‘It’s like sticking your hands into a bag of hyperdermic needles!”
The basketball-size ball of frozen shrimp heads and blue crabs bristled with jagged pieces of shell, and we had the bloody fingers to prove it. But we thought the crustacean-based chum could be the secret weapon for tarpon that day.
Tideline Editor Matt Winter and I had been sitting at a creek mouth on Edisto Island for about an hour when I decided to add a chunk of mullet on a bottom rod to our spread of baits, which already included a pinfish under a float and a huge mullet free-lined 20 feet behind the boat. I knelt and cut a steak from a 2-pound mullet.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Winter shouted. “Something’s got that free line!”
I looked up to see a huge boil behind the motor and the rod bowed over in the right holder. The rod immediately straightened back out, and the mullet, badly injured by the tarpon, gasped at the surface. A swing and a miss.
That was the only tarpon we came across that day, but when I returned to the island the following week, conditions had certainly improved. When I pulled into St. Helena Sound, pogies flicked by the hundreds, pelicans dotted the sky and tarpon were gulping air around us.
My livewell brimmed with pinfish, ladyfish, and croakers, and a 5-gallon bucket at the rear of the cockpit overflowed with fresh, dead menhaden. I anchored up on a favorite sandbar, set out two free-lined baits, and began cutting up pogies and tossing them over the side. After a half-hour of chumming and unhooking small sharks, a tarpon cruised into my spread.
My heavy Shimano Trevala bent over, but unlike the bite Winter and I experienced in the South Edisto River, this fish stayed hooked. It ran right up behind the boat, thrashed its tail at the motor and took off like a well-tuned Ferrari. The massive fish, easily over 100 pounds, dumped 100 yards of line in a few seconds and erupted into the sky, arching its back. By the time the fish reentered the water, the hook had pulled.
I reeled in the line, but before I could set the rod down, my other reel started screaming. Seconds later, an 80-pound tarpon began its acrobatics. After about 20 minutes, the fish was boatside. We took a few pictures, then ran water through her gills with the boat in gear until she perked back up.
She kicked away healthy, and all was good in the world.
We took advantage of the hot bite over the next few days, getting 14 “eats,” jumping nine tarpon and landing two, including one monster well over 150 pounds (seen here).
That’s tarpon fishing in the Lowcountry. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, all you’ll see are sharks. Other times, you might miss some strikes or watch helplessly as a trophy fish throws the hook. But if you put your time in and have confidence in your game plan, it will all be worth it.
When you finally hook and land that silver giant, nothing can compare.
Tarpon have been around for 300 million years, and they’ve adapted perfectly to life in shallow water. They have enormous eyes, which help them feed at night and in dirty water. Their entire body is plated with thick, palm-size scales, useful for fending off bull and hammerhead sharks, and have a signature forked tail for power. Tarpon even have a lung that allows them to inhale air, an adaptation that allows them to live in oxygen-poor environments. Juveniles can even survive in retention ponds and road-side ditches. Fish gulping air from the surface are referred to as “rolling” fish, and this behavior often lets anglers zero in on their target.
Tarpon are also one of the longest-living gamefish in South Carolina, with some documented at over 80 years old. An adult tarpon’s only natural predators are large sharks and humans, putting them comfortably toward the top of the food chain.
South Carolina has a relatively long tarpon fishing season, sometimes as long as June through October.
Tarpon are migratory, preferring tropical waters, and most leave the Lowcountry when the water temperature drops into the middle 70s. Having said that, tarpon fishing in September and October can be some of the wildest, most visual action of the year. Bait fish gather tightly in early fall, pulling tarpon out of the rivers and into inlets and just off the beaches. Find pods of menhaden or southbound schools of mullet, and you’ll often find tarpon in close pursuit, free-jumping and busting on these bait balls. You’ll also find bull redfish, kingfish, large bluefish and sharks.
Tarpon fishing in South Carolina requires some seriously stout tackle. Seven-foot, heavy-action outfits, whether spinning or casting, are a must.
You’ll need a reel capable of sustaining a fairly tight drag throughout a long fight, and one with at least 300 yards of line capacity. For spinning reels, anything in the 6000 to 8000 size works great, and conventional reels like the Shimano Calcutta 400 or the TLD 15 are equally effective.
Both braided and monofilament mainline have advantages in tarpon fishing. Last year, we caught tarpon on both 50-pound-test braid and 20- to 30-pound-test mono. There are two major advantages of using braided line: Its small diameter allows you to get more line on your reel while maintaining a heavy pound-test rating, and its no-stretch quality helps lock a big circle hook into a fish’s bony mouth. Having no line stretch can become an impediment during the latter portion of a fight, when an angler must maintain constant, heavy pressure on the fish.
Monofilament is very helpful when the fight becomes a more vertical tug-of-war beside the boat. Because of its tendency to stretch, mono allows for more angler error than braid when putting a lot of pressure on a fish.
Terminal tackle for tarpon fishing caters to three main presentation techniques: floating baits, free-lining baits and putting baits on the bottom. I finish all my tarpon rigs with a snelled 8/0 octopus circle hook.
When using float rigs, a Blue Water Thunder provides all the buoyancy you’ll need to keep a healthy horse mullet, pinfish, menhaden or croaker on the surface. I run anywhere from 3 to 10 feet of 100-pound-test monofilament leader from the bottom of the float. I like a shorter leader of 3 to 5 feet when fishing shallow sandbars or pitching baits to rolling fish, and 6 to 10 feet when fishing deep holes or areas with heavy current.
Hooking a menhaden or mullet in the back directly above the gill plate keeps these baits swimming toward the bottom, even in relatively strong current. Hooking them through the nose keeps them on the surface.
For free-line rigs, I connect my braided mainline to 5 feet of 50-pound mono with a five-turn surgeon’s knot, or mono mainline to 2 feet of 100-pound mono with an improved blood knot.
For bottom rigs, I use a modified fish-finder rig. I thread a sinker slide onto the mainline and attach a 4-ounce pyramid sinker to the slide with a rubber band using two overhand knots. (When a fish makes its first jumps, the rubber band breaks and the sinker flies off, giving you exponentially better odds of keeping the tarpon from spitting the hook.) I attach the mainline to a heavy barrel swivel, then tie on 3-4 feet of 125-pound-test mono.
Bottom rigs tend to get the majority of the shark bites, and the heavier mono holds up great with these toothy fish. When baiting bottom rigs, I like to use what Beaufort anglers have coined “the pogy bomb,” which is simply three menhaden hooked through the nose. This triplet of baits accounted for the majority of fish we hooked in 2011, and seems to get more attention than a solo menhaden.
Bring a few smaller spinning rods rigged with Carolina rigs and shrimp on your tarpon fishing trip for catching whiting, bluefish, pinfish and croakers. These make great baits, and are often plentiful in areas where tarpon hang out.
Tarpon fishing is made much easier by fishing on a well-outfitted boat. You need a large-capacity livewell with a circulating pump to sustain large quantities of fragile menhaden or smaller quantities of large mullet, croakers and other baits. At least four rod holders will allow you to keep a large spread of baits high and low in the water column.
Perhaps the most important prep tip for tarpon fishing is to attach a boat fender, foam float or even an extra life jacket to your anchor line. Doing so allows you ditch and retrieve your anchor line so you can chase a hooked tarpon.
Chumming is an oft-debated tarpon technique. Some say it only attracts sharks, but most will agree that it is a highly effective method for bringing tarpon within range of an anchored boat.
Fresh menhaden chum is the easiest to produce. Catch 100 or so pogies, cut each into three or four chunks, and methodically toss them over the gunnels while you wait for a strike.
Spanish mackerel, butterflied and tail-roped to the transom, give tarpon a fixed source of smell to key in on.
The two most prevalent and productive areas for tarpon are creek mouths and sandbars. Both collect a large amount of bait and provide significant depth change. Tarpon typically set up along a drop-off, which provides relief from swift current and a place to hang low and ambush bait swept overhead.
Many creek mouths, whether they are dumping into the ocean or into a large river, hold good numbers of tarpon throughout the season. Areas where multiple creeks converge into a larger waterway often feature a deep hole that collects bait and gamefish. Many a tarpon have been caught in these deep-hole spots.
Tarpon face into the current on both tides and wait for an easy meal. Positioning baits high and low in the water column will allow you to cover a large area of a creek mouth and increase your odds of connecting. You may see some fish roll in fast-moving water, but tarpon seem to feed more actively toward the surface in slower current at the top and bottom of the tidal cycle.
Sandbars at nearly every inlet along the coast attract tarpon for the same reasons as creek mouths: They collect bait and provide a great ambush spot.
Productive sandbars can be found all around the exterior of Bull’s Bay and at Price’s Inlet, Breach Inlet, Stono Inlet, Captain Sam’s Inlet, and the mouth of the North Edisto River.
Floats are best for fishing sandbars, as they keep baits higher in the water column. Sandbar fishing calls for shorter leaders under floats, 3-5 feet. Give the corks an occasional pop to keep the bait lively and give tarpon a noise to investigate.
Remember this rule: When a tarpon hits your bait, leave the rod in the rod holder!
Circle hooks, which cause the least damage to the fish and work well with larger baits, only work if they are given time to set themselves in the fish’s mouth. Any sudden pull on a circle hook will almost always dislodge it from a fish’s mouth.
There’s not much you can do when a big fish takes off on its initial run. The fish will jump, you’ll pray that your hook is buried deep, and sometimes, the fish stays hooked.
Have your partner crank up the boat and release the anchor, then spin the boat toward the fish while you walk to the bow. Begin slowly gaining line back, keeping tight to the fish. Once you catch up to the tarpon, it will probably make a few more runs and jumps. Stay on top of the fish until the fight is more of an up-and-down tug-of-war. This is the boat-side portion of the fight, when you need to put some serious pressure on the fish. The tarpon will swim toward the bottom, and you’ll need to pull it back to the top, often over and over again.
When the fish begins to tire, you can flip it back toward the surface when it tries to dig deeper into the water. Most tarpon will turn on their side in defeat when they are ready to be landed, but larger fish sometimes will remain upright and kicking until you get your hands on them.
Almost all tarpon will shake violently when you grab their jaw, even fish that appear relatively docile at the end of the fight. Hold on tight when you grab a tarpon, not only to keep them from hurting themselves, but also hurting you. South Carolina fish are generally very large, and can easily sprain or break your wrist with powerful head shakes.
Because nearly all tarpon are released, it’s best to leave them in the water (you can still get great pics). Also, such large fish can break rods, fiberglass, and coat your boat in slime and discharge.
If you can’t resist bringing a fish in the boat for a photo, make sure to support the fish’s whole body, which requires two or three people for a big one. Keep it out of the water only long enough for a picture or two, and treat it with care.
The most effective way to revive a fish requires one angler to hold the fish by the lower jaw while another puts the boat in gear and makes way at just a few mph. Hold the fish’s head below the water while keeping its mouth open. Water will flow into the fish’s mouth and through its gills. Keep doing this until the fish begins to kick its tail and swim upright.
Don’t be shy about spending plenty of time reviving a fish. You’ll have worked hard enough to touch such an elusive fish, and you deserve to spend as much time with it as you can. TL
Colt Harrison works at The Charleston Angler’s West Ashley location.