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Fish Fights: A Hall of Fame Quest by Bob Rich


While you can catch tarpon year-round in the warm blue waters surrounding Islamorada, the big show takes place in May and June. This is when the giant fish converge on the area like the college kids drawn to Joe Roth's Holiday Isle a few months earlier by the same urges, and I don't mean drinking beer.

Tarpon come to our area from the gentle waters of the Gulf of Mexico as well as the depths of the windswept Atlantic Ocean to engage in the annual prehistoric spawning rites that regenerate their species. On a calm morning, it is not uncommon to see dozens of fish "daisy chaining," or swimming in tightly knit circles, with the males fertilizing the discharge of egg-laden females. Marine biologists say that ripe females will lay as many as one thousand eggs.

While these fish are totally preoccupied, they will stop momentarily to snack on pinfish, mullet, crabs, and shrimp as well as lures or small flies stripped in front of their large underslung jaws. Their favorite food is the palolo worm, which hatches every year in the water of the southern Keys on low falling tides on a new moon. Craig Brewer says that this hatch is an amazing phenomenon. It generally starts in the evening. Small worms emerge from the bottom of the offshore shallows and ride the falling tide out to sea It is then that they are intercepted by the hungry spawning tarpon. Craig says that these worms are thought to be an aphrodisiac and may fuel the passion of the tarpon spawn. Whether that's true or not, these large fish lose all perspec tive when the hatch begins. Their usual wariness also disappears, and it is not uncommon to see them bouncing off skiffs as they clamor to suck down as many palolo worms as possible. It is also amazing to me that these huge fish which grow to more than two hundred pounds, will stop to scarf up small feather flies. It speaks volumes about their incredible eyesight.

Flyfisher's Guide to the Florida Keys and the Everglades by Ben Taylor


The Bite and the Fight

On the flats, you get no fight until you learn how to recognize and respond to a bite. Bites from some species are mysterious, seldom felt, and hard to read Bonefish tarpon, and permit, our glamour quarry, all eat best when the fly moves straight away from them. Important but somewhat lesser species, like redfish and snook do the same thing. Since they rush the fly head on, they often push the line toward you and eat on the end of a slack line. It's rare to feel the initial bite of a bonefish as they keep moving along with the school when they eat. Permit are often found alone and pin baits to the bottom. Reds and snook often stop to chew.

Tarpon often announce a bite with an easily read flashing side and occasional huge boil. Seeing a tarpon bite is a problem for most of us. There is no doubt when a fish responds, but a mouth offers little resistance if the fish are not properly pointed before we attempt to set the hook. Tarpon mouths hinge like the loading ramp of a cargo plane, the upper lip is much like the top of a tunnel. If you pull on the string while the fish is pointed at you, the fly usually pops right out of their mouth

You have to strip until you feel the weight of a tarpon in your hand or against the rod tip to make sure some of the fish is between you and the point of the hook Reaching for the sky before you feel the fish in your hand leads to failure most of the time, a trait called "snatching." Moving the rod to set the hook is a mistake with most Keys flats species.

Stu Apt's Fishing in the Florida Keys and Flamingo


There are times during the fight when you can break their spirit. If you pressure the fish properly, without breaking him off- and you may be within ounces of breaking him off - you can subdue him rather quickly. To do this you must understand your tackle and know within the "nth" degree what your tackle will take. When a tarpon, or any large fish for that matter, is green and running away, there is no way to stop him with light tackle. But, the moment he slows down or stops, try to pressure him. Do not make your drag any tighter than it is, but very gently apply pressure. When using spinning tackle you may do this by gently placing your finger down on the spool as you lift the rod or you may do what is called "cupping" it. You cup your hand around the spool as you lift the rod, bringing the fish back toward you. Be careful as you must know exactly how much pressure it will take to break your line.

John A. Kumiski's Fishing the Everglades

Chapter 7: The Fishes, Pg. 67


Tarpon owe much of their fame to their often large size and their habit of making wild, spectacular leaps after being hooked. No fish causes more frustration among anglers.

Tarpon periodically rise to the surface to gulp air, a process called rolling. They give their presence away when they do this. Sometimes they roll by the hundreds, especially near river mouths like the Little Shark River, back in Lake Ingraham, and off Caps Sable. But the fisherman can cast, and cast, and cast, and cast, and cast some more, and still not get a strike. Like I said- frustrating.

They do bite, though, and when they do, look out. They will not pay much attention to where they are going when they jump, and will go flying through trees, up on the bank, or into your boat. Needless to say, this last can be a huge problem, especially to a canoeist.

The Tarpon Book by Frank Sargeant


FLAMINGO, CHOKOLOSKEE, Port of The Islands and Marco Island are the jumping-off spots for fishing the vast watery wilderness that is the Florida Everglades. There are hundreds of good tarpon spots throughout, with the big fish usually found on the outside, the juveniles up the countless creeks, inside the hidden mangrove bays, and in the jungle rivers. Tarpon action gets dependable in March, and peaks in April, May and June. Fish are around through October on the outside, and up the rivers all year.


Starting at Flamingo (an excellent place to start, with outstanding launch facilities and a good tackle shop) there's good fishing on the outside at Sandy Key Basin, and at East Cape, Middle Cape and Northwest Cape along the sandy beaches that make up Cape Sable. There are a number of dug canals coming out of the backcountry in this area, and these, too, are good spots, particularly on falling water, as are Little Sable and Big Sable creeks. On the inside, the Joe River is often good, though hard to fish on weekends.

Pence de Leon Bay, created by the outflow of the Shark and Little Shark Rivers, often has some fish, as do the lower reaches of the Harney, Broad, Rodgers and Lostman's, as you progress northwest. The bays and adjacent points of each of these flows are also likely places to check for rolling fish. Again, falling water is the best time to look, as the flow pulls bait out of the backcountry.


Fishing out of Chokoloskee, the waters around Pavilion Key and Rabbit Key sometimes produce, and on outgoing water Rabbit Key Pass, Indian Key Pass, West Pass and Fakahatchee Pass, all in the Ten Thousand Islands area, are likely.

Also productive here is the Faka Union River, including the channelized section which leads to Port of the Islands Resort. The resort caters to fishermen, with excellent docks, a good baitshop, and plenty of free advice, as well as good rooms close to the docks. (A three-mile idle zone protects the abundant manatees here--but you can sometimes catch tarpon and snook by towing a big diving plug through the zone).


In the Marco area, good locations are Cape Romano, the outside waters of Goon Key pass, Morgan Beach, Caxambas Pass, and the beach along Marco Island in late summer.

There are also often baby tarpon in the canals that parallel the old Marco road, and in many of the backcountry bays nearby.

Everglades Techniques

In general, most of this country is best for fishing natural baits or plug-casting, rather than fly fishing, because the blackwater rivers and the murky green of the bays allow little sight casting. If you move out into the basins and banks of Florid a Bay, you again find clear water and visible tarpon, but in close, fly casting is going about it the hard way.

In general, you fish'em where you see 'em in the Everglades, stopping to cast where ever rolling fish are spotted. At times, up the creeks in fall, you'll come on schools of` dozens of 5 to 20 pound fish, rolling and cavorting in little flowages barely wide enough to hold them. (Not so often these days, though, as a decade back. Some, including many members of the Florida Keys Guides' Association, are concerned that the reduction of small fish may bode ill for the future in this area.)

The 52M MirrOlure is a good bet for much of this fishing, as is a 1/4 to 1/2 ounce Cotee, 12-Fathom or Bubba jig with a gold-flake swimmer tail. They also hit topwaters like the Zara Spook with vigor. In the deeper passes with strong current, heavier sinking lures like the Hot Flash, 65 M MirrOlure and similars do the job. (Bend down the barbs on the treble hooks to make it easier to release the fish unharmed)

In general, tarpon fishing is pretty good and sometimes great throughout the warm months in the Everglades, even though it's not quite as productive as some other areas. A big draw is that you might catch a tarpon on one cast, and a snook, redfish or trout on the next. It's wonderful mixed bag fishing.

John A. Kumiski's Fishing the Everglades

Chapter 12, Houseboating On a Shark, Pg. 114

We used two distinctly different techniques in our quest for a tarpon. The first involved drifting along creek mouths on the late outgoing tide looking for rolling fish. We kept one flyrod and one plug outfit rigged for the silver kings with 100 lb. test mono shock tippets. Each of us would man a rod, hoping the fish would roll within casting range. When they did, a Bagley's Finger Mullet or a Keys style tarpon streamer would be thrown in their direction. Obviously this took patience, but both Mel and I hooked, and as so often happens with tarpon, lost several fish in the eighty pound range.

The second technique was much more relaxing. During the day we would catch blue runners, small jacks, and ladyfish that would attack lures not intended for them. We would also net mullet when the opportunity arose. All of these small fish ended up in the livewell on Mel's skiff. When we returned to the houseboat at dusk, two heavy outfits would appear, each of which would be baited up and cast off of the stern of the houseboat. Then we would be fishing while eating, sleeping, or partaking in an ice cold glass of our favorite liquid refreshment. We hooked several tarpon this way, and lost quite a bit of sleep, but once again failed to boat any. I personally didn't mind the loss of sleep!

Teny Friedrich had a unique tarpon technique that no one else opted for. Teny is a hard-core flyrod purist. After dinner he tied on the largest flyrod popper he had, smeared on some bug dope, and then sat on the poling tower of his skiff and cast. And cast. And cast. Until 3:00 AM. He hooked three tarpon this way, one of which nearly pulled him from the tower. His luck, however, proved to be identical to ours, as he lost all three.

What kind of deprivation did we have to endure to partake in all of this hot fishing action? Not very much. The houseboats, rented out of Flamingo Marine in the national park, proved to be quite comfortable. The cost of rental and fuel when split eight ways was extremely reasonable.

Fishing the Flats by Mark Sosin and Lefty Kreh

Chapter 8: Tarpon: The Silver King, Pg. 97-98


Baby tarpon weighing up to about 20 pounds and small tarpon up to about 50 pounds are a delight to catch on tackle matched to the task. They are aggressive fish and jump wildly in protest to being hooked, but they can be handled on fairly light gear if you know how to apply the pressure.

These smaller fish are found along the mangrove keys that pockmark the fiats, often back under the overhanging branches. They are particularly abundant on the high spring tides of late spring, summer, and early Fall, when they lie under the mangroves waiting to ambush their prey. Because they are motionless, anglers tend to mistake them for barracuda. In some places, and especially where there is a deep cut or hole in the bottom, you may find as many as 20 of them together.

Many of the coves and little bays leading off the flats hold tarpon of this size, especially in the Caribbean. You can sometimes see bubbles on the surface marking the spot where they rolled, gulped air, and then let it escape. There are flats in Florida Bay where the smaller tarpon prowl regularly and they are often caught when one is blind casting for a mixed bag.

Tiny darters and other small plugs that do not splash loudly are a perfect choice. Smaller plastic worms and action-tails may also be used. And these fish suck in a shrimp almost as Fast as a youngster makes a candy bar disappear.

Nothing surpasses fly fishing for these smaller fish. An 8 or 9 outfit with flies tied on a 1/0 hook is perfect. Fish them as you would giant laid-up fish; drop the fly right in front of them. You may have to tuck it under an overhanging limb to reach them. The strike is often instantaneous.

A silent approach is paramount in this type of fishing. Once the tarpon know you are there, they will move off. On some days, you may see them working their way back under the mangroves where you cannot reach them with a cast, or you may at least suspect that they are there. Some of the Marathon guides have developed a trick worth remembering on such occasions. You only get one shot at the fish, so you had better be ready.

They take the pushpole and slap it down on the water several times, fully extended toward the mangroves. Shortly after that, the fish may start to come out, and that's the time to drop the fly in front of them. Those tarpon want to see what made the commotion. If you hook a fish back in the mangroves and it starts swimming under the limbs, thrust the whole rod in the water much as you would if a fish went under the boat. This keeps the line deeper so that it may clear the branches that touch the surface or dip beneath it.

Whenever you have an opportunity to do this type of fishing, whether for baby tarpon or the giants, don't pass it up. You will never have a more meaningful or memorable angling experience. In fact, as one fellow put it, "I thought I died and went to Heaven."

The Tarpon Book by Frank Sargeant

Chapter 13: Atlantic Tarpon, Pg. 102-104

The Mullet Run

Fishing is good all summer, great during the mullet run, northward in spring, southward in fall. Spring action is in April and May, ending by early June. The fall action is most predictable, and most remarkable. Prime time begins in mid-September and extends through October, peaking in each area as the mullet run peaks. The fishing is usually best from Canaveral southward, getting good in South Florida in late September after the first fronts arrive to run the fish off from more northern beaches.

It's almost too easy at times. The mullet gather in thousands, a seemingly endless line stretching along the slough and sometimes right up into knee-deep water, and the fish-both tarpon and many monster snook follow along.

Experts like Capt. Mike Holliday of Stuart wear the fish out right off the beach. The routine is to carry a castnet and a five gallon bucket, net up three or four mullet 6-8 inches long, stow them in the bucket, and run one out unweighted on a 3/0 to 5/0 hook.

Lip-hooking is good for durability, but some anglers prefer to place the hook behind the dorsal, so that they can hold a bit of back-pressure on the mullet and cause it to flip and flutter at the surface--the tarpon can't stand it.

The bait is fished right in the midst of the rest of the school, but when a fish approaches, you'll notice that the schoolmates disappear as if a wind has blown them off. When your bait is suddenly swimming alone, hang on and get set for the explosion.

Revolving spool reels that will hold 350 yards of 30 are needed to give you much of a chance at landing the tarpon, because many head for the Bahamas when hooked. Even at that, expect to do a lot of running up and down the beach, following the run of a hooked fish as you try to keep a few turns of line on the spool. Some anglers use the largest of surf type saltwater spinning reels and 30 pound test with good results. The spinner makes casting easier for most fishermen.

Often, a cast of only 20 feet will put you in the fish, as the tarpon push the bait right up against the sand. Pros walk the beach, or drive in 4WD's in the more northern sections where beach traffic is legal, looking for areas where the mullet are "showering" or jumping into the air. This indicates big fish working on the bait-a good place to offer them a live one-or the new, remarkably life-like DOA finger mullet, a soft plastic that imitates the natural almost perfectly.

Areas within a quarter-mile either side of any inlet are usually particularly productive, as the baitfish work in and out of the backwaters with the tide flows.

So long as winds remain moderate and the surf is clear, the fishing holds up. This can run into November some years.

Other years, the first big northern fronts arrive in late October--and some years a late tropical storm mucks up the water and blows the fish out early.

In winter, tarpon become harder to find, but some pod up on the inside in deep areas with warm water now, such as around the power plant at Port Everglades.

There's also outstanding deep water fishing in Government Cut at Miami throughout the winter, with both live baits an bottom and jigs and sinking plugs effective. The deep water in this dredged channel provides insulation for the fish, and the enclosed area is fishable even when cold fronts blow through. Capt. Bouncer Smith and others are past masters at this fishing, producing near perfect success rates when the fish are "on". There's probably no better tarpon hole on the east coast.

Tarpon Quest by John Cole

Chapter TWO: Pg. 15-17

It's not as if other anglers have been unable to arrange proper contacts with tarpon. Indeed, rod and reel fishermen have been meeting tarpon for more than a century.

Anthony W. Dimock, the cheerful financier from the estate he called Happy Valley in Peekamoose, New York, spent as much of his time fishing as he did trying, successfully as it happened, to corner the gold market along with Jay Gould and James Fisk back in those freewheeling, robber-baron late-nineteenth-century pre-income-tax years when instant fortunes could be taken by men of ingenuity, bravado, and a gambler's willingness to risk all.

Dimock, as he reveals himself in his almost whimsical, charming, and altogether delightful volume, The Book of the Tarpon, turned each of his entrepreneurial traits to his angling advantage. Displaying a fine ingenuity, much pluck, and a daily commitment to risk his boat, his gear, and, indeed, his life in pursuit of the tarpon, he began his enduring relationship with the great fish when he became one of the first men to take one on rod and reel.

That was on a February morning in 1882 fishing from his fragile canoe with Tat, his black guide and stern man. In the mouth of Florida's Homosassa River where the current sweeps past Shell Island into the Gulf of Mexico, Dimock hooked a tarpon while he was drifting shrimp for sea trout.

When the fish leaped its first awesome leap, Dimock writes, "The brilliant rays of the semi-tropical sun made a prism of every drop in the shower that surrounded the creature.... At first I thought the wonderful being was a mermaid, as I noted her fierce display of activity and strength, I pitied the merman who came home late.... Then I suspected it was a wicked genie freed from the Seal of Solomon which had imprisoned it for thousands of years.

"I was brought back to earth by Tat:'Mus' be a tarpum!'

"'What's that!' I asked.

"'That's what got your hook.'

"Talking in circles is profitless and I turned to my buzzing reel, shouting as I saw the diminishing line:'Pull like smoke, Tat! Line's 'most gone.

'Then I put on the drag, but it had no effect. I held my rod vertically and pressed my thumb hard on the reel.

"Once more the creature shot high in the air while my thumb got red hot.

"This was in February, 1882, three years before the recognition of the tarpon as a game fish. I believe the tarpon then on my line is entitled to the credit of being the first of its species captured with rod and reel."

Anthony Dimock, according to other published references, appears to be correct. Writing in his 1945 volume, Salt Water Fishing, Van Campen Heilner, another well-portfolioed author and sportsman, tells his readers: "Undoubtedly the first tarpon ever taken on rod and reel was taken by Mr. Samuel H. Jones of Philadelphia in March, 1884, in the indian River Inlet, Florida. The fish weighed 172 1/2 pounds and was taken trolling on a Buell spoon. The honor is generally supposed to have belonged to Mr. W. H. Wood who caught his fish in Surveyor's Creek, Florida, on March 25, 1885, but Mr. Jones fish antedates this by one year."

Anthony Dimock's "tarpum" antedates both by at least two years.

Backcountry Fly Fishing in Salt Water by Doug Swisher & Carl Richards

Chapter 2, Tides pg 18

Here are some examples of applying fishing tactics to tidal movements:

Small (ten- to fifty-pound) tarpon and other gamefish live around the inside bays all year in many areas, from Florida to South America and east to the Bahamas. These fish are non- migratory at this stage in their life cycle. At low tide they will congregate in the deeper cuts and holes. When the tide comes in, they will slowly move out towards the center of the shallow bays and flats to feed. Usually the deeper water will be at the mouth of the cuts or creek channels and the shallow zone will be in the center of the bay. Your tactic should be to arrive shortly after dead-low tide and position your boat between the deep cut and the shallow zone. As the water level rises, tarpon will work their way up towards the crest of the bar, usually showing themselves as they travel. You can position your boat into casting position with a quiet electric motor. When in place, cast three or four feet in front of the cruising fish. As the water level rises, the fish will move farther and farther out on the shallow bay. This fishing usually lasts for one and a half to two hours, until finally the water level rises so high that the fish are spread out all over the bay. If it's a small bay, you may still fish them successfully, but if it's a large bay they will be so dispersed that it would be luck if you got close to them. Later, after high tide, as the water begins to flow out, the tarpon will funnel back to the resting area. They can again be intercepted as they retreat to the deep hole at the cut. It must be noted that fish are much more inclined to strike when they are moving on the flat or bar, but when moving off, they can be in a great hurry. These are exactly the same tactics you would use for bonefish or permit on a flat, and snook and spotted sea trout have similar feeding habits on shallow, grassy areas and outside beaches.

Saltwater Fly Patterns by Ledty Kreh pg. 36 ISBN: 1558213376


Plate 19

There are two basic types of tarpon fly designs. One is the sleek, sparsely dressed Keys-style pattern. It is used in clear waters where the angler can see the fish before the cast. This fly has the wing tied at the rear of the hook, with a collar directly in front and laid back toward the bend. The shank is either left bare or is built to a taper. The taper is often painted with a fluorescent color, and a coating of clear head cement or epoxy is applied. The original Keys-style wing was often long, as much as six inches, but modern Keys-style flies are usually less than three inches. So far as I can tell, Stu Apte was one of the first people to use this design, and Keys guides have used just about every color combination under the sun since then. And people have put their name on patterns that have been in use for years. For that reason, I'm not giving anyone credit for a pattern, with the exception of the Apte Tarpon Fly.

The other type of tarpon pattern is used in deep water, or where visibility is not very good. The Whistler pattern developed by Dan Blanton is typical of this type. It has a bulky wing, heavy chenille body, and large eyes. The purpose is to generate sound waves in low-visibility water so tarpon (and many other species) can find it.



End of expert fishing tips

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Last modified on 02/13/05.