ISLAMORADA, Fla. • The explosive energy and deep-cycle stamina of tarpon make any battle with the behemoth a career defining moment, one that can easily extend for an unbroken hour or more of rod-bending, drag-screaming, heart-pounding excitement.
Commonly known as the Silver King, tarpon land at or near the top of the desirability list for any big-game fisherman, and their wide, near-shore distribution makes the challenge reasonably accessible, even if ultimate success is anything but assured.
Fishing with freshly-cut mullet weighted to the 10-foot bottom in a crystal blue current beneath Long Key Bridge, tarpon by-catch often includes barracuda, nurse sharks and Goliath grouper, each of which is easily recognized in seconds by the way they run. Persistence pays off, though, because a tarpon strike is as subtle as the boom of big lightning 50 yards off the bow.
With a breathtaking detonation and drag-searing run of a hundred yards or more, the tarpon takes to the challenge with flying, head-shaking leaps 10 feet and taller into the air. The run and subsequent fight of a fully-grown tarpon is worth every second spent making it come to be.
Tarpon can be found throughout the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico as well as along Florida’s Atlantic seaboard and across the breadth of the eastern ocean’s African coast. They gather regionally to spawn every year from mid April through the latter part of July. This is the most popular time to target them, with efforts focused on the deep water passes and inlets connecting bays and flats to the open sea. Congregating here during this time among the pilings beneath the bridges that transport travelers up and down the Florida Keys, both mature tarpon and devoted fishermen alike spend countless daylight hours in the dance that defines what big-game fishing is meant to be.
Always on the grow
Depending on habitat and opportunity, tarpon grow to mature lengths of four to eight feet and weigh between 60 and 280 pounds. The all-tackle world record is 286 pounds, 9 ounces, caught by Max Domecq near Rubane, Guinea-Bissau, Africa, on March 20, 2003. The Florida state record for tarpon is 243 pounds by Gus Bell in Key West in 1975. Tarpon are effectively never kept for food and, in Florida, no tarpon longer than 40 inches may be lifted clear of the water so, other than in the rarest of cases, caught tarpon are always released. They typically reach the 100-pound mark at 13 to 16 years of age, at which point they have few if any predators. Their lifespans can extend to 50 years and beyond. Unless injured, their size and speed keep them generally safe from sharks, and no other predatory fish need bother apply. As a result of these factors, the population of this highly-adaptable gamefish is excellent worldwide.
Burning power, blazing speed
Most fighting fish are engineered either for power or for speed, but a tarpon represents the rare breed that makes the best of both. With a big, forked tail, triangular dorsal and pelvic fins and a top speed of 35 miles per hour, the Atlantic tarpon is among the top 10 fastest fish in the world. At a hundred pounds or more of broad-backed, solid muscle, power plated with nature’s scalloped steel, the tarpon brings a sustained, high-horsepower fight guaranteed to make any angler comfortably uncomfortable from beginning to end.
Capt. Richard Stanczyk, a lifelong resident of the Florida Keys and professional fishing guide, specializes in snook, mangrove snapper, red drum and other gamefish at home among the Everglades through most of the year. Come springtime though, it’s tarpon that land first and foremost on his mind.
“Tarpon fishing is exciting for me because they’re the ultimate gamefish,” Stanczyk says. “They’re big, fight hard, jump and go crazy, and they aren’t always easy to hook up. Hearing the drag scream when one takes a bait is always a thrill whether it’s the first or ten thousandth time you’ve heard it. Just when you think you’ve got them figured out, they will humble you.”
Chief among his tarpon tactics is the bridged-based approach. In the Keys, tarpon gather in the spring around the pilings of the strait-spanning bridges they’ve made famous as destinations for the waterborne fight of a lifetime.
Into the thick of it
Having first located a likely group with electronics, then holding on the bridge’s up-current side by trolling motor or anchor, Stanczyk uses cut mullet chummed into the running stream to get the big boys’ attention. He then baits a heavy, snelled 7/0 Owner J hook with either unweighted live mullet, or freshly-cut mullet suspended below enough lead to keep it on the bottom at the end of 10 feet or more of strong fluorocarbon leader on 60-pound braid line.
Tarpon are born to break all but the best of gear, so the best is what Stanczyk brings to bear. For reliable consistency through fights that see seconds stretch into hours and drag-smoking friction that turns reel parts hot to the touch, he depends on the Penn Slammer III 6500, a stoutly-built saltwater spinning reel geared 5.6:1 for hours of alternating tension and torque. For leverage, he relies only on rods that bear the brand he and his brother are working to build: Stanz Fishing.
“I had a lot of trouble finding the kind of rods I liked for tarpon,” Stanczyk says. “I like a rod to have just the right amount of heavy backbone combined with just the right amount of medium action in the tip. It needs to be able to flip a bait into position, keep a bend on a big fish for as long as it takes, offer the right amount of response and resolve and generally be the tool that telegraphs what the fish is doing back to the angler while keeping the pressure applied by the angler on the fish.
“The closest thing I’d found to what I wanted was a Shakespeare Ugly Stik, then we found Black Diamond Rods in Miami. Black Diamond had a model they’d designed for king mackerel that I thought was just right for tarpon.”
Stanczyk’s brother, Nick, has built a specialty in daytime swordfishing tactics and has selected custom rod builds from Black Diamond for that pursuit also. Together, the rods and more are offered under the Stanz Fishing brand at stanzfishing.com.
Fishing with bait either alive or dead, the angler learns his challenge has been accepted when a tarpon first feels the hook and makes his initial bolting streak, often flying high along the way with bait-slinging, head-shaking leaps.
Hit, then hold on
Once the initial run is weathered, the angler begins the dance in earnest, repeatedly regaining stripped line while applying continuous pressure, doing his best to keep the fish from going wherever he wants to go. Since tarpon are never boated, an official catch is registered when the angler is finally able to reel the leader back into the tip of the rod, by which time the fish has been effectively brought boatside through a back-and-forth battle that can easily last an hour or more.
Revived and released, tarpon recover quickly and return to their daily duties right away, lurking in the shadows of the shallows, gulping down baitfish the current’s offering brings, ruling a realm of turquoise waters and shimmering sand, one where they sit majestic and alone as the Silver King.