There is no sight in saltwater fishing as impressive and exciting as a jumping tarpon. The sheer size and power of these fish will make even the most experienced anglers forget how to set a hook. Even if you’re lucky enough to stick a silver king, bringing one to hand is no easy task. In fact, serious tarpon anglers have a language of their own, often referring to hooking or even seeing a tarpon as a success. But don’t be discouraged; with some basic knowledge about silver king behavior and habitat, plus some fishing tips, you can also learn to speak tarpon.

While these fish can be caught in several different areas along the Gulf Coast and Atlantic shoreline, Florida is the tarpon capital of the world. For that reason, tarpon fishing in the Sunshine State is the focus of this guide. Here, anglers can find silver kings throughout the flats, channels, bays, and river mouths. They eat flies, artificial lures, and both live and dead bait. Below is everything you need to know in order to catch a tarpon, including where to find them, how to hook one, and the proper way to handle and release these incredible fish.

A tarpon cruises along a Florida flat in search of bait. G. Loomis

Tarpon Appearance and Biology

Tarpon are essentially overgrown minnows. They have large scales, a silver body, an upturned jaw, and a prolonged dorsal fin like that of a gizzard shad. But that is where the similarities end. Also known as silver kings, tarpon get their name from their large size and distinct coloration. They can grow to 300 pounds, with fish commonly ranging from 100 to 150 pounds—a trophy-size fish for any angler. It takes roughly ten years for tarpon to reach maturity, with lifespans topping 50-plus years.

A true prehistoric fish, tarpon can breathe air. In low-oxygen areas, they will often gulp air by rolling on the surface. This is where the phrase “rolling tarpon” comes from. Additionally, tarpon can survive a range of salinities, including full freshwater. While juvenile tarpon are frequently found in freshwater areas, it is not unheard of for full-grown fish to become trapped in these same areas. A prime example is a small tarpon population found in Lake Okeechobee.

Each spring, as water temperatures warm, tarpon from Florida’s east and west coasts travel south. These fish converge in the Florida Keys, signaling their annual migration offshore to spawn. Here, tarpon larvae ride the currents of the Gulf Stream and disperse into estuaries throughout the state.

History and Habitat

Tarpon are found throughout the Gulf Coast and into the southeast Atlantic Ocean, with Florida being the hotspot. Its warm tropical waters and endless inshore habitats foster the largest tarpon population in the United States. Anglers can find these behemoths lurking in bays, beaches, river mouths, and flats synonymous with inshore fishing.

The history of tarpon fishing dates back to 1885, when an angler landed the first tarpon on hook and line. Since then, Florida has become a destination fishery for anglers looking to hook the silver king. Fishing piqued in the 1970s and ’80s with strong populations and innovations in gear, flies, and boats. While fishing can still be great, the numbers of fish are not what they once were, mostly due to declining water quality.

Historically, water from Lake Okeechobee flows south, where the Everglades acts as a natural filter. However, water is now diverted east and west from the lake, causing extra nutrients to enter the gulf and the Atlantic. The result is harmful red tide events, changes in salinity, and declining sea grass mats. That said, there is hope. Organizations like Captains For Clean Water, Bonefish Tarpon Trust, and International Game & Fish Association are all dedicated to restoring the Everglades and surrounding fisheries to what they once were.

The author holds up a juvenile tarpon caught on the east coast of Florida. Max Inchausti

Tarpon Fishing: Tips and Tactics

Tarpon are arguably responsible for drawing more anglers to saltwater fishing than any other species. They grow to giant sizes, will readily eat flies and lures, and display incredible acrobatics when hooked. Whether exploring an inshore fishery or the fabled Florida Keys, here’s how to catch a silver king with a variety of tactics.

Inshore Tarpon Fishing

Florida’s vast inshore fisheries offer abundant opportunities to fish for tarpon. Juvenile fish are a great place to start for new anglers. Look for river mouths, canals, and brackish estuaries with low salinity. Juvenile tarpon congregate in these areas and are much easier to fool than their fully grown counterparts. Cast small twitch baits, soft plastics, and flies to likely areas. Quick, erratic retrieves typically do the trick and draw eats from aggressive tarpon.

Larger plugs and live bait are two of the most effective ways to consistently draw strikes from full-grown tarpon. A live mullet rigged on a circle hook can produce one of the most exciting strikes in saltwater fishing. Tarpon will pop them on the surface in an impressive display of pure power. Target large bays, inlets, channels, and flats to consistently locate bigger fish. If you aren’t finding them, head out at first light and visually look for rolling fish. This is the best way to narrow down large areas and dial in where the fish want to be.

Another equally effective and often overlooked technique is dead bait fishing. Soak a dead bait, like a butterflied mullet, on the bottom of deep holes and channels and wait for a tarpon to bite. You may catch some other species, but stick with it and weed through the bycatch, because a tarpon isn’t far behind.

An angler in the water with a juvenile tarpon caught in the backcountry of the Florida Keys. Max Inchausti

Florida Keys Tarpon Fishing

Fishing in the Florida Keys for migrating tarpon draws thousands of anglers every year for a chance to sight-fish a giant. The Keys fishery consists of two distinct areas: oceanside and backcountry. Anglers looking to see numbers of fish should fish oceanside. Following the annual migration, thousands of fish use the oceanside flats to move south until they make their way offshore to spawn. This fishing can be incredibly rewarding, but equally frustrating.

With long lifespans and heavy fishing pressure, tarpon have seen it all. Long gone are the days of fishing big, bright flies on 4/0 hooks. Now, the preferred fly fishing method is small worm flies. The flies imitate the palolo worm, a favorite forage of Keys fish. Post up on an oceanside flat and wait for the fish to come your way. When you see a group of tarpon approaching, cast your fly in front of them and wait for them to swim into it. Tuck the rod under your arm and use a two-hand retrieve. This mimics a swimming worm and is the most effective way to draw strikes from wary fish.

West of the oceanside keys, also known as the backcountry, usually holds tarpon more willing to cooperate. That said, there are far fewer fish, so you may only get a handful of opportunities a day. The preferred method is still fly fishing, but backcountry fish will eat standard flies, unlike their oceanside counterparts. Small shrimp patterns are the most effective, but EP minnows and other baitfish patterns work as well. Look for laid-up fish hanging around flats and mangrove edges. Carefully sneak up on these fish and make a cast in front of them. The current is your friend; use it to drift your fly to the fish to avoid spooking. Once the fish can see the fly, start stripping and wait for the strike. You may only get a few shots at these backcountry fish, but they are much more likely to eat.

For conventional anglers, bridge fishing in the Keys is a great way to locate and hook a tarpon. Find a bridge and position the boat up current of it. Drop an anchor or use a GPS trolling motor to keep the boat in place. Use long leaders and live bait like crabs, pinfish, and mullet. Drop them back and into the strike zone under the bridge. Don’t cast these, but rather flip them out behind the boat. It will keep your rig from tangling and offer the best presentation. Watch the float, and if it so much as twitches, chances are a tarpon ate the bait. 

An angler properly revives a small tarpon before releasing it back into the water. G. Loomis

Fish Handling

While big and powerful, tarpon are extremely susceptible to angler mortality. For adult fish, if possible, fight them quickly. Long, drawn-out fights put extra strain on these fish, making it hard to revive them. Additionally, the longer the fight, the more sharks become an issue. Large hammerheads and bull sharks will chase and eat tarpon. If your fish is getting chased, break them off and give them a chance to get away.

When you do land a big tarpon, be sure to leave them in the water at all times. Their bodies cannot support their weight out of the water, causing damage to their internal organs. For fish under 40 inches, you can remove them from the water, but be sure to have your camera gear ready for a quick picture before releasing them. Lastly, take the time to properly revive your fish so they swim off strong.