Fishing – 06-01-2011

Tarpon junkies flock to Anna Maria Island

“What are all those boats doing out there?”

When you see a big cluster of boats on the waters near Anna Maria Island in May, that’s a sure sign it’s tarpon season.

Good numbers of fish are schooling off the beaches of Anna Maria Island and chomping crabs in the Gulf-bay passes, both north and south. Egmont Key is showing potential, but the true test will be the strong outgoing tides occurring this week in the afternoons.

Targeting tarpon at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge also is proving prosperous. Try working the slower tides if you’re going to bridge fish. It can be hard to keep your bait in the strike zone when the tide is ripping.

With their aerial displays, drag-screaming runs and overall size up to 200 pounds, the tarpon is one of the most-popular game fish in the world for light-tackle sport fishing. Picture a stainless-steel torpedo, 6 feet long, weighing 150 pounds, hitting your helpless little blue crab at warp speed. Zoom. The fish jumps 10 feet in the air, doing flips and head shakes, gills rattling, before exploding back in the emerald green water, throwing foam and spray.

Do you see how this can become an obsession.

As Frank Sergeant, award-winning writer and editor for many of America’s outdoor magazines, said, “It’s an addictive business, one that has led men to spend fortunes, marriages and lifetimes in the pursuit.”

The tarpon, titled Magalops atlanticus and known as silver king or sabalo, can grow to exceed 200 pounds. The all-tackle world-record tarpon was caught in Rubane, Guinee Bissau, Africa, by Capt. Patrick Sebile in 2003. It weighed 286 pounds 9 ounces, the length was 7 feet 6 inches to the fork, and it had a girth of 50 inches. The Florida all-tackle record tarpon was set by Gus Bell of Key West in 1975. His fish weighed in at 243 pounds. Fish bigger than this have been caught, and will be caught again. But most tarpon fishers don’t document record fish due to the fact they don’t want to kill them. For all their might, tarpon are delicate out of the water and seldom survive the rigor of measuring and weighing for record requirements, thus making it hard to determine how big they really get.

With the numbers of fish we are seeing, June looks to be an exceptional month. With big afternoon outgoing tides this week and again during the week of June 12, the tarpon fishing should be as good as it gets. If you haven’t gotten your dose of tarpon this year, it’s time to get out there and hook up. And if it gets crowded in the passes, be courteous and patient. We all have the same goal, to test our strength against the silver king.

Capt. Rick Gross of Fishy Business Charters is taking his charters to the tarpon on the beaches and in the passes. I was lucky to fish with Gross this past week along with Gross’ second-cousin Donald Gross and Donald’s grandson Nick. We fished for three hours; hooked five fish and landed three. Not bad. Nick landed the biggest fish with an estimated weight of 130 pounds.

For tarpon gear, Gross uses Penn Spinfisher 850s on an 8-foot Star Delux rod spooled with 50-pound Power-Pro, 6 feet of 60-pound fluorocarbon leader and a 6/0 Owner circle hook. This combo is ready to do battle with even the biggest tarpon. Gross drifts the passes and, on seeing a pod of fish, pulls up-current and drifts back to the school before throwing a bait. The baits of choice for Gross are blue crabs, pass crabs and threadfins.

Gross is fishing the backwater with good results. Spotted sea trout are responding to live shiners on the flats in 4-8 feet of water. Along with the trout, Gross is catching bluefish, Spanish mackerel and ladyfish in the same areas. Once the “toothy” fish show up, Gross uses a 4/0 Aberdeen hook to prevent getting cut off. “It doesn’t seem to bother the trout,” Gross says. “And it keeps you from getting your line cut by the mackerel.”

Capt. Mark Howard of SumoTime Fishing Charters agrees that June is prime tarpon and a variety of baits is the key to catching them. Howard suggests mullet, pinfish, pass crabs, blue crabs, threadfin herring and greenbacks. And he recommends using stout tackle to reel these leviathans to the boat in a timely matter.

On the backwater scene, Howard says speckled trout are still biting and continue to be the go-to fish for fun action and a good dinner. “Fish the drop-offs along grassy areas, and in 5-8 feet of water. Use shiners to entice these beautiful fish,” Howard says.

Howard says shark fishing is in high gear. Black tips, lemons, spinners, bonnethead and bull sharks are coming to the tarpon-feeding party.

“Use a couple of chum blocks hung over the side to draw these apex predators to your lines. Use wire leaders or 120-pound cable rigged with a 8/0 circle hook, baited with cut ladyfish or mullet to get these fish to chew,” Howard says. “Be careful when landing these bruisers and use a long-handle release tool to keep your fingers and hands safe.”

Capt. Josh Peurifoy of Capt. Josh’s Charters is targeting tarpon in the Island passes and around Egmont Key. Peurifoy is using blue crabs, pinfish or threadfin herring to target tarpon. Cobia also have arrived on the menu for Peurifoy. “I like to sight-cast to them with Cal jigs and small swim bait,” Peurifoy says. “You have to sneak up on them and then present a bait.”

With grouper season on its way out, Peurifoy has been taking advantage in southern Tampa Bay. His charters have been coming back to the docks with limits of gag grouper in the 22-30 inch range.

Peurifoy also is working the abundance of sharks in local waters. On a recent trip by Egmont Key, Peurifoy caught and released two bull sharks in the 8-foot range using live jack crevalles for bait. He is catching and releasing hammerheads in the 8-10 foot range on the same baits.

Jonny Keyes at Island Discount Tackle says tarpon is on the top of the list this week for inshore action. Schools of fish are being reported in all the passes as well as on the beach. Baits vary on the “mood” of the tarpon, so Keyes says to carry a little bit of everything. Threadfin herring and shiners are working great on the schools on the beach, while crabs are working in the passes. If you’re having trouble hooking up, Keyes suggests a longer leader and, if need be, scale down the pound test of the leader, too.

Moving onto the flats, Keyes says the trout bite remains solid. “Try using some top-water plugs early in the morning for trout on the shallower flats,” Keyes suggests. “There’s been some big trout caught in Anna Maria Sound.” Other applications also are producing fish in the slot size. Live shrimp under a popping cork is a sure way to increase your chances of being successful with trout.

Along the beaches, ladyfish, bluefish and jacks are being caught on live bait, such as shrimp or shiners, but also on spoons and jigs. Sharks are patrolling the beaches, so while you’re catching jacks, try throwing a piece of one out on a big rod. Wire leader connected to a 7/0 circle hook works well for catching sharks on cut bait. Species you might catch vary. Most catches have been black tip and bonnethead, but don’t be surprised to see bull, hammerhead and lemon sharks.

James Followell at the south bait shop on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge Fishing Piers says pier fishers are encountering gag grouper in the keeper-size range, but most are around 15-inches. Spanish mackerel are arriving in schools, chomping up schools of threadfin herring and white bait. Followell suggests using silver spoons and crappie jigs to hook into these bait-busters. “They’re catching them on smaller greenies, too,” Followell says. Small black tip and bonnethead sharks are being caught by soaking chunk baits on the bottom. Ladyfish, mullet and mackerel work great for this type of fishing. Pompano are still being caught in decent numbers using Love’s lures pompano jigs. “Generally, the pompano bite has been in the shallower water,” says Followell.

Sightings of cobia are coming in daily, although none have been caught. Stout gear is recommended to target cobia at the piers. Getting them to take a bait can be easy; it’s the battle that ensues afterward that tests the angler’s big-fish skills. Fishing around structure such as bridges and piers requires stout tackle to control the fish. Big threadfins and pinfish make a good offering.

Tarpon are being caught on both Skyway piers and around the bridge. Again stout gear is recommended for a chance at landing a silver king. Best baits are pinfish, crabs, and threadfin herring.

Tournament fishers were out Memorial Day weekend competing in the all-release billfish Old Salt Loop Tournament hosted by Galati Yachts.

The Loop has been called the “iron man” of billfish tournaments and is sanctioned by both the International Game Fish Association and World Billfish Series. This tournament brought fishers and boats from all over to Galati Marine in Anna Maria to see who can win the prestigious LOOP Cup.

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