Just about anybody can catch a redfish this time of year. Flounder, trout, sharks - relatively easy pickings, as well. Unless a catch really tips the scales, most inshore species might earn a yawn from seasoned anglers.
Catch a Lowcountry tarpon, on the other hand, and you've got something to brag about.
These silver giants, some pushing 200 pounds and 7 feet in length, migrate north along our coast every summer. Like blue marlin for the offshore crowd, tarpon represent the pinnacle of fishing success for inshore guides and anglers. They're not easy to find, not easy to hook and not easy to land. But every year, a cadre of savvy guides and obsessed anglers catch and release plenty of these so-called "silver kings."
Unlike marlin, tarpon don't require the use of a big, expensive boat - just about any center console, skiff or even john boat will do. If you can make it to one of the coast's many inlets from now until early October, you've got a shot at tarpon.
Capt. J.R. Waits of Fish Call Charters, one of the Lowcountry's most accomplished tarpon guides, wrote a "Captain's Choice" article on tarpon for the upcoming edition of Tideline magazine, a special publication of The Post and Courier. Here are some of Waits' top tips; for more detailed advice on tackle, knots, bait and tactics, look for the Tideline in local tackle shops and marinas starting this Tuesday.
Where to find 'em
Waits usually catches his biggest tarpon in the deep holes behind barrier islands. "The most catchable ones," however, tend to be the 60-100 pounders feeding on sandbars around inlets, he said.
When fishing an inlet, Waits anchors up near areas where menhaden or mullet are getting washed over sandbars. "In this situation, I find the tarpon feed best in 4-6 feet of water," he said.
"On incoming tides, set up on the outside of the breakers, facing them, where you see pelicans diving on bait," he advised. "On outgoing tides, I like to set up where the current rushes over the top of a shallower sandbar for the top half of the tide. I'll move in between sandbars when the water is too low to be rushing over top."
If conditions are too rough to fish an inlet, Waits might shift his efforts to deep holes, spots 25 to 60 feet deep that form "anywhere two or three large creeks come together before they enter an inlet."
When fishing around sandbars, Waits prefers to use mostly float rigs and free-lined baits. When fishing deep holes and around jetties, he adds a few bottom rigs to the mix.
Rigs and bait
Waits uses heavy, 7-foot spinning and casting rods matched with large reels spooled with 50-pound, braided mainline. He ties on 6-10 feet of 60-pound monofilament as a top-shot leader.
Wait's float rigs consist of a Big Water Thunder float, 4-6 feet of 80- or 100-pound mono leader and a J hook. He makes his bottom rigs with a three-way swivel, with one eye for the mainline, another for a short line and weight, and the third eye to the same leader. For bottom rigs, he prefers a circle hook.
"I have a better hook-up ratio with J hooks, but probably have a better boating ratio with circle hooks," he said.
Hook size, he said, depends on the size of the baits he's using.
"I find that 7/0 to 10/0 hooks work best for the baits tarpon like to eat."
Waits favors a "match-the-hatch" strategy when it comes to tarpon baits. If he see menhaden being swept over sandbars, that's what he'll use.
"I'll often fish the bottom with small pieces of shrimp to see what lives there, and then use that species as my bottom bait," he said. Whiting, he added, makes a great tarpon bait.
Fighting big fish
When a tarpon picks up a bait, there's usually not much doubt there's a big fish on the line. Waits makes sure his anglers don't jump the gun and immediately pick up a rod before the tarpon is firmly hooked.
"I typically leave the rod in the rod holder, with tight drag, until the tarpon jumps or peels line for 10 seconds."
Once an angler does pick up the rod, Waits said, it's very important that they "bow to the king," which means pointing the rod at the fish when it jumps. This creates some slack in the line and allows a tarpon to shake its head without breaking the line.
"I like to use tight drags and fight the fish hard," he said. "If you give a tarpon an inch, he'll take a yard. Once you break the tarpon's will, it'll come boat side."
If an angler can't turn a big tarpon, or if the fish is headed for structure that could part the line, Waits will break away from his anchored position and give chase.
"All tarpon anglers should rig up a quick-release system for their anchor so they can chase one down if needed," Waits advised. "I attach a large float on the end of my anchor rope, and when we need to get after a fish, we quickly untie the anchor and throw all the rope and float in the water. After the fight, we can return to the same spot and tie back up."
Waits said anglers must be very careful with a big tarpon once they've reeled it in to the boat. He advises against lip-gaffing a tarpon, as this injures the fish and also could be dangerous for anglers if the fish thrashes its head. Tarpon don't have teeth, so anglers usually can control even a big fish by holding onto its lower jaw with a gloved hand, he said.
Big tarpon shouldn't be pulled into a boat for pictures - this also puts anglers at risk and can injure or even kill an exhausted tarpon.
"You can get a great picture of your catch by putting the boat in gear and gently pulling the fish through the water," Waits said. "This will plane the fish up and show its size. Get a few pictures and then slowly motor into the current, flushing water through its gills until the fish can swim off on its own.
"This might take 15 or more minutes, so please take the time needed to ensure the fish's survival. You will be dead tired after the fight, but so will the fish."
Matt Winter is editor of Tideline Magazine and manager of niche content and design for The Post and Courier.
You can have Tideline magazine delivered to your home as part of your newspaper subscription at no additional cost. To sign up, go to postandcourier.com/section/nichepub-signup.
Photograph by Capt. J.R. Wait/fishcall.com Capt. J.R. Waits advises anglers to "bow to the king" when a hooked tarpon jumps -- dropping the rod tips provides slack in the line, which prevents a big fish from breaking off during aerial acrobatics.×