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February 10, 2009

Megalops under the Bridge

How tarpon pros fish bridges for consistent success

Come and get me. I'm the biggest and the strongest. I will break your body and your bones and leave you wishing you had never met me! - The Three Billy Goats Gruff

As the classic Norwegian folk tale about hungry trolls and hungrier goats attests, every bridge has its lurking monsters, ready to wreak havoc and misery on all but the bravest of souls. How apropos, then, that one of the more effective winter tarpon fishing strategies involves casting to these oversized herring around and into the shadows and swirling currents of south Florida bridges and causeways.

The tarpon that congregate around bridge pilings to ambush and feed on migrating shrimp provide some exciting moments for anglers willing to lose some sleep and tackle to fish for them at night. The combination of tarpon noisily    slurping hapless prey somewhere in the dark and the chaos when a reel suddenly screams as some unseen beast grabs a bait can be a heart-palpitating experience.

"I often call it guerrilla fishing," says Capt. Dave Kostyo of Miami (305-620-5896, "It can be intense. When the fish are really turned on, sometimes I can't even get a second rod out before I get a hit."

Winter Visitors
South Florida's winter tarpon fishery coincides with the annual shrimp migration out of Biscayne Bay. Lower temperatures, strong north winds from cold fronts and increased water flow from winter tides cue shrimp for their yearly trek out to the Atlantic to spawn. After they congregate and stage in the deeper parts of the bay, strong outgoing tidal flows push the randy crustaceans from inlets into the open ocean, where they spawn. At the same time, schools of tarpon migrate south, seeking more moderate climes as the weather in the northern part of their range cools.

These same stiff outgoing tides funnel shrimp between bridge and causeway pilings, where the carpet-bagging tarpon gorge themselves on the easy and plentiful meals. Shrimp tend to stay buried in the sand and mud of the bay during the day; conse- quently, the bulk of the feeding goes on at night, during the peak of the outgoing tide (there will be some activity on the incoming tide as well, but a falling tide is best).

"When the shrimp move, tarpon hang out in the shadows of the bridges," says Capt. Bob LeMay (954-435-5666, When a shrimp drifts by, tarpon dart out of the shadows and suck the bait down, sometimes with a chug loud enough to resemble a brick hitting the water.

The fish vary in size from 10 to 50 pounds, depending on the time of winter; the larger tarpon - mostly 70 to 100 pounds, with some brutes approaching 150 pounds - show up some time after Christmas.

LeMay also states that tarpon tend to lose some of their inherent wiliness during this nighttime feeding binge and become easier to hook.

"A lot of fellas get their first tarpon on fly this time of year," he says.

Night Moves
Moon phases aren't as important when tarpon feed during the winter shrimp run, although tidal flow increases during both full and new moons.

"A full moon allows tarpon to find bait easier," says Kostyo, "but as long as the tide is moving, the fish are going to feed somewhere."