Tarpon are smart, or stubborn — I’m not sure which. Maybe both? No matter what, a tarpon’s lack of appetite some days makes for frustrating fishing. What I’ve learned over the years is that figuring out the best tarpon lures and understanding which ones work best for your area can go a long way.
I remember one summer trip off a Florida beach when school after school of tarpon swam underneath the boat, completely ignoring our best presentations. Dozens of tarpon patrolled just below and at the surface, often gulping air in defiance to our offerings.
There’s no better way to get out of that tarpon rut than by switching tactics, as my friends and I learned later that month. A local guide let slip that the tarpon were biting white, oversize jerk baits rigged to appropriate-size jig heads. For the rest of the summer, we jumped and released plenty of tarpon along the beaches. I say “jumped” because tarpon are tough to catch, and getting jumps and long runs out of them is still fun fishing, even if they never make it to the boat.
While there can never be 100 percent certainty what tarpon will chew (even if they devoured it last season or last month) I surveyed top captains, fishing-show hosts, tackle shops and lure manufacturers to find the best tarpon lures. To list every valuable tarpon lure would fill an entire book, so we kept it to a mix of 10 hard and soft baits, listed in no particular order.
Expert: Capt. Chris O’Neill, Englewood, Florida
Weapon of Choice: Badonk-A-Donk High Pitch (4.75 inches)
Color: Depending on the sky conditions, O’Neill’s first choices are silver mullet or speckled trout. If the sky is bright and the water’s flat, he’ll use a color with a bone- or orange-colored throat.
Fishing Conditions: O’Neill prefers the water’s surface to be lightly choppy or flat calm, though such conditions are not absolutely necessary. Look for signs of tarpon rolling at the surface or feeding on mullet or ladyfish. In the waters around Boca Grande, Florida, O’Neill prefers fishing from August through October. There’s zero pressure that time of the year, and migrating fish are happy throughout the estuary, he says. They are far more willing to take a topwater lure.
Technique: Spot the tarpon and try to get ahead of the pod quietly. Work the bait down-current of the fish, just as Mother Nature would, says O’Neill. Baitfish do not swim against current, toward a school of hungry tarpon. Use a twitch-twitch-pause retrieve — and boom! — expect to get hit, says O’Neill.
Rigging: O’Neill, who’s a Penn pro, prefers an 8-foot Penn Legion rod armed with a Penn Spinfisher 6500 spinning reel. He uses 50-pound braided main line, connected to 60-pound fluorocarbon leader with an Albright knot. But before he ties on the Badonk-A-Donk with a loop knot, he replaces the treble hooks with stout short-shank hooks to increase hookup ratios and minimize potential damage to the fish.
Expert: Capt. Ed Zyak; Jensen Beach, Florida
Weapon of Choice: Terror Eyz (regular size; “I have caught more tarpon on this lure than all others combined,” Zyak says.)
Color: Root beer
Fishing Conditions: The lure works great on the beach in clear water, as well as the stained waters of backcountry rivers.
Technique: When using the Terror Eyz, Zyak typically casts to rolling fish — long, accurate casts are a must. Cast 4 to 6 feet in front of a rolling fish, and let the lure sink freely for a three- to four-second count, he says. Then use a steady, slow retrieve with no jigging movement at all. The bite is usually very light, but make sure to set the hook hard, says Zyak.
Rigging: Zyak prefers a 5,000-size Shimano Stella spinning reel on a 7- or 7½ -foot, medium-heavy rod. He spools with 30-pound braid and 50-pound fluorocarbon leader. The line-to-line connection is a double uni-knot, and the Terror Eyz gets a loop knot at the eye. This setup gives the best balance of distance and accuracy, plus great drag and power from the rod, the guide says.
Expert: Capt. Aaron Snell; Key West, Florida
Weapon of Choice: Original Hogy (10 inches)
Color: Snell prefers bone, followed by bubble gum. He’ll use black in low light or in off-colored waters.
Fishing Conditions: Snell prefers to sight-fish for tarpon over crystal-clear flats. For fishing around bridges, Ross Gallagher, director of retail sales at Hogy, recommends a black Hogy rigged to a jig head. More and more Keys captains bounce the jig along the bottom to catch tarpon in deeper waters, he says.
Technique: When flats fishing, get the lure in the water well ahead of the fish. Retrieve the bait with light twitches right into the fish’s strike zone. Vary the retrieval speed to the fish’s cruising speed, says Snell. Then set the hook down and to the side as soon as you feel the pop, he says. If the tarpon is swimming toward the boat, make sure it turns away before striking.
Rigging: Snell uses an 8-foot, medium- to fast-action spinning rod coupled with a reel that handles 30-pound braid. He ties a Bimini twist into the braid, and then uses a ninja or double slim knot to attach 2 feet of 60-pound fluorocarbon. Sometimes he’ll incorporate a section of furled nylon to add stretch. He rigs the Hogy to a weightless, 10/0 swimbait hook. Leader-to-hook connection is a Homer Rhode loop.
Expert: Capt. Andrew Bostick; Marco Island, Florida
Weapon of Choice: Z-Man Streakz (5 or 8 inches)
Color: Black or white
Fishing Conditions: Bostick covers the waters from Marco Island to Everglades National Park on the southwest coast of Florida. He searches for tarpon feeding high in the water in both clear and tannic conditions. Since the lure is up in the water column, he says, it’s exciting to see the strikes.
Technique: Bostick fishes the soft bait when sight‑casting to rolling fish or blind-casting in a productive area. During the retrieve, he jerks the bait 6 to 8 inches, lets it sit for a second or two, and repeats. It’s important to wait for the fish to turn after it eats because anglers set the hook too fast at times.
Rigging: Bostick rigs the 5-inch Streakz with an Owner 4/0 Aki hook; the 8-inch is rigged with a 7/0. He uses a medium-heavy setup spooled with 20-pound braid, ending with 60- to 80-pound leader. Super glue the ElaZTech material of the Streakz to the hook, recommends Bostick. Once glued, the bait lasts longer than other soft plastics and has an impressive lifelike look.
Expert: George Large, general manager, Yo-Zuri America
Weapon of Choice: Crystal 3-D Minnow Magnum
Color: In clear water, Large uses the holographic sardine color; in tannic water, he uses the holographic bunker; and in dirty water, he chooses holographic chartreuse.
Fishing Conditions: Spring and fall are the best times of the year, especially around new moons and during flood tides, says Large. As far as water conditions go, the lures work well in most waters, but tannic tints really set off the ultraviolet colors.
Technique: It’s as simple as casting and retrieving. Work the lure with a consistent retrieve — fast or slow, says Large. The tarpon will let you know what they prefer. Sometimes incorporate intermittent pause-jerk-pause actions to increase strikes, he says.
Rigging: It’s really up to the user, says Large. He uses a medium-heavy rod rigged with 60- to 80-pound braid, paired with a strong baitcasting or spinning reel. Large ties 80- to 130-pound fluorocarbon leader to a heavy-duty split ring attached to the lure’s line tie.
Expert: Capt. Rick Murphy, host of the Chevy Florida Insider Fishing Report and Sportsman’s Adventures
Weapon of Choice: Glidin’ Rap 12
Color: Gold shiner
Fishing Conditions: Capt. Rick Murphy spends plenty of time fishing Everglades National Park in South Florida for the silver king. He targets laid-up tarpon in the back bays, swirling with clear to tannic-brown waters, during the prime months of May to October.
Technique: Murphy prefers blind- or sight-casting to rolling fish with shallow-running lures that feature strong side-to-side action. He casts out in front of the tarpon and twitches the rod tip to give the lure a walk-the-dog presentation, a forced zigzag motion that many lure anglers are familiar with. Often, tarpon hit the lure during the pause. So far, his largest lure-caught tarpon is 140 pounds.
Rigging: Murphy prefers plug tackle, opting for a 7-foot rod paired with a 400-size baitcasting reel. He rigs up with 20-pound braid main line tied to 60-pound fluorocarbon leader. All line connections use the time-tested uni-knot.
Expert: Capt. Rhett Morris; Port Charlotte, Florida
Weapon of Choice: Series III Suspending Twitchbait (S25MR)
Color: Morris prefers chartreuse, red-head-and-white back, or apple-red-and-gold
Fishing Conditions: The best time of year to catch tarpon is April through June, as well as in fall, says Morris. He looks for glass-calm waters so the lure leaves a surface wake while being worked toward the boat. Still, the suspending twitchbait works in choppier waters too, so don’t fret when waters aren’t dead calm.
Technique: Cast the lure 10 feet in front of a rolling fish, then slowly work it with a series of twitches. Morris tries to follow a one-second pause with a three-second pause. He’ll change to a one-two count when retrieving the lure more erratically. Try hard to make the bait look like injured, easy prey, says Morris.
Rigging: Morris removes the front hook of the MirroLure and replaces the back treble with a 3x-strong Owner treble hook. That single, rear hook has a better hookup ratio, he says. He attaches the plug to 6 feet of 60-pound leader with a no-name loop knot. Make sure to use at least a 7½-foot rod that can handle 50-pound braid and an 8,000-size reel, he says.
Pretty in Pink
Expert: Patrick Sebile, founder of Sebile Lures
Weapon of Choice: Magic Swimmer Fast Sinking 145
Color: A natural shiny color for the daytime. At night, Sebile chooses white so he can see the lure in the water.
Fishing Conditions: The best time of the year is during spring and fall, or anytime tarpon are active in shallow waters.
Technique: Sebile rigs his lures to fish in a number of ways. Cast and reel in the lure with a straight retrieve, or slow-troll the lure behind the boat. If anchored, let the bait sit still so the “Magic Swimmer can do its magic,” says Sebile. The natural wobble of the Magic Swimmer in the current draws strikes from tarpon.
Rigging: Sebile developed this rig years ago when guiding for monster tarpon in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa. Sebile connects a circle hook to a swivel, holding the hook onto the swivel with a rubber stopper. On the other end of the swivel, a split ring attaches to the lure. The rig allows anglers to change sizes and models but still allows total freedom for the lure to swim, he says. Once the fish is hooked, there’s no leverage on the lure’s body and less of a chance to break off. The hook lips the tarpon when they swallow it, minimizing intrusion of the hook in the fish’s mouth, Sebile says.
Expert: Henry Waszczuk, host of Fishing the Flats
Weapon of Choice: Scaled Sardine Wakebait (4½ inches)
Color: Ghost amber
Fishing Conditions: Waszczuk prefers stained water, where tarpon can’t overanalyze his presentation. He targets fish in Florida Keys backcountry waters near tide rips, mangroves and other holding areas, plus near bridge structure.
Technique: Tarpon are notorious for keying in on live baits such as crabs, threadfin herring or scaled sardines, so it’s no surprise that Waszczuk recommends twitchbaits, swimbaits and wakebaits that mimic them. Waszczuk makes long casts to the tarpon, staying as far away as he can from the pods, and then utilizes a quick-pause erratic retrieve. The height of the rod tip off the water dictates the various depths your lure swims, he says.
Rigging: A medium-heavy rod matched to your favorite spinning reel is all that’s necessary. Waszczuk uses braid in the 40- to 50-pound class but recommends the angler determine the line weight based on the size of tarpon in the area. Tie a fluoro leader to the terminal end, and then add the plug. Waszczuk works the bait with the rod tip for the best action.
Expert: Robert Lugiewicz, manager at Fishin’ Franks tackle shop in Charlotte Harbor, Florida
Weapon of Choice: WildEye Swim Shad (4 to 6 inches)
Color: Lugiewicz prefers bunker or mullet colors but says the best color changes from year to year.
Fishing Conditions: Sight-or drift-fishing in the harbor or along the beaches offers the best of both worlds in summer. Lugiewicz prefers a bit of a breeze and some chop on the water, and looks for schools of mullet or threadfin schools. In Charlotte Harbor, he’ll search out deeper holes, ranging from 6 to 20 feet deep.
Technique: Besides casting in front of tarpon schools and letting the bait sink, Lugiewicz offers a tip you might not have considered. Put a float above a swimbait, cast it out, and stick the rod in an out-of-the-way holder while drifting. Forget about it while casting to other fish in the area. He’s caught countless tarpon this way, he says — Rodney the Rod Holder to the rescue.
Rigging: Rigging is a cinch with the line-to-swimbait connection using a basic uni-knot (no leader). Lugiewicz uses an 8-foot rod, such as a Shimano Teramar, and pairs it with a Penn Battle spooled with 50-pound braid. (He’s not affiliated with either manufacturer.) Leader strength is 60- to 80-pound fluorocarbon.