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May 26, 2009

Tarpon Getaway

Avoid the crowds; Hit Southwest Florida beaches and sounds for summer fun

More Info: Visiting Boca Grande

The June morning dawned gray and dingy as low clouds hung a dull shingle over the sun: certainly not the beginning of a picture-perfect sight-fishing day. Capt. Phil O'Bannon picked me up at the Boca Grande guide docks in his 24-foot Yellowfin bay skiff, and we waited in the dim light for our buddy boat.

O'Bannon has fished these southwest Florida waters all his life and guided more than 35 of those years. If anyone could pull a rabbit out of this hat, it would be him.

Within two hours, the sun began to paint the sky; we caught whitebait over the grass, released half a dozen snook to 33 inches and landed a 60-pound tarpon - all without entangling ourselves in the usual crowds.

The Only Way to Go
When anglers think of spring and summer tarpon fishing, many probably picture a congested Boca Grande Pass where boats and hammerheads swarm among schools of stacked-up 'poons. But as the traffic has increased at this popular tarpon hot spot, captains have fanned out to explore the beaches and bays.

Once summer arrives, tarpon pods and schools of snook cruise the beaches after bait or push into estuarine areas like Pine Island Sound to feed in quieter waters. That's prime time to target these war-weary fish in different locations with live whitebait and pinfish; a few may still take flies.

Make no mistake; these Boca Grande 'poons have seen it all. They migrate to the region from various points in April and May, once the water reaches about 78 degrees. They linger in the pass - a pre-spawn  staging area - then leave on the full- and new-moon phases to reproduce in offshore waters. While they're stacked up in the deep inlet, they're bombarded with every bait,  jig and fly a human can fix to a hook.

Once the June full moon arrives, the fish depart in a great horde, spreading throughout the region, some heading north. Others stay nearby and may linger year-round as long as the water stays warm enough.

My late June trip occurred while the water was still a steamy 85. No doubt in my mind that we'd see tarpon if we literally could see them. Fortunately, summer on the Gulf Coast usually means plenty of bright skies and humidity, though you may have to wait out a wet weather pattern for a day or two.

Don't worry: The fishing's worth it, even if you can only spend a few hours on the water. Those hours can be chock-full of action. The area also features miles of explorable beaches, acres of sea grasses and myriad mangrove islands.

Fluid Strategy
O'Bannon's Yellowfin skiff truly suits this area. It floats in skinny water just off the beach and ably handles the boat-wake slop in the passes. When searching for bait over the grass, he can stab the Power-Pole anchor into sand and hold position while throwing the net.

Optimum bait for tarpon this time of year includes big whitebaits (scaled sardines), threadfin herring, crabs and pinfish. To net the whitebaits inside Pine Island Sound, we first chummed dry fish-food pellets infused with menhaden oil. Then, as the sardines frantically sought the oil-rich food, our buddy-boat captain Mark Lieberman tossed a cast net over the school.