing times in this modern era of the 21st century. 2004 saw some of the best "hill tides" in recent memory. By acting more responsible for the resource we can protect this unique place as best as possible.
My clients often enjoy pursuing Florida tarpon in more isolated surroundings on the beach or surrounding saltwater flats using lighter tackle. What is overlooked by some when hearing about Boca Grande Pass is the fact that the area for many miles in all directions are the travel paths of the fish going and coming to the pass. They are far less pressured and for some, a more tranquil approach to fishing tarpon. I am a complete tarpon guide in that my equipment and experience is is top notch in wherever tarpon roam. There is time to be in the pass and a time to not (if at all) either by request to fish other techniques or simply because a better bite is best elsewhere. However, I am always just a few miles away from the pass looking for that big gulp. You'll be sure to find me there when the tarpon fishing turns red hot and I can't stand it anymore more.
| Tarpon Fishing Part I | Tarpon Fishing Part II | Tarpon Fishing Part IV |
Year 2018 Giant tarpon fishing schedule
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Update October 20, 2018