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May 24, 2010

World Tour of Tarpon Tactics

Five captains share rigging, finding and fish-fighting tips

Photo by Capt. Ed Cale

Gabon, West Africa
Edward Truter, former Gabon guide now living in South Africa as a freelance journalist and photographer/videographer (27(0)41-3674748, 27(0)781141669;

Capt. Bouncer Smith's south Florida rig resembles one used by guides across the Atlantic, though the origins for each are quite different. Below, Edward Truter describes the west African way to trick out a tarpon lure:

Avoid the Bycatch
Baitfish concentrations generally attract great numbers of tarpon as well as many other predators. In more remote, underfished areas, so many species may join the feed that it becomes difficult for tarpon to reach a lure. This is especially true along the Gabon coast, where schools of herring and mullet attract ravenous jacks.

Jacks can be fun in their own right, but when 150-pound tarpon are smashing bait in the surf all around you, time is precious. So how do anglers avoid losing time to jacks in such a fray?

Some lures, and this is especially true of various surface lures (poppers, pencil poppers, chisel-nose plugs, etc.), and skipping spoons can swim properly with their hooks removed. Anglers then add a circle hook ahead of the treble-free lure to increase tarpon hookups and avoid deep hooking. Here's how:

Remove the standard hardware, and then add a split ring to the eye of the lure and fasten on a swivel (appropriate to the tackle). Place a large circle hook through the open swivel eye. Experiment to match the hook to the swivel so the swivel eye is just big enough to allow the barb through and thus prevent the lure from easily slipping.

This rig achieves three things: It prevents deep, gill hooking as sometimes results from trebles; circle hooks tend to find hold around the edges of the jaw, resulting in fewer missed strikes; and anglers can avoid bycatch. How? Keep your eye on the lure - you usually can identify the species attacking it. If that fish is not a tarpon (or just a juvenile), drop the rod tip to create slack and usually the fish shakes the lure loose. Pause and then resume the retrieve and hope the next strike will be a giant slab of silver.

Go Smaller, Slower, Quieter
West African anglers traditionally fish large to very large, noisy surface lures for tarpon. Granted, anglers typically cast into "noisy" zones such as the rough water in the surf, the wild maelstroms found in lagoon mouths or the calmer water immediately behind crashing waves. But even the biggest tarpon sometimes take small lures; aggressively worked artificials can deter strikes from these sensitive fish.

If big, noisy plugs do not attract hits, try going smaller, slower and quieter - in that order. Arm yourself with 3- to 6-inch lures such as surface twitchbaits and chisel-nose plugs (i.e., lures not designed to pop). While each lure has its optimum speed and retrieve, tarpon often show a preference for a silent surface lure retrieved so slowly that it has no additional action at all.

In low-light conditions and at night, slowing down becomes even more important. Tarpon are so well adapted to hunting in murky waters and low light that you don't need a lure the size of a bowling pin throwing a wake like a speedboat.

Tough Love
Few fish go as ballistic as tarpon do when they first feel the hook. Anglers should exert enough pressure to let the fish know it's hooked but keep a fairly loose drag so the tarpon runs and jumps like crazy. The more the fish panics in that first short burst, the more energy reserves it burns in its anaerobic-fueled white muscle (the muscle used for bursts of speed).

Once its initial energy reserves burn up, the fish must rest before it can again make full use of the white muscles. The fish's red muscle is fueled aerobically and is used for more normal cruising speeds. Using red muscle, the fish can swim for a long time.

The moment the initial fireworks end, the angler puts on max pressure. Don't allow the fish to pace itself and regain energy reserves in its white muscle. Pull hard; don't allow an inch if you can help it, and keep the fish coming to you.

If the fish arrives green at boat-side, put the boat in forward gear the moment the leader man grips the fish's jaw. If you land a tarpon on the beach, cover its head and eyes with a wet towel while removing the hook.