Tampa bay tarpon fishing where, when and how

tarpon fishing in tampa bay

Tampa Bay Tarpon fishing is without a doubt some of the best angling in the world.  There are few places in the world where Tarpon migrate in such large numbers on such a consistent annual basis as Tampa Bay.  May through July is peak season and when the spawning migration is at full force.  The bay area does have a Tarpon fishery throughout the year, but May 1st thru about the 3rd week of July is when the giant spawning fish pour in by the tens of thousands. 

Anna Maria island is the epicenter of Tampa Bay Tarpon fishing.  Located on the south end of the bay it is right in the middle of the hot zone.  Anna Maria Island is home to the bay area’s primer Tarpon fishing.  It’s widely regarded these days as the Tarpon capital of the world. 

Anna Maria Island has unique features that make it a perfect place for Tarpon to stay and feed while going through their yearly spawning ritual.  Longboat Pass on the south end of the Island and the famous Bean Point Pass on the North end.   Bean point can at times have as many as ten thousand Tarpon in it during the peak of the migration.  That’s a lot of fish for such a small area. 

Just to the north of Anna Maria Island is Passage Key, another prime feeding ground for migrating Tarpon.  Its shallow, incredibly clear flats make for some exceptionally exciting sight fishing.  Passage Key has been a long time favorite among many of the local fly-fishing gurus.

Just to the north of Passage Key is Egmont Key.  With two massive passes, the first on the south side and the second to the north.  The north is actually the shipping channel which maintains a 55ft depth with a 90ft hole right off the tip of Egmont Key.  There is an incredible amount of baitfish that stay in both these passes and literally millions of crabs that flow in and out with the tides.  It’s this tremendous amount of food that make Tampa Bay Tarpon fishing the phenomena it is.  Tarpon utilize the flats on both sides of Egmont, also feeding in and out of both of the passes as they move with the tides. 

Heading straight East from Egmont Key is the massive Sunshine Skyway Bridge.  The giant structure is loaded with bait, along with migrating and resident Tarpon. It’s not your typical sight fishing like the area’s I previously covered. The Bridge structure does make for more challenging angling but it still is a solid Tarpon fishery and a great staging area for migrating Tarpon. 

Picture this in your head if you can. Starting from Longboat Pass, which is the south end of Anna Maria Island, then heading up the beaches of Anna Maria Island; head to the mouth of the bay which would be Egmont Key.  Then take a right heading east to the Skyway bridge. This route I just described creates a large L deep under the water.  You’ll see as soon as you head north of Tampa Bay that the beaches shallow up considerably.  It’s that deep pocket that funnels all the Tarpon from the south and from way offshore to what we call the Tarpon Triangle.   Tarpon are comfortable in the triangle, there is a ton of food, lots of terrain changing structure and deep water to settle in.  When you look at the Arial photo it’s easy to see why they funnel into the area and stay for so long. It has everything they need as they prep for the spawning. 

The migrating Tarpon average between 75 to 130 pounds.  Large fish are over 200 pounds with a few Tarpon in the 250lb class.  There have been a few fish landed in the 300lb class, one of which was actually measured by biologist after being caught by one of the most reputable captains in the area.  After tallying up the numbers experts came up with a number of 340 pounds. That is not official because it wasn’t weighed, but even if their estimate is off a little certainly the fish was over 300 pounds.  The reason none of these large fish have been killed is because most people don’t carry the one/season kill tag. Only a small portion of the best captains in the area catch 90% of the Tarpon landed each year. That small select group has chosen not to kill the fish for conservation reasons. Tarpon that large could be 50 or 60 years old, sometimes much older than the angler that landed it.  They are not good to eat and killing one just to weight him would be kind of sad. I let one go myself that was pushing the world record.

The migratory Tarpon that come to visit Tampa Bay are not the only ones available to anglers.  There are quite a number of resident Tarpon that live here year around.  Tampa Bay Tarpon fishing can be done in a variety of locations, most months throughout the 30,000 plus acre bay.  All of the large rivers that feed the bay including the Hillsboro, Alafia, Little Manatee, and Big Manatee hold Tarpon year around.  They are challenging at times and many times they are the smaller ones in the 20 to 30lb range.  There are times when a large one can be caught too.  I personally have caught them over 150lb in the river.  Most of the large bridges hold Tarpon throughout the year including the most notable Skyway bridge as well as the Gandy, Howard Franklin and the Courtney Campbell.  The Big Bend power plant also has a few permanent Tarpon.  Most of the large boat ports such as Port Manatee and Port of Tampa where the large oceangoing vessels come in and out of hold resident Tarpon, as well as many of the larger private boat marina basins.  Even some of the private residential canals have a few smaller Tarpon up to 20 pounds.

Most of the migratory Tampa Bay Tarpon fishing is done with Live bait, dead bait or fly.  The water is very clear in the area most of these fish are caught so bait presentation is absolutely critical to getting bites.  Up in the bay in the darker water or at night under the bridges live bait does work but at times the artificial soft plastic can be better.

The prime live bait for Tarpon fishing in Tampa Bay is Threadfin Shad, Menhaden, Pilchards, Pinfish as well as Calico, Pass, and Blue Crabs.  Each bait works best at different times.  Not only do Tarpon like different bait at different times of year they actually prefer different bait. Depending on how the school is moving, how much light there is and which direction the tide is moving dictates the preferred bait.  Knowing this science is absolutely critical because many days catching a Tarpon comes down to only a few important casts.  If you are using the wrong bait at that important moment it could cost you the few chances at hooking up and you may come back to the dock empty handed.  Tarpon fishing is extremely technical. Of all the fish I have fished for they are the spookiest, have the best eye sight, and are the most intelligent.  Remember the big ones have been around a while.  That being said when you plug in the right equation and know where to be on what tide according to the wind direction, know what they will be eating according to the weather and tide, Tarpon can be very predictable and catchable.