The trick to reelin’ ‘em in is experience

We have all marveled at the giant schools of tarpon in Key West Harbor. From April through June, the tarpon migration is in full swing. Seemingly countless numbers of fish can be seen rolling like a group of chrome-colored synchronized swimmers. I have seen the entire entrance to the harbor completely covered with rolling fish. Why they “roll” or come to the surface in large numbers is somewhat a mystery with plenty of theories. Some say they are filling their swim bladders, others say they are spawning. I say they are just taunting us. No matter what the case, they are one of the most sought after sportfish and with good reason.

They offer everything a fisherman could ask for: high thrashing jumps, line screaming runs, and excellent photos next to the boat. They only have one flaw; they can sometimes be impossible to fool. Whether you fish them with live baits or chunks, lures or flies, there are certain times that they will refuse even the best presentation. Being able to break this barrier is what separates the true tarpon masters from the weekend warriors.

Sometimes even the subtlest change can make all the difference. Where the hook is placed in a live bait can make it swim a little different in the current. How fast the chunks of by-catch are dropped over the side and how big they are can make a difference in how they sink. The list is infinite of the many variations that can make a tarpon turn off of a bait or completely demolish it. My suggestion would be to hire a reputable guide who knows the local waters and is up to speed on the latest migration trends.

The patterns these fish follow throughout the migration period change rapidly with the tides and weather. For you night owls, the tarpon is a great target because they are primarily a nocturnal feeder. They are a little more aggressive at night but no less skeptical. I have seen them hit a red lure but not a pink one in pitch black conditions. Obviously, they can tell the difference without much light. So, it follows the night fishing tends to improve with less moon. Key West is one of the only places I have trolled for them at night and believe me it works.

I commonly hear folks refer to the tarpon as a saltwater carp. It must be because of the large scales because this is the only similarity to a carp that I can think of. They can be a very aggressive predator with a veracious appetite, but in the blink of an eye or change in condition become as impossible as trying to feed a kid brussel sprouts. Nevertheless I think their touchy temperaments are what intrigue us as fisherman. Heck, if it was easy then everyone would do it. The challenge to deceive these great fish is what keeps us coming back.

Fortunately it is illegal to take a tarpon without purchasing a tag and even with a tag it is highly frowned upon. I think this improves tarpons’ smarts — most of them have been caught once or twice in their lifetime. You know the old saying: Fool me once, shame on you; Fool me twice, shame on me. I am often accused of giving the fishes’ brain too much credit, but it sure seems like they spot that hook a little quicker as the season progresses.

Get out there and try your hand at tarpon. It is one of the few chances you will get to battle a 100-plus-pound fish and be within a 1/4 mile from shore. Save the frustration and hire a guide your first few times and before long you, too, can join the mass of crazy people who wait all winter to get their shot at the mighty Silver King. Be careful, though, it can be habit forming.

Capt. Vinny Argiro has been chartering in Key West since 1989. His number is 305-849-2367. His website is

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