Fishing & Boating News
GULF COAST TARPON TAMERS
No doubt, this beast’s relentless runs and legendary leaps keep many folks dreaming of their first tarpon, longing for their next and living every second of every battle with a zeal for completion matched only by a desire for perpetuity.
Sure, it’s cool when a pod of ‘poons charges down the beach with metallic head after metallic head breaking waves to gulp the air that’ll augment gill breathing during aerobic exercise. And who can resist those boat side bragging pics showing six feet of silver warrior catching its breath before release?
Good stuff, all; but that’s icing on the cake. Tarpon lovers seek this fish for the thrill ride of tethering oneself to a silver cyclone just to see who breaks.
For advice on doing so, one of the top Gulf Coast tarpon guides, Capt. Jeff Hagaman, shared his insights on summer techniques. Spending May-July in world-famous Boca Grande, he runs a 24-foot Sheaffer towerboat and targets these truly peerless fish during their annual aggregations in and around Charlotte Harbor.
Essential to Hagaman’s game are the Raymarine eS12 and eS9 units he has installed in his deck and tower consoles, respectively. We’ll look at his sonar strategies in a moment; but for now, Haggaman’s trident of tarpon tactics provides a playbook that anglers can follow throughout the species’ Gulf Coast range.
Harbors, bays and any backwaters linking to the Gulf beaches through coastal passes create natural flushing scenarios. Here’s how Haggaman approaches each scenario.
Harbor Patrol: Tarpon like to roam the flats, channels and rocky outcroppings of inside waters, where they can drop into a deeper area to chill or feed on bait schools, crustaceans and any pinfish they can scare out of the grass.
Passing Time: Flowing between Cayo Costa to the south and Gasparilla Island on the north, Boca Grande Pass provides tarpon a broad and fertile passage to and from Charlotte Harbor. Average depth of the rocky bottom is around 40 feet, but two major chasms, the Lighthouse Hole and the Coast Guard Hole plunge as deep as 80.
Hagaman says the fish are active on incoming or outgoing tides, but when new and full moons accelerate the latter, anglers gear up for crazy action on the “crab flushes” — thousands of crustaceans pulled from the harbor’s shallows by swiftly falling water. Capitalizing on this briny buffet, tarpon rise for big-time surface feeds.
“That’s when the tarpon really stack up,” Hagaman said. “That’s why the tarpon are there — they come to eat all the crabs and shrimp flowing out of Charlotte Harbor. So, the outgoing tide can be the best feeding tide.”
Beach Blast: Many times tarpon run within clear eyesight of beachcombers, so anglers may be fishing just a football field off the sand. Mornings often find beach tarpon clustered around rock piles or small ledges, but the morning sun prompts north or southbound strolls. (Getting baits in front of fish right at daybreak yields fireworks.)
BAITS AND TACKLE
Tarpon will eat various artificials from shallow-running plugs to flies, but Hagaman finds them most agreeable with live bait. His top choices are pass crabs, pinfish and threadfin herring — depending on what the fish are doing.
“If the fish are moving in one direction, like a school leaving The Hill (east end of Boca Grande Pass) and heading to the pass, or if they’re traveling on the beach, we’ll get in front of them and use the trolling motors to slow troll threadfins off the back of the boat,” Haggaman explained. “If the fish are daisy chaining (swimming in circles) or mudding (feeding on the bottom) on the beach, I’ll throw a pinfish with a split shot right above the hook and fish it on the bottom.
“If I’m crab fishing, I’m generally going to be sight casting those at schools that are moving up and down the beach or out the harbor. When the fish sit still and start daisy chaining, they’re usually on the bottom, so I’ll go back to a pinfish.”
The ideas, Hagaman said, is to keep the bait where the fish is looking. Tarpon can show incredible feeding aggression, but they can also be highly particular in their preferences.
For beach fishing, which often requires long casts, Hagaman uses heavy spinning outfits with 50-pound braid, 10 feet of 40-pound fluorocarbon leader and 8-10 inches of 60-pound fluorocarbon “bite guard” to resist the tarpon’s bony, raspy jaws.
“In the harbor, I’m going to beef it up a little bit by using 65-pound braid (on spinning outfits), 50-pound leader and 60- to 80-pound bite guard,” Hagaman said. “I want to get them out of the school quicker and I’m not having to cast as long of a distance because the water is usually dirtier.
“If we’re dragging baits, I will free line them; but if the fish are sitting still, I’ll put a float on the line. I use slip floats so I can reel the leader right into my rod tip and that float slides down to the bite guard (between presentations). That allows me to make a long cast and when the bait hits the water, the leader slides through the slip float until the float reaches the stopper.”
In the pass, Hagaman often employs a blended strategy, with heavy spinning gear off the front of the boat and heavy conventional outfits off the stern. The logic here is to leverage the speed and rigging ease of spinning gear with the stump-pulling strength of conventional outfits.
“I’ll use the spinning outfit off the bow of my boat with a 1/16-ounce rubber core crimp-on sinker and throw the bait out to my water depth,” Hagaman explained. “So, if I’m in 40 feet of water, I’ll throw out 40 feet of line, but if I’m in the 60- or 80-foot hole, I’ll throw out 60-80 feet. I’ll back up and the bait will sink and end up (hanging vertically). On a hill tide, if the fish come up and start popping crabs on top, we’ll just remove the lead and free line the baits.”
Off the back of the boat, he’ll use a couple of conventional outfits with 160-pound braid with an 80-pound wind-on leader and 12 feet of 125-pound fluorocarbon leader. These rigs get 4 ounces of lead to keep them straight up-and-down for precise placement.
“You can put a lot heavier line and leader and use a lot more drag to muscle the fish in easier,” Hagaman said. “You can have a 2- to 4-knot current in the pass that the fish is going to use against you, so the heavier tackle makes more sense.
“The advantage of the spinning gear is that you can set it up a lot faster than the conventional, which also takes a little longer to reach the bottom. With conventional outfits, it’s takes to get your baits out every time you drop; but with spinning gear, you can have a crab in a bucket sitting in the corner and I can put him out really quick.”
RECON FOR THE READY
Clearly, Hagaman knows the hardware and how-to of tarpon fishing, but if there’s one variable he cannot control, it’s fish movement. Sight casting to surfacing fish or the dark shadows of deeper tarpon is pretty straightforward, but when the fish play hide-and-seek, Haggaman said his Raymarine units’ user-friendly simplicity never leaves him hanging.
“Using my CHIRP sonar down view with my SideVision set on 150 feet on each side, I’ll drive up-tide of my spot and mark the fish on my SideVision,” he said. “That way I know which side the school is sitting on as I drive up and then drift back to them.
“On the beach, if the fish aren’t showing a lot, I’ll use my SideVision in the tower and know where the fish are sitting, which side of the boat they’re on and which side to cast to; even if they’re not coming up and gulping air.”
As far as fish location, Hagaman said Raymarine’s clarity and ease of operation have made his job a little easier by removing the guesswork. In the old days, waiting for a fish to roll and reveal the school’s location was Hagaman’s only option; but today’s technology keeps him in the game longer.
“Now, you can make casts and be in the fish every time by just turning your boat a little bit,” Haggaman said. “If you can run an iPhone, you can run a Raymarine machine. Everything you need is right there and it’s easy to set up.
“If I lost my school of fish and I need to change my (SideVision beam) out to 200 feet, I can change that pretty quick on the fly, turn the boat, find the fish and get back on them.”
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