When it comes to tarpon fishing, it’s all about the air show and the fight.
For the past month-and-a-half, tarpon fishing along the Emerald Coast has been red hot and local anglers have posted photos and videos on Facebook and Instagram of their triumphs.
And that’s probably the only place folks might see them, because tarpon are a catch-and-release fishery in Florida, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“I feel like tarpon fishing has been Destin’s best kept secret for the past decade,” said Capt. Nicky Harvell of Emerald Coast Outfitters. “It is just now starting to get out and more and more people are doing it every year. I feel like the Panhandle as a whole has the most underrated and untalked about tarpon fishery in the state of Florida."
For years anglers have traveled to the Keys and Boca Grande to tarpon fish, but the Panhandle can now compete.
“We have the numbers of fish,” Harvell said. “Our fishery is going to completely change 10 years from now … more people are going to be doing it. I think it will add a whole other dimension to our already world class fishery.”
For example Harvell shared a story from a trip earlier this week where he took a family on a five-hour fishing trip. They caught their limit of red snapper and then came back in and hit the beach and hooked up with eight tarpon and were back at the docks before noon.
“I don’t know anywhere in Florida where you can do that,” he said. “Nobody is killing them so if you do the math it’s only going to get better.”
Tarpon fishing along the Emerald Coast begins around the middle of May and goes through the middle of August.
“Today we only saw about 200 fish,” Harvell said on Wednesday.
However during peak time, the last week of June to the Fourth of July, Harvell said they would find groups of tarpon that were uncountable.
But the most he’s caught in one day is about a dozen with the biggest being about 163 pounds.
Capt. Chris Wagner of the Full Pull hooked his biggest ever earlier this year. It measured 85 inches long and weighed well over 150 pounds.
“It was a monster,” he said.
Wagner has been tarpon fishing since the '80s.
“Tarpon have always been here, just nobody ever fished for them out of a boat,” Wagner said, noting most would do it from the piers.
But the tackle has improved making it easier to catch off a boat or pier.
“Used to they would lose all their line because they are so powerful,” Wagner said of fishing off the pier. “But we’ve got tackle on a spinning rod that will catch one now.”
Wagner, like Harvell, uses a spinning rod. He likes to use 60-pound Braid with a big mono leader.
“Tarpon are very intelligent fish, but with the flora carbon you can trick them and get a bite out of a boat,” Wagner said. “And there is nothing special about the bait.”
Most use the same bait they would to catch a snapper, such as a threadfin, cigar minnow or a greenie.
But what makes the tarpon special is the fight and aerial show.
“They jump and fight real good,” said Andy Block, who has been tarpon fishing these waters since the '80s.
He likened the fight and aerial show to that of a blue marlin, but in the case of tarpon it can all be done within yards of the beach.
“I don’t think there is a fish swimming that pulls harder than a tarpon,” Wagner said, except maybe a yellowfin tuna. “The bite is so violent and after you get the bite they strip out so much line and then launch. Once you get a hold of a tarpon and watch them clear the water you either never want to do it again or never want to do anything else again.
“For the 65 days they are here that’s all I want to do," he added. "They have so much heart. There is no quit in them. A tarpon will fight around the boat for an hour. It really raises the bar in angling.”