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Tackling tarpon

Want to catch this monster fish? Here are some helpful hints and hot spots.

By TERRY TOMALIN
Published May 18, 2007


May marks the start of tarpon season on the west coast of Florida. From Homosassa to Boca Grande, anglers up and down the Gulf Coast have taken to the water in force, hoping to catch the "silver king" of gamefish.

Chrome-bodied monsters

The species Megalops atlanticus can be found in the temperate and subtropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. These fish are prolific swimmers; tarpon tagged in Florida were later found as far away as Louisiana and South Carolina. This species is also unique among sport fish because they can "roll" on the surface, "gulp air" and subsequently travel far into stagnant, brackish waters with little oxygen.

Tarpon time

Local anglers have two chances to hook these tackle busters. The first is when these fish head south down local beaches before they head offshore to spawn. The second opportunity comes after the fish spawn and move into the bait-rich backwaters of Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor to feed.

Tactics

Anglers can cast live bait at schools of tarpon as they swim a few hundred yards off the beach. The fish sometimes travel in pods of 100 or more. Small groups are often observed swimming in circles, or "daisy chaining, " a courtship ritual. Tarpon fishers search for these schools and try to lay their baits ahead of the pod. The small schools are notoriously skittish, and as a result, there is a strict code of conduct among tarpon fisherman: If a boat is casting to a pod of fish, an approaching fishing boat moves quietly down the beach and awaits its turn.

Another popular method is bottom fishing, or "soaking" dead, natural bait. This method works well early in the season and after the fish have spawned after the full moon in June. Bottom fishers enjoy best results during the last hour of an incoming tide and during the first hour of an outgoing tide.

Other predators

Fish-eating birds feed on young tarpon. Porpoises and alligators sometimes eat larger ones. But by far, the most dangerous predators are sharks. A big bull shark or great hammerhead can easily cut an adult tarpon in half with just one bite. On the Web http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=shark+attack+tarpon 

Big fish, small bait

Tarpon are scavengers and will eat just about anything. Despite their large size, they feed on surprisingly small organisms, including mullet, ladyfish, pinfish, grunts, crabs, threadfin herring, scaled sardines and even catfish.

Hot spots

Productive areas for "soaking" include Port Manatee, Gadsden Point, Mermaid Point, Rocky Point, all area bridges, Port Tampa, Sarasota Bay, Boca Ciega Bay, Manatee River, Clearwater Bay, Palma Ceia Bay and Pass-a-Grille. Timing is also critical. Dedicated tarpon fishers prefer the strongest tides, three days after and three days before the full moon. Diehards fish at night.

Big bruisers

Female tarpon are the larger of the species and can achieve lengths of 8 feet and weigh more than 350 pounds. Biologists believe some tarpon may live to be 60 years old. The largest tarpon on record was caught in 2003 off the coast of Africa and tipped the scales at 286 pounds. The largest tarpon caught in Florida weighed 243 pounds.

Regulations

There is no size limit or closed season on tarpon. Anglers may keep two tarpon per day, but they must first purchase a $50 tarpon tag for each fish harvested.

Ongoing research

Florida's tarpon population is stable because most of the state's tarpon fishers practice catch and release. There is still one kill tournament in the state - the St. Petersburg-based Suncoast Tarpon Roundup - responsible for more than 90 percent of dead tarpon in Florida. But even release tournaments such as those in Boca Grande result in dead tarpon because not all released fish survive the ordeal.

To learn how tarpon respond to being caught and released, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is sonically tagging and tracking tarpon in the Tampa Bay area. By following the released tarpon, biologists evaluate postrelease movement and ultimate survival. Tarpon appear to be hardy survivors in the absence of large predators and seem quite resilient when handled with care.

Scientists from the FWC and Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory use DNA to track tarpon caught by recreational anglers. Participating fishers use a small abrasive sponge to rub skin cells from the outer jaw of the tarpon. These cells can provide enough DNA for researchers to identify individual tarpon with a certainty of about a billion to one. Scientists have already identified two tarpon that had been caught earlier as part of the study.

Anglers can help

Fishers around the state are urged to get a DNA sampling kit and join the Tarpon Genetic Recapture Study. DNA samples from any tarpon, regardless of size or location of capture, can be turned in to the FWC lab in St. Petersburg or dropped off at one of its statewide collection locations. Participating anglers are notified when their fish are recaptured and also kept informed of study results through newsletters and Web site posts. To learn more about the study, visit http://research.myfwc.com. To obtain a DNA sampling kit and instructions, call toll-free 1-800-367-4461 or e-mail tarpongenetics@myfwc.com.

Upcoming tournaments

The 73rd annual Suncoast Tarpon Roundup starts Saturday and ends July 28. Junior Finale Day is July 29; Finale Day is Aug. 4. For information, call Nadine Brown at 727 481-9473 or go to www.suncoast tarponroundup.org.

Boca Grande's Professional Tarpon Tour begins Sunday and runs every week through June 17. For more information, go to www.tarponanglersclub.com.

LOOKING AHEAD: The Ed Alber "All Release" Tampa Bay Tarpon Rodeo is July 14. For information, call (727) 867-8166 or go to www.tampabaywatch.org.

Information from St. Petersburg's Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute was used in this report.