Handling and releasing Tarpon

I can’t make a Tarpon Fishing website without covering the most important part of fishing for tarpon, releasing them to live and fight another day. Tarpon are large and extremely powerful fish. They can be dangerous to handle at the side of the boat, which is not a surprise. As strong as they are, after a long battle they are actually very fragile and can die extremely easy if not handled properly. Remember some of these tarpon can be over 50 year old. To lose one to miss handling is truly a very sad moment and shouldn’t happen if the fish is handled with care.

Honestly for most people I believe pulling the hook or even snapping or cutting the leader close to the hook is the safest release for both man and beast. However, for those of you that would like to get a closer look and get a picture with their tarpon I will go over my procedure.

Tarpon are very powerful even when they are near death exhausted. So you must always be ready for the tired scared fish to exploded with energy at the edge of the boat when you least expect. When the fish is close and I know the battle is almost over I put on my rubber gloves. I always leave the motor running in case I need to use the motor at idle speed to revive the fish. I then grab the leader with my hands once the fish is within about 8 to 10 ft of the rod tip. Make sure you grab the leader and not the braided main line which can be very sharp under tension. If I am going to just pull the hook. I reach down and grab the fish by the lower jaw with my left hand with the back of my hand in his mouth and my thumb curled around the bottom of his jaw. This seems like the opposite direction you would want to position your hand, but I do this so I have full control of the fish when he tries to jump and I am able to push him off me and protect my face while still maintaining a solid grip. I am right handed so I use my right hand to maneuver the hook out with pliers. If the hook is buried cut the line by the hook. It always better to leave him with a piece of jewelry, than to possibly kill him by pulling a hook. Then I release the fish. I will go in to more detail on this later.

Now if I want to pick the fish up for ONE quick picture. I go through the same procedure as we just went over. After taking control of the fish with my left hand I slip my right hand just barely under the fishes gill plate, so I have complete control of his head. Make sure to not actually make contact with his actual gills. Then holding the fish sideways so you can see an nice silhouette of the giant catch, then I Iift the tarpon keeping my back straight with my quads doing all the work so not to hurt my back. Generally I get about half of the fish out of the water for one quick shot and then get him back in the water as quick as possible.

When handling tarpon close to the boat I can’t stress enough about controlling the fishes head. You must hold him tight. Always be ready to push his thrashing head away from your face. A tarpons head is hard bone and if even a small one jumps into your face and hit you right they can cause damage such as broken noses, check bones, and jaws.

Now let’s go into the most important part releasing the tarpon that just gave you the fight of his life. Never pull the hook till you have control of the fish and are ready for proper release. I never pull the hook before photo, because if I drop the tarpon trying to get a photo and it sinks without a proper release the fish will probably die.

Now that the fish is tired and under control and the hook is pulled. I put my left hand on the roof of the fish’s mouth and my right hand under his dorsal fin so the fish is lying parallel to the surface of the water, always keeping the fish’s head under water. Then I yank forward and down with my left hand while pushing forward as hard as I can right hand and propel the fish forward while letting go at the same time. It’s this forward momentum that jumps starts the fish’s respiratory system into action and helps him keep his balance for those next few critical breaths of air. If done properly the fish easily stabilizes himself and with a few tail kicks is off swimming and health to fight another day.

If the tarpon is extra tired and his backend is sinking making a proper release impossible with just propulsion of your hands, it’s time to use the boat to help with a successful release. If you hear the tarpon burp out all his air while you are handling him you’re probably going to have to take extra care in making a good release. What I like to do in this case is hold the fish as I explained in the paragraph before while someone else idles the boat at the slowest speed taking it in and out of gear just enough to give the tarpon a feeling of swimming. Then once the fish feels more balanced and is no longer sinking in its back end I propel him forward with my hands. What I am about to tell you is absolutely critical to keeping your tarpon alive. At all cost to do not let his back end sink even if you have to put your hands under his belly for a minute while he catches his balance. If the tarpon is released and he is not swimming forward or nose is down the fish will die. If the fish sinks nose up he will almost certainly die.

One last safety note keeps your eyes out for sharks I had a big Bull Shark grab a tarpon from right out of my hands once. If my father had not grabbed me by the seat of my pants I would have gone in with the shark and tarpon swimming in a blood bath, not to mention the shark had hold of the tarpon just inches from my hands. I never saw the shark coming so keep a look out.

Remember it’s not just about how to catch tarpon. It’s also about releasing them alive. On this site you will see a lot of photos of me picking up my clients trophies for a photo while on my tarpon fishing charters. It’s really not easy to release them strong and alive, but I do this everyday for living so I am very efficient at returning them to the water healthy.