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Nov 22 , 2022

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King Tarpon's Throne

by Frank Ross
King Tarpon's Throne

King Tarpon's Throne is Boca Grande Pass!

There are many places where you can catch tarpon, but there is only one place, on the west coast of Florida, that is recognized worldwide as the Mecca of tarpon fishing fanatics - Boca Grande Pass.

Boca Grande Pass is a colorful, storied area that forms the main mouth of Charlotte Harbor leading to the Gulf of Mexico. A necklace of barrier islands form a protective buffer for the harbor, with a half a dozen passes that are navigable. Due to its natural structure and depth, "Boca" is the most productive. This year the first tarpon catch was reported in March, however, the heaviest concentrations are present from May through July.

The first island on the southern end of the harbor's barrier necklace is Sanibel. Moving northward along the strand of "beads", you will find Captiva, North Captiva, and La Costa. Captiva Island owes its moniker to the infamous pirate Jose Gaspar, who reportedly kept his captive women secreted away on the island while plundering the Florida coastline and the keys. The town of Boca Grande is located on the southern end of Gasparilla Island, which forms the north side of Boca Grande Pass.

During the early months of spring, tarpon begin to stack up in the pass, feeding mainly on calico crabs; and I do mean stack up. On a good day, a peek at the sonar screen will reveal tarpon suspended like piles of cordwood waiting for the kindling. On a great day, the entire screen is black. On any given day or night from May through the early weeks of July, anglers form a flotilla that would stress the capacity of a major marina. It is not unusual, on peak weekends, to have over 100 boats jockeying for position over the schools waiting for a strike.

This tarpon takes to the air, trying to throw the hook.
This tarpon takes to the air, trying to throw the hook.

Despite the excellent numbers and quality of fish, all is not tranquil in this fisherman's paradise. According to veteran tarpon angler, Toby Wiener, the line is taut from a struggle between traditionalists and nouveau jiggers.

Jigging has revolutionized daytime fishing in the pass, but there is tension created by the conflicting techniques as anglers of each method attempt to take their turn at the "honey hole." The "honey hole" is a deep ledge that drops from 42 to 65 feet about two thirds of the way toward the gulf.

For years, tarpon fishing in the pass was approached the same way - day or night. Then came the innovators! Now there is a division of techniques and attitudes.

The traditional approach: Two heavy rods positioned off the stern, spooled with 60-80 pound dacron line, are worked just off the bottom with either calico crabs or squirrel fish. A heavy 2-3 ounce sinker, wired loosely to the swivel (at the head of the leader), breaks away when the fight starts. A #4 or 5 Mustad tuna hook and 12-15 feet of #7 stainless leader complete the traditional rig. To simplify the matter of achieving the right depth, a green silk thread is tied to the dacron line at 42 feet, and a red silk thread is tied at 60 feet.

The pass is basically long and fairly narrow in terms of fishing concentrations. As boats arrive at the pass they get in line to "dance." On an outgoing tide, boats are positioned in a line with their engines idling so that a safe and courteous distance can be maintained between boats drifting toward the hole. At the beginning of the drift, rigs are released to "green" on the reel. As the boat crosses the ledge where the heaviest concentrations of fish are held, the captain who is monitoring the sonar yells "red" on your reels, and the bait is quickly dropped to the exact depth to tempt marauding tarpon.

Tarpon boats, fighting fish, move out of the flotilla, as jiggers, in smaller boats, mix with larger charter boats jockeying for position in the red zone.
Tarpon boats, fighting fish, move out of the flotilla, as jiggers, in smaller boats, mix with larger charter boats jockeying for position in the red zone.

According to Wiener, "night fishing remains pretty much unchanged." It's still a traditional approach. When the sun peeks over the palms it's a different story.

"Jigging is producing more fish, and often, bigger fish," he said. The technique works well in the daytime for two reasons. Calico crabs run heavy during the spring, with the heaviest runs on the full moons of May and June. Under the full moon, tarpon work the flats, gorging themselves on the plentiful supply of their favorite food. For this reason crabs work very well at night. When the sun comes up, they are lying in the bottom of the "honey hole" with full bellies. The bigger fish are fat and lazy, and jigging puts the bait right in their face and keeps it there, making it hard to resist one more little tidbit. Problem is, with jigging, a lot of fish are foul-hooked. "Jiggers are using mono, which is invisible to the fish, and the schools are so tight that the fish doesn't realize its snagged the line with its gill plates until the hook hits home. Jiggers hold the bait very still until they feel the slightest bump; then they set the hook, and a lot of the time it's in the back of the gills or gill plate," he added.

Most jiggers are using a locally designed and marketed "12-fathom jig." These jigs are basically large 6-8 ounce weights, with a circle hook and plastic bait. The weight is designed to release when a fish is hooked. The tackle is pretty basic. A heavy-duty saltwater spinning rod and reel combo, spooled with 30-50 pound mono, and a 15 foot leader of 60-80 pound mono, is all that is necessary. Fishing from a flats boat, anglers drop their jigs to the bottom, reel up 2-3 turns, and hold it perfectly still. Tidal action creates a fluttering tail right in the face of lazy, fat fish that don't want to make much effort to eat. Tarpon find this offering too tempting to pass up.

At first blush, the tackle required for either technique is very similar: a heavy weight, a bait positioned close to the bottom, and you catch a tarpon. The fly in the ointment comes about with the moving conga line waiting their turn for "red zone."

Jiggers are "short drifting", or moving back into the oncoming line, to get back onto the spot where fish are holding. To add to the irritation, when they hook-up, jiggers stay right over the fish and clog up the whole process. Traditional anglers have the rods and line heavy enough to horse their fish out of the pack where they can get it into the open and fight it away from the congestion. With lighter line and tackle, jiggers must fight their fish from the bow and follow wherever the fish may lead them.

Florida now requires a $50 tag if you are going to kill a tarpon.
Florida now requires a $50 tag if you are going to kill a tarpon.

The final dose of salt in the open wound is that jiggers were winning most of the big money tournaments. The evolution of that problem was a rewrite of the rules and segregation of the opposing anglers. There are now traditional "live bait only" tournaments with specific subtleties to the rules that require the fish to be fought from the stern, which eliminates the bow-mounted jiggers. Other tournaments allow both techniques. With over 1 million dollars in total purse for the season's tournaments, there can be a lot of contentious issues related to technique and rules compliance.

One thing is certain, traditional live bait or innovative jigging aside, the tarpon are running hot and heavy in Boca Grande Pass. Pick your technique, and take your place in the conga line. You're already late for the dance, and Boca is boiling with big tarpon.

Check out Cabela's great line of saltwater rods or fly-fishing tackle before you go. It's the first step toward mounting a trophy fish.