Chasing the Silver King: Tarpon Around the Globe

Knowing key seasonal implications and likely conditions at each individual destination is an essential ingredient in planning your tarpon fishing excursion. . .

img0029aThere are a handful of truly legendary saltwater gamefish — those whose fighting prowess gives rise to addictive behavior among the fly anglers who pursue them.  The kind of quarry that can make an angler daydream and grow increasingly listless when away from the water. Tarpon — the “silver king” — is just such a fish.

The tarpon’s sheer size is partly responsible as there are very few fly-fishable species, either offshore or inshore, that commonly reach such massive proportions. There is something quite unnerving, even humbling, about casting to a fish that has twenty-five pounds on you!  And this initial intimidation factor never seems to go away, as even seasoned tarpon veterans still experience a slight bit of insecurity when first faced with that 200-plus cruising submarine.

But size alone is only a part of the equation. For it is the tarpon’s fighting ability that truly sets “the king” apart from the commoners. To be hooked to a 100-plus pound fish that repeatedly clears the water over twice its body length is enough to fluster even the most composed sort of individual.

Sailfish and wahoo are the only other heavy-weight saltwater gamefish (capable of being pursued with a fly) that can even hold a candle to the tarpon’s size and combined aerial antics. The offshore contenders fall short when you consider the actual angling conditions involved. Aesthetically speaking, offshore angling pales in comparison to the sight-casting in the clear shallows which often comprise the tarpon’s watery world.

Finally, the tarpon’s eagerness to take a fly completes the species’ already- impressive list of virtues. Actually, unless they’ve really been pounded by anglers, tarpon are neither finicky nor particularly spooky.  Unlike some of the other less-compassionate flats gamefish such as the often fickle permit, when tarpon are in the feeding mood, they’re eager, even forgiving, takers.

Know Before You Go…

img0025aBut not all tarpon fishing scenarios are the same. The most exhilarating encounters occur in clear, shallow flats.  Tarpon can be encountered in these conditions from southern Florida, to the Texas Gulf in the west, to northeastern Brazil, and in parts of Africa, but consistently finding clear water/flats tarpon angling is tricky business, which makes knowledge of seasonal fluctuations and conditions of each individual destination key planning a tarpon fishing excursion. In addition, effective planning requires taking an individual angler’s personal tastes into consideration, so before making a final decision on a specific destination, do your homework in advance of the trip carefully considering the following factors:

Specific Physical Conditions of Each Fishery — Does your chosenimg0028a.jpg (8115 bytes) destination match or exceed your expectations? Tarpon fisheries vary worldwide from clear flats, to tannin or mud-stained rivers and lagoons, to roiling surf and deep-water river mouth or ocean conditions.

Fish Size/Numbers — Is fish size more important than sheer numbers of tarpon or vice versa? Tarpon size and abundance varies greatly from place to place, and can be  influenced by the  seasons depending upon the location. If you’re after big fish for instance, you shouldn’t even consider a destination such as Rio Chico, Venezuela where there are hordes of small fish, but the average size is only about ten pounds. Some people, however, prefer to catch a lot of smaller fish, as the action and excitement can be almost never-ending.  Yet even though any tarpon of more than one hundred-plus pounds can be exhausting to catch, many anglers won’t even bother with a trip unless they can get a shot at a 200-pounder.

Seasonal Considerations — Make sure that the date of your trip is going coincide with the optimal fishing times of any particular destination. Since tarpon are highly migratory and “resident” fish are often temporarily joined by migratory schools of transient tarpon, virtually every tarpon fishery has its optimum window of time, when fish numbers are at their peak . Weather is often an important variable in tarpon fishing. Choose those months known for their particularly cooperative behavior. Strong wind, rain and cold are often the angler’s nemeses. Light wind, dependable warm weather and sunny conditions are ideal. Many veterans consider moon phase to be important. Stay away from full-moon periods if at all possible. Optimal fishing times for each destination can often get booked up months and even years in advance.

Incidental Species — Are you interested solely in tarpon, or do you want the option of catching other species as well? If you’re rabid about catching only tarpon, choose a destination where this species is the main focus. Often snook, bonefish, permit, reef and even offshore species can caught within close proximity of a given tarpon fishery. You are always at the mercy of nature’s whim no matter how productive the particular tarpon fishery. Remember that “back up” species can save the day when the tarpon fishing takes a down turn.

Accommodations, Access, & Budget Considerations — There is often a range of accommodation and access choices for a particular tarpon destination. If you have the money, “full-service” lodges are often the best option. If you want to save money, try booking guides on a daily basis separate from your accommodations. If you have the time and patience, “do-it-yourself” trips can be a great adventure, but these require a great deal of research and time. At the least, hire a guide initially to learn the ropes of a new area.

Destination Specifics

South Florida

img0030aSouth Florida still remains one of the world’s top tarpon destinations for many reasons. Reliable sight fishing to some of the world’s largest tarpon is the primary attraction, though its in-country location certainly doesn’t detract from the allure. Proximity does have its drawbacks though. Increased fishing pressure combined with an almost non-existent boating etiquette (from the recreational jet skiers and boaters) can be a frustrating factor in the daily angling routine. It is a well known fact that the Florida flats guides are some of the best trained outfitters in the business. Guides are fairly expensive from a global perspective ($300- $450+/day) and must be booked at least a year in advance to secure bookings during optimal angling periods.

Seasonal implications are essential: a substantial number of Florida’s tarpon stock are seasonal fish migrating up from Mexico and Central America. These are spawning fish that move into the area each year, remaining only for a given period of time before dispersing again. Secondly, tarpon move onto the flats only when warm water temperatures suit the fish’s comfort zone.  April is said to be a fairly decent tarpon month in Florida. The largest tarpon of the season are typically caught at this time, though many think this month is simply too early to fish.  “Northers” and other similar detrimental weather patterns can completely ruin fishing in April. May is ideal, however, with June and early July being reliable back-up months.

Primary access points are separated into three distinct areas;

* Islamorada,
* Marathon and
* Key West.

Key West is the southernmost location (approximately 130-miles from Miami) and usually the spring’s first “fishable” spot. Marathon is located some 25-miles up the coast from Key West. Islamorada is closest to Miami (approximately 85 miles). Most guides will closely follow the tarpon’s local migratory patterns and concentrate on the access points offering the highest concentration of fish.

Belize has a variety of distinctive tarpon fisheries ranging from inland river and lagoon systems to the shallow and clear flats of Ambergris Cay, to the shallow, clear waters and creek channels of Turneffe Island. Belize is considered to be the best value in international tarpon destinations, as lodging and guide prices are some of the lowest in the industry.

Ambergris Cay

img0028aAmbergris Cay has been a long-time favorite of many anglers as it isimg0030a.jpg (6779 bytes) one of the world’s only locations supporting a year-round resident tarpon fishery. Ambergris’ 20-60 pounds tarpon are on average somewhat smaller than the Florida fish (80-150 pounds), but many anglers consider this “intermediate” tarpon size to be the most sporting of all. Ambergris’ tarpon fishery is fairly small and heavily pressured, so fish can be quite spooky. Wind is an essential variable at Ambergris, as it has a nasty reputation for ruining fishing by stirring up the area’s flats. Optimal angling months are from April through early-July. Slackened wind combined with an influx of migratory tarpon maximize the cay’s fishing conditions. Anglers have two options: one is to fish out of El Pescador Lodge; the other option is to stay in one of San Pedro’s (Ambergris’ only town) small hotels and hire a local guide to take you out on the flats. If you know what you’re doing, this can greatly reduce the cost of a trip. Decent bonefishing (and spotty permit) is also available on surrounding flats.

Turneffe Island

Turneffe Island is not necessarily known as a tarpon resource, but can offer fantastic tarpon fishing during the months of July and August. Tarpon here often run well over the 100-pound mark, substantially larger than at Ambergris Cay. The tarpon of Turneffe are found primarily in the tidal creek channels and lagoons, but can also be encountered on the flats’ dropoffs and along the reef and ocean side of the island. There are two full-service lodges on Turneffe:

1. Turneffe Flats Lodge, and
2. Turneffe Island Lodge.

Turneffe Island Lodge is said to be a bit more diver-oriented, while Turneffe Flats focuses more on angling. Turneffe’s tarpon population receives almost no angling pressure, and both lodges often offer discounts during the summer months. Aside from tarpon, Turneffe supports a strong permit and bonefish population.

Belize’s River and Lagoon Fisheries include the Manatee, Sibun, and Belize River water sheds.

Tarpon move into these rivers in May and June to spawn in the numerous inland lagoons and then disperse again in July. Fish run on the smaller side (10-60-pounds), but can be quite numerous. Keep in mind that Belize’s coastal rivers are at the mercy of inland rains, and can fluctuate on a weekly basis. Even during optimal periods, river fishing can get “blown out” by heavy precipitation. Belize River Lodge specializes in river fishing, and offers attractive packages combining river and flats angling at attractive prices. Local guides can also be hired out of Belize city on a daily basis, but this can be a sketchy experience.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s tarpon fishery is composed of a series of large,img0026a.jpg (13078 bytes) tannin-stained freshwater river systems feeding into the Caribbean. The primary rivers include the Colorado, Parismina, and Tortugero water sheds. In its heyday, Costa Rica was known for its fabulous freshwater tarpon angling. Huge schools of 100-plus-pound fish would enter the rivers and lagoons to feed and spawn presenting an easy target for fly casters. Agricultural runoff and increased boat traffic (both angling and eco-tour oriented) has significantly diminished the rivers’ once consistent tarpon fishing. This is not to say that great fishing cannot still be encountered in the rivers, but the majority of Costa Rica’s feeding tarpon are now found in the river mouths outside the Caribbean’s often-times tumultuous surf line. A typical day of fishing often involves blind casting from rocking skiffs. The tarpon themselves usually hold in cloudy water from six to sixty-feet deep. High-density sinking lines are the rule, with sight- fishing limited to the times when tarpon schools push bait onto the surface. For the fly fisherman, this is not exactly the most aesthetic experience.

Though all Costa Rica’s rivers hold resident populations of fish, May is definitely the month to plan a trip as spawning fish tend to maximize tarpon populations during this month. Judy Heidt’s Rio Parismina Lodge seems to get the unanimous vote for best lodge, as her facility offers fantastic accommodations combined with state-of-the-art game boats designed to get anglers out into the river mouth no matter what the surf conditions. There are a dozen or so other lodges spread out on the other rivers. Choose your lodge carefully! Incidental species include snook (the largest snook run in September and October) and the freshwater scrappers such as guapote (a species of Cichlid), machaca (a species of Colossoma that looks like an overgrown bluegill) and mojara (small bluegill-like Cichlid).


Venezuela’s tarpon resources are divided into two distinct areas — developed and undeveloped. Rio Chico is the only “developed” location, and if you’re looking for a place to catch hordes of small tarpon (5 to 20-pounds), this destination is definitely the place to go. Surface fishing with small poppers and sliders on light- weight tackle is quite thrilling if you aren’t particularly concerned with breaking any record books. Rio Chico is considered a year-round destination, though optimal months run from September through November. The Orinoco Delta is has a significant tarpon population, but logistics seem to prevent the construction of a permanent camp. There are also two river systems (Bireme and Macura Rivers) on the Guyana/Venezuela border that are rumored to offer decent small tarpon fishing, but they too are in the early stages of development.

Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

The Yucatan peninsula should not be considered “primarilly a tarpon destination as the fishing is often times spotty and highly restricted: the area’s attraction is its combined strengths of bonefish, permit, reef and offshore (spring and summer) opportunities. The Yucatan’s tarpon population is comprised of a mix of resident and migratory fish that combines forces during the optimal months of May and June. Resident fish range from 5 to 50-pounds, and reside mainly in a series of inland “seep” mangrove-lined lagoons and tidal creek channels that run below Cancun, Mexico to the Belizean border. Migratory tarpon can exceed 150-pounds. These fish run along the coastal flats and creek channels and can even be taken from the surf in certain conditions.

Miscellaneous Destinations

Africa, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guyana, Surinam, Guatemala and Brazil all offer tarpon fishing to a certain, unpredictable degree.  Nicaragua has two locations with river fisheries similar to those found in Costa Rica. The first is the Matagallia River located almost dead center on the east coast. The other is the San Juan River that borders Costa Rica (flowing out of Lake Nicaragua). Both these rivers are rumored to offer the outstanding inland/river tarpon fishing once commonly encountered in the other previously-mentioned Costa Rican rivers. What actually develops remains to be seen.

Tackle Considerations

Sizing fly tackle to the fish’s proportions is essential. If you try to handle large tarpon on light tackle, you not only risk increased breakoffs (not to mention a broken rod), but possibly jeopardize that particular fish’s health by over exhaustion. Conversely, catching a five-pound tarpon on a stiff eleven-weight rod is downright sacrilegious! As a general rule, small tarpon (5-20-pounds) can be handled on a stiff 8-weight rod, while mid-sized fish (25-80-pounds) should be fished with a stiff 10-weight. Anything larger (80+pounds) should be taken on a stiff 11 or 12-weight rod with a fighting grip for added leverage.

Reels should be sturdy, saltwater models with smooth, dependable drag systems. Spools must hold 100-300 yards of backing (the larger the tarpon, the more backing you might need). Fly lines and leaders should also be considered. You can’t catch tarpon on a floating line if the fish are holding in thirty feet of water. All tarpon need to be fished with a shock leader, as even the smallest fish’s abrasive teeth will chew through most small diameter monofilament. Fly choice and color depend on water color, light intensity, and the primary bait types in each particular fishery. The list of tarpon flies is extensive and varied, though typically large, bushy “Whistler-type” flies are used in cloudy water. More realistic/streamlined flies are often needed for clearwater tarpon.

Destination Synopsis — International Tarpon

  Ave. Fish Size Angling Condition Optimal Month(s) Incidental Species
Costa Rica 50-150-lbs. Deep water river mouths w/limited river/lagoon sight fishing Off-colored Water May Reef Species Snook Freshwater: Guapote Machaca
Belize/Coastal Rivers 10-60-lbs. Rivers & Lagoons Off-colored Water May & June Snook Bonefish/permit
Belize/ Ambergris Cay 20-100-lbs. Flats Clear Water Year-Round* May-June Optimal Reef Species Bonefish/permit
Belize/ Turneffe Island 20-150-lbs. Mainly Creek Channels & Lagoons — some flats Clear Water July-August Offshore Reef Species Bonefish/permit
Florida 50-200+lbs. Deep Bays & Creeks in early season — flats in optimal months Clear Water May-June Depending on specific location bonefish/permit / redfish and reef species
Venezuela (Rio Chico) 5-60-lbs Inland lagoons Off-colored Water Year-Round* Sept.- November Optimal Spotty Snook
Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula 5-100+lbs. Inland lagoons Clear Water May-June Offshore Reef Species Bonefish/permit

Mark N. Cahill has been writing and editing for since 1995. He started fishing in the mid-1960's and caught his first striper off World's End in Hingham in 1966. From there on in it was an obsession. He loves fishing for tuna, and fly fishing for striped bass. In a pinch, anything with fins will do...

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Posted in Saltwater Fly Fishing, Tarpon

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