Modern Tackle Allows for Downsized Rigs for Tarpon


As tarpon fishing is getting into full swing, I have been spending the off season getting my tackle and rigs together.  Captain Johnston has given some great tips on fly rigging so I thought I would pass along a few thoughts for the conventional tackle crowd.  
Advancements in tackle the last few years has me switching out a lot of my equipment.  My old faithful tarpon live bait rig was a 7 foot fiberglass rod with lots of lifting power but a fairly forgiving tip and a 700 Shimano Calcutta with about 300 yards of 30 pound mono tied to a 5 to 6 feet 80 pound fluorocarbon leader, still a fantastic tarpon outfit today.  However, with all the advancements in braid you can really downsize the size of your reel significantly.  You are seeing the same thing slowly happen in offshore tackle as well.  It’s just a lot more fun to fight a fish on a smaller outfit that still has the power to get the job done.

While in Islamorada last May, I was getting really crazy going all the way down to a 400 Calcutta.  The 400 Calcutta will hold 300 yards of 30 pound braid which is about the right line capacity to handle any tarpon.  We had several boats mocking us while we had fish on saying they had never seen anyone try to land giant tarpon on bass tackle.  

In all honesty, they were exactly right.  The reels were a little too light duty to hold up to the torture of landing multiple fish over 100 pounds in an evening.  We were still able to leader the fish very quickly and release them in prime condition.  Never go so light on your tackle that you can’t do that…tarpon are the greatest fish that swim and deserve better.  However, I found putting the kind of pressure that is required to quickly land them did cause issues with that smaller reel.  No out right failures or locked up drags, which I have had with other manufacturers reels.  But there was so much torque on the reel that screws kept backing out of the side plates.  If that keeps happening during the fight, you are eventually going to have an issue.  

Later in the year on my trips into the glades, I switched to the smallest size Avet reel and have been very impressed so far.  It will hold just under 300 yards of 40 pound braid and is a very heavy duty reel in a tiny package.  We landed several tarpon approaching 150 pounds and way more giant bull sharks than I like to deal with on this rig with zero issues.  I plan to give these reels another torture test when we return to Islamorada in a few weeks.  I will post a report, good or bad on how they do.  

I have also experimented a great deal with different braids for tarpon.  The standard no stretch braids that work so wonderfully for casting aren’t as ideal for tarpon.  I use a circle hook 99% of the time with live baits for tarpon.  Circle hooks need some stretch in the line to absorb the shock of a tarpon bite.  Remember, the fluorocarbon leader doesn’t stretch either.  With no stretch the circle hook will often bounce right out of a tarpon’s hard bony mouth on the strike or it will set in a hard spot rather than finding the corner of the jaw and the fish will spit it on the first jump.  

There are a couple of good solutions I have found to this problem.  If you are using standard no-stretch braid, tie on about a 20 to 30 foot section of 40 to 50 pound mono as a wind on leader.  Mono will stretch and act as a shock absorber between the braid and the fluorocarbon bite leader.  The long wind on leader is extremely nice when fighting a fish as well.  Most of the true battle with a tarpon takes place within 30 to 40 feet of the boat.  It’s very nice when you get a tarpon close to put on some gloves and be able to help the angler get the fish to boat side much faster by gently hand lining that mono leader until you can grab the heavier section of flouro.   You can significantly reduce the stress on the fish and the angler by doing this.  
Another solution that is along the same line of thought is to use a “stretch braid” for your main line.  This is a fairly new product that has strands of dacron woven in with the spectra braided fibers.  These lines offer a 6 to 10% stretch which is very comparable to mono.  I have used the stretch braid offerings from both Fins and Suffix with extremely good hook up ratios and both have held up very well to putting heavy pressure on large tarpon and sharks.  

For my tarpon rigs I have incorporated both solutions I mentioned above.  I load about 300 yards of stretch braid, then 30 feet of 50 pound mono wind on leader attached to a 60 or 80 pound fluorocarbon leader.  All of this is packed onto that little Avet reel I mentioned.  It really gives you a powerful set up with plenty of capacity for long screaming runs in a tiny package.
I am also experimenting with some custom rods that blend carbon fiber and fiberglass into a lightweight but very strong package compared to the fiberglass “meat sticks” we always used.    The key is to find one with a forgiving “livebait” type tip, once again to reduce shock for good hook sets, but still has the required lifting power to battle a big fish.  The good news is a lot of the California tuna guys are experimenting with the same set ups in effort to take advantage of the new super reels and braid, so there are a lot of advancements in rods happening right now.   As I continue to experiment with these rods I will post some feedback.