May and June are special months here in the Florida Keys; months that people all over the world wait for in anticipation. It is almost a sickness. They suffer from an affliction know as Tarpon Fever! Famously known as peak months for tarpon, it is a busy time on the water for the local guiding community. Tarpon fishing goes on all day and night, and, some days, it seems like the only thing out there for anglers is tarpon. That is definitely not the case. Every year, I get a few trips where people either have no interest in fighting a 100 lb. fish for an hour, or just want dinner. They want smaller tarpon, or fish they can take home to eat while bending a rod. So, as the bulk of the fleet is targeting tarpon, the rest of the backcountry is your playground. However, most anglers are here for tarpon.
I get excited thinking about live bait tarpon fishing (I am writing this a few months before May) and all the highs and lows that come with it. Last year, I had a few memorable encounters with sharks while fighting tarpon around the bridges, as well as more than a few surprises, like black grouper up to 20 lbs., big jacks, barracuda, sharks, snapper, and permit. The grouper are such a nice bonus, as grouper season opens May 1st, adding a little color to the cooler. Most days we are fishing live mullet, but always have a live well full of mixed-size crabs as backup.
Great tarpon trips do not need to be all day events; some of my favorite trips are 4-hour sunset charters. You are fishing close to home, it is the cooler part of the day, and the possibilities are endless. One trip comes to mind--a three person sunset trip 4-8pm for tarpon. The crew I had was from Alabama and pretty rowdy, but fun rowdy. We anchored up and started fishing live mullet. After five minutes we caught our first big 15 lb. jack. Next, we landed a 25 lb. barracuda on mono leader. A little later, we hooked into a big 90 lb. tarpon and fought it for 45 minutes; it jumped several times, but finally threw the hook. After that, we put a bait on the bottom and hooked up fast. After a long run and a chase, we saw it was a big nurse shark, likely 100 lbs. Now, after the jacks, barracuda, and tarpon, this nurse shark got them super pumped up, as this was the biggest fish any of them had ever seen. We fought it to the boat and removed our hook, as well as an additional three more; apparently this shark had been around.
Speaking of sharks, these are also great months for sharks in the backcountry; bulls, lemons, black tips, hammerheads, and even the occasional tiger shark are following the tarpon. My favorite way to shark fish is with a fly rod; all it takes is a stringer full of tuna, amberjack, or barracuda carcasses and flies. Shark flies are not complicated, just big, either red (most common), or green and yellow. And, yes, you can catch 200 lb. sharks on a fly rod; it is a lot easier than you think.
As of May 1st, the 2018 shallow water grouper season begins so now anglers can keep legal grouper. Hogfish also opens up, but the size and bag limits have changed, so take and review the newest regulations inside this copy of Fishmonster Magazine, or from any of the local bait shops or marinas. On the other side, snook season has closed and won’t open until September 1st, but you can still catch them.
For those of you who know me, know that, to me, fishing is more than just a game, it is a way of life. So fish hard and fish often!
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