The Perfect Tarpon Retrieve

I grew up fishing for freshwater striped bass in SC. When casting to them, a quick erratic twitch seemed to always get their attention. They love a bait in distress. When I first started fishing saltwater, generally the trout and redfish I chased in Charleston liked a similar fleeing bait type retrieve. When I got it in my head I wanted to target tarpon I naturally was using the same quick twitch twitch pause retrieve I had always used but with very poor results. So of the first hundred or so tarpon I caught all but about 5 were on livebaits. Then one day I was on the phone with DOA Baits placing an order and the gentleman helping me started talking fishing and the topic of catching tarpon on lures came up. I told him I had tried a bunch of their products for tarpon and had never had very impressive results. He recommended a couple of their baits and colors and I told him that’s exactly what I was using. He then offhandedly said, “if I see a tarpon roll, I throw just out in front of him let the bait sink all the way to the bottom looking for the distinctive tarpon thump. If I don’t get bit, I start a slow steady retrieve.”

That part about the slow steady retrieve completely changed my tarpon fishing. In the Keys I still do best in the clear waters on live baits but in the glades I now fish primarily lures. It saves me time gathering livebaits and I don’t have to deal with the hordes of sharks. Plus it’s a ton of fun to catch them on plugs and soft plastics, I actually prefer it to fly. With braided line on spin tackle I can feel the fish so much better than I can with all the stretch in that thick fly line and clunky reel. Just about all of the lures I fish for tarpon are done on a slow steady retrieve. It’s very rare for me to twitch the bait. Tarpon are incredibly lazy fish and won’t normally run a bait down. They like to slowly sneak up from behind and slightly below a bait and use that massive mouth to slurp them in. The slurp is the distinctive thump you feel when they eat. Usually you will feel the thump and then the rod will just slowly load up. If I feel that thump I be sure to keep steady winding until the fish has turned and loaded the rod and is actually pulling drag, then you can give him a couple of quick low jabs to make sure the hook is set. The fish has to be turned and moving away from you or you will just pull it right out of their mouth. Often you will feel them bump the lure multiple times before they really inhale it. It’s tough to do but just keep steady winding.

For fly fishing a lot of the same principles apply. For sight fishing shrimp imitators like Bob Lemay’s Sand Fly or even the tarpon toads, a smaller quicker strip is better because you are mimicking the action of a fleeing shrimp. But for dark flies like we use in the glades a long very slow and steady strip is by far the best. For the worm flies so popular in the Keys these days, a slow steady retrieve is the only way to go. You actually tuck the rod under your arm and slow and steady strip with both hands never pausing. Same principal with the hook set on a fly, you have to wait until the tarpon turns to strip strike him once you see or feel the eat. Way too many tarpon are never hooked because people see the eat and get excited and pull the fly out of the fishes mouth because it is facing right at them.