How to Catch Tarpon in Boca Grande Florida
For many saltwater anglers, learning how to catch tarpon is the ultimate goal, the pinnacle of achievement. But for most mortals, tarpon remain out of reach; they're difficult to locate, to hook, and their raw power and remarkable acrobatics make them incredibly tough to land.
But, there's a special place where every year thousands of tarpon arrive in full force, giving anglers of all stripes the chance to make contact with the Silver King. The place is Boca Grande, Florida.
In this article, we'll go over the basics of how to catch tarpon in Boca Grande Pass along with some logistical information to help you plan a trip and get in on the action.
Fossil records show that tarpon have been around since prehistoric times with little evolutionary change. They are covered in thick, armor-like scales that provide protection against predators, primarily sharks.
They can gulp air, allowing them to survive in water with low oxygen levels. Their large eyes help them hunt with impeccable proficiency, scooping up prey with their huge "bucket mouths."
Tarpon weighing 120 pounds are considered small in Boca Grande, with real trophies weighing anywhere from 200 to 250 pounds and measuring up to 8 feet long. On the line, tarpon are known for their incredible strength, stamina, and uncanny ability to shake the hook as they thrash and leap through the air.
Proudly bearing the title of "Tarpon Capital of the World," Boca Grande is a favorite destination of migratory tarpon in the Gulf of Mexico, and the anglers that come to catch them. The town of Boca Grande is located on the small and narrow Gasparilla Island at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor on the southwest coast of Florida.
The Boca Grande Pass, the stretch of water where the best tarpon fishing happens, is in between Gasparilla Island to the north and Cayo Costa Island to the south. Boca Grande Pass serves as the primary outlet for Charlotte Harbor, and is one of the deepest natural passes in the state, with average depths of 80 feet.
The Peace and Myakka rivers pour into Charlotte Harbor, depositing rich nutrients and supporting abundant populations of baitfish and blue crabs which get flushed through Boca Grande Pass.
Every year starting in either mid-April or mid-May and continuing through August and September, migratory tarpon begin entering passes and bays throughout the Gulf to feed heavily before they head offshore to spawn. While tarpon move into many other bays along Florida's west coast, Boca Grande consistently receives the highest numbers of returning fish each year.
The tarpon fishing season coincides with the annual spawning event, and usually lasts around 80 days. June is generally thought of as the peak of the tarpon fishing season in Boca Grande and is when there will be the most anglers in the Pass fishing. Good fishing can be had all season long, giving visiting anglers many opportunities to plan trips and cash in on the action.
When fishing in Boca Grande pass you can count on sharing the water with lots of other anglers, all of which are there to catch tarpon. The weekends generally see the largest crowds, with Sundays being particularly busy thanks to the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series. If you want more water to yourself, plan on fishing during the week when the crowds are much thinner.
The new moon and full moon phases create strong tides known as "hill tides." These tides flush millions of blue crabs from the Charlotte Harbor estuary into Boca Grande Pass where they're met by thousands of hungry tarpon.
Hill tides are hands down the best time to fish for tarpon in Boca Grande Pass. It's not unusual to have double and triple hookups in your boat -- a rare occurrence and something you'll never forget!
Historically, since they have no food value, tarpon haven't been studied or protected like other species such as tuna and marlin.
But today, with the booming popularity of saltwater sport fishing, tarpon are recognized as a valuable asset for local economies with a tarpon fishery, and rigid rules and regulations have been put in place to protect and preserve the species. This is especially true in Boca Grande Pass.
Here’s a quick overview of the regulations for tarpon fishing in Boca Grande:
Tarpon in Boca Grande are catch and release only.
Trophy tags are available for purchase which allow the harvest of one fish per angler per season for the sake of IGFA record qualification or trophy mounting. Tags cost $50 and are available through local tax collectors offices. For more info about tarpon tags, visit this page.
Tarpon can be caught with hook and line only, including both natural baits and artificial lures.
Only single hooks may be used to rig live or dead natural bait.
Snagging, snatch hooking, spearing, harpooning, or gaffing tarpon is prohibited.
Rigs that use a weight attached to a hook or lure where the weight hangs below the hook or lure are prohibited. These controversial rigs were at one time very popular in the Boca Grande Pass but have since been outlawed because anglers would use them to "snag" fish as opposed to hooking them properly in the mouth.
Breakaway gear is prohibited.
During April, May, and June, each boat is limited to fish a maximum of three lines at any given time.
Tarpon measuring 40 inches or more must remain in the water, even when taking photos. (Unless a tag is being used to harvest the fish.)
For more information regarding current Boca Grande tarpon fishing regulations, check out the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's webpage on tarpon.
Boca Grande Pass is a unique fishery and one that sees a ton of angling pressure during the tarpon fishing season. It’s not uncommon to see well over 100 boats in the pass at any one time, and since the pass isn't very big, this high volume traffic can prove troublesome in terms of safe boat navigation.
A set of local rules for boating and fishing the Boca Grande Pass have been codified by the Boca Grande Fishing Guides Association, and can be viewed on their website.
While these are "rules" and not "laws," it’s encouraged that all anglers and boaters who wish to fish the Boca Grande Pass learn them and adhere to them in order to cooperate and share the water safely.
Unlike tarpon fishing along beaches or on the flats, the Boca Grande pass is very deep and requires a slightly different gear and tackle setup. Still, the basic setup is relatively simple, and if you've done other types of saltwater fishing, you likely have a rod and reel that will get the job done.
Rod. The go-to rod for Boca Grande anglers is a 7- to 8-foot medium-heavy rod. Some prefer to use heavy offshore rods with roller guides, but these are not necessary and rods with standard guides or ceramic guides will work fine.
Reel. Both spinning and conventional reels can be used to catch tarpon in Boca Grande, with spinning reels being slightly more popular. Fully sealed, saltwater-specific reels with a smooth, heavy drag in the 5000 to 6500 size are perfect.
Line. 50-pound braided line is the standard tarpon line in Boca Grande. You'll want at least 250 yards of line loaded on your reel, 300 yards is ideal.
Leader. Most tarpon anglers prefer fluorocarbon leaders for fishing Boca Grande Pass. There is some structure at the bottom of the pass that your line can rub on, plus a tarpon's mouth is very abrasive and fluorocarbon is more abrasion-resistant. A 5- to 8-foot piece of 60- to 80-pound fluorocarbon is the ideal leader for tarpon.
Hooks. While not mandatory, circle hooks have become the standard selection for catching tarpon. Circle hooks seem to hold better in the corner of the fish’s mouth and aren't as likely to be thrown when the fish goes airborne. 6/0 is the standard circle hook size for tarpon, but some prefer smaller or larger sizes depending on the circumstance.
Gloves. While not part of your tackle setup, gloves are essentially a mandatory piece of gear when fishing for tarpon. Though tarpon don't have teeth, their mouths are extremely hard and abrasive, and can easily tear up your hands when trying to land a fish.
Regardless of the species you're after, the best live bait to use is usually whatever the fish are naturally feeding on, or "matching the hatch." In Boca Grande, crabs are what's "hatching" and the tarpon, and successful anglers, know it.
There are three types of crabs found in Charlotte Harbor and Boca Grande Pass: blue crabs, brown crabs, and purple legged crabs.
Blue crabs are the most abundant and most commonly used, but the other varieties may work better under certain conditions. Be sure to check with the local bait shops to find out which crabs are working best.
Crabs can be fished at any depth, depending where the tarpon are actively feeding. When they're feeding on the surface, a blue crab can be rigged onto a circle hook with no added weight and cast in front of a school of surface-feeding fish. Weight can be added to the line and suspended under a cork to fish below the surface, and more weight can be added to fish all the way on the bottom.
There are other types of bait that move through the Pass such as shrimp, pilchards, threadfin herring, pinfish, mutton minnows, and grunts, and each can be used effectively at different times. That said, crabs continue to be the most effective live bait for tarpon in Boca Grande, and unless conditions dictate otherwise, can almost always produce bites.
There are several ways to rig live crabs and none are very complicated. For the best results, the rig you use should be determined by the conditions, where the tarpon are feeding, and what the current is doing. The basic rigs used for fishing crabs can be used for live bait fish as well.
The most basic (and effective) way to rig live crabs is with a simple free-line rig. To set up a free-line rig, attach a 6- to 8-foot piece of 60- to 80-pound fluorocarbon with a strong barrel swivel. Tie on a 6/0 or 8/0 circle hook to the leader using a non-slip mono loop knot.
The loop knot allows the crab to move about more freely for a more lively and natural presentation. That's it! In strong currents, you can fish a free-line rig just as it is, or in slightly weaker currents you can add a cork 8- to 10-feet above the crab.
If you need to get the crab down deeper, a sliding sinker rig can be used. Rigging a sliding sinker rig is just like a free-line rig except you add an egg sinker to your main line before attaching the swivel and the leader. The weight of the sinker can be adjusted to get the crab down to whatever depth you want.
While most anglers use live crabs to catch tarpon in Boca Grande, there are many different artificial lures that can be used to great effect. Artificial lures generally work best later in the season when there is less angling pressure in the Pass, usually from August to October.
During the peak season, the fish will be hit hard and will be less willing to take something that they aren't actively feeding on.
During those times when tarpon are less pressured and more willing to take lures, both topwater plugs and soft plastic swimbaits can be very productive and provide challenging, exciting fishing.
When tarpon are feeding on the surface topwater lures like the Badonk-A-Donk High Pitch are a great choice. To fish topwater lures, you must first locate pods of tarpon rolling on the surface. Try to get ahead of the fish, then work your lure using a twitch and pause retrieve, moving it through the pod of fish down-current.
Bait fish don't generally don't move up-current, so using a down-current presentation will look more natural and entice more strikes.
When tarpon are down deep or suspended somewhere in the middle of the water column, soft plastic swimbaits rigged on jigheads can work wonders. A favorite soft plastic in the Boca Grande area is the Storm Lures Wild Eyed Swim Shad.
It's available in a wide range of colors to match the local baitfish and can be fished numerous ways. You can cast and retrieve it, fish it under a cork, or drift it behind your boat.
Other soft plastics like the Original Hogy are great lures to have aboard when chasing tarpon in Boca Grande. The best size Hogy for tarpon is generally 10 inches and black is one of the best colors.
You can rig it on a Hogy (or other similar soft plastic) without weight on a circle hook to fish it on or just under the surface, or you can rig it on a heavy jig head to bounce it along the bottom in deep water.
Most of the fishing in Boca Grande Pass is done by drifting baits through the current. Anchoring in the Pass is frowned upon, so anglers use drift socks to control the speed of the boat while drifting.
One of the challenges of fishing the Pass is first finding the fish. High-quality sonar fish finders are a necessity to identify bottom structure and find fish. Most of the time, tarpon will be found on the up-current side of ledges and holes along the bottom of the pass.
Once the fish have been located, the general routine is to carefully work your way up-current of the fish in order to drift towards them. The boat should be facing into the current so when you start drifting, the boat will essentially be moving backwards.
A drift sock off the bow makes this maneuver much easier. Be sure to check out the link that outlines the Pass "rules" for proper etiquette on how to set up your drift.
With the boat in position, the baits are cast out the back of the boat, and the drift begins. If you've set up properly, your crabs will be intercepted by hungry tarpon, at which point the fight is on.
This basic drift technique works with artificial lures as well and can be adapted to fish a wide range of depths. Experience and trial and error are the best ways to learn the techniques required to catch tarpon in Boca Grande, but making the effort to learn is well rewarded when a 200-pound tarpon explodes out of the water!
Being such a small town, Boca Grande has limited options for accommodations like marinas and hotels. But fortunately, as one of the world's premier tarpon fishing locations, anglers will find everything they need in Boca Grande.
There are three marinas on the island: Uncle Henry's, Boca Grande Marina, and Whidden's Marina. For best access to Boca Grande Pass, you'll want to use either Boca Grande Marina or Whidden's Marina.
Both are highly rated and have all the bait, ice, food, and drinks you'll need for a day on the water. When you come back to shore at the end of the day, you may want to check out the Eagle Grill for a bite to eat and a cocktail.
If you don't mind a slightly longer run to the pass, more marinas can be found on the north end of Pine Island, southeast of Boca Grande, with Bocilla Marina or Jug Creek Marina being local favorites.
Learning how to catch tarpon is one of the most challenging things you can do with a fishing rod, but there’s no better place to get started than Boca Grande. Fishing for tarpon in Boca Grande is unlike any other fishing pursuit, and if you are new or aren't sure what to expect, it's highly recommended that you go out with a professional guide.
Even if you have your own boat and want to fish the Pass on your own, spending a day or two on the water with someone with intimate knowledge of the area and the tarpon just might make all your later efforts more fruitful and enjoyable.