Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus), also known as the “Silver King”, is the biggest game fish you can catch off the pier. They are capable of reaching 300 pounds and 8 feet long. The average size you will encounter on the pier is usually around 80-150 pounds. They have blue-green to greenish-black backs with shiny silver on the sides. Their scales are very large and they have a large upturned mouth. This mouth is incredibly tough and full of rough patches of tiny teeth making them hard to snag and able to abrade through leaders.
Tarpon is the original major game fish, in 1885 Forest and Stream reported that Mr. WH Wood of New York caught a giant tarpon on a rod and reel in southwest Florida. It was the first published take of its kind along with all other takes before being taken with a harpoon. This story sparked the saltwater sport fishing craze in Florida. It was during this time that the title “Silver King” was born. Tarpon has become incredibly popular due to its fierce fighting ability and propensity to jump. Whole towns have sprung up and an industry has been created in South Florida. It’s all about targeting tarpon for sport.
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The tarpon you will encounter on the pier will be a very large and strong fish. They’ll run long, jump like crazy, and fight like nothing else. You will need very sturdy equipment to target them. Something similar is used to target cobia, Penn 706s, Spinnfishers, Slammers, Van Staals, Shimano Stradics, Saragosas and Stellas are all popular. Most people fish braided line around 50-60 lbs test or at least 25 lbs monofilament.
For the leader material, most people use 80lb fluorocarbon that has been tied with an FG knot for a lower profile. Attached to this leader is either a 1-2 oz white swimbait or a circle hook with a LY baitfish on it.
For tarpon, the majority of people fish off the end of the “T” pier in the summer. They arrive in pods, sucking air from the surface as they pass. When you see them come to the surface like that, you throw that white bait as far as you can in front of the tarpon pod and then slowly bring it back a little below the surface. They will often swim up to it and swallow it in one big gulp. When they eat it and you feel the weight, be sure to hook them up. Even when hitting multiple times, they will often latch onto a bait without actually getting hooked.
The other method is to simply throw a live LY that you catch around the pier. In the summer, large schools of these baitfish congregate under the jetty using the pilings for shelter, but with the water temperature so hot, they often die due to low oxygen levels in the middle of the schools. Tarpon will then simply come and swallow these dying baitfish. Tarpon has a lung-like organ and can suck in a puff of air. This adaptation helps them when the water is warm in midsummer.
So, sin live bait is quite simple, like sin for kings, catch live bait on a sabiki then throw it over there and wait for a Tarpon to come by and eat your bait. By using a circle hook, you don’t define it. Just let the fish run and hang on.
Emerald Coast Pier Fishing Guide – Tarpon
Once you hook up with a tarpon expect a long fight, I spent up to 50 minutes fighting a tarpon for the pier. Because you can’t chase them, you have to let them run until they get tired. When the fish are farther from the pier, the best technique is to back off the rail and then back up, returning to the pier. Then, once you get the fish close to the pier, you’ll need to pump and reel. Beware, you need to keep the pressure on them or else they can suck in a gasp of air and start fighting harder.
A tarpon is considered caught once you catch it near the pier, you cannot bring it up. No tarpon over 40 inches should be removed from the water. If you land them next to the pier, don’t keep them too long. Simply point your rod tip directly at the fish, grab your spool and cast your line. The hook will drop in a few days and the fish will be fine.
If you’re lucky and the tarpon ends up taking you near the beach, you can do something called a beach bench. Where you ask a buddy to hold your rod and run to the surf and hold the tarpon for a photo. If you do this, be sure to revive the fish. No need to kill something you can’t eat or keep.
Table fare and parting words
Although I know that in parts of the Caribbean and Central America people eat these fish, I will say that you can’t eat tarpon, for several reasons. First of all, they just don’t taste good, they have been reported to be strong in fishy flavor and smell. Think of them as a giant anchovy. The second reason is that legally you are not supposed to kill Tarpon. In Florida, you can buy one tag per year for $50. This tag should only be used if you are aiming for a state or world record. This tag must also be in your possession before you kill a fish. You are not allowed to kill a tarpon and then buy a tag.
I’ll just say it, let those fish go. Replica mounts are one thing, and these big giants should be handled with care and allowed to live a long life. A tarpon will fight until it dies if you let it. So once you’ve “landed” a fish, be quick to release it. Do not fight the fish until they are on their stomach, they will not revive and become food for crabs and sharks.