With the Keys migration of giant tarpon in full swing, from now through the end of June, the next two months offer my favorite fishing of the year. There is nothing like seeing a 100 pound plus tarpon explode on a bait and get airborne. I've caught my share of marlin and sailfish and for me they don't come close to the thrill of a tarpon.
One of the simplest and effective ways to target tarpon this time of year is to drift a silver dollar sized crab under a cork in the major passes and bridge channels throughout the Keys. Mullet can be equally effective but catching them with the cast net can be a major challenge some days. It's frustrating spending prime fishing hours looking for bait. Crabs can be bought at almost every tackle store in the Keys and with a airstone bubbler like the ones made by Marine Metal Products, you can keep crabs alive for days. Best case mullet can only be kept for about 6 to 8 hours in a livewell before they get beat up and very rednosed which turns the tarpon off.
The biggest mistake I see new tarpon fishermen make is anchoring in a heavy current and throwing a crab out and sticking the rod in the rod holder wondering why they never got a tarpon. If you throw a crab out in a heavy current while anchored it will quickly drown the crab. Even if the crab is still alive it looks totally unnatural for one to be sitting dead still dangling in a raging current. Normally the smaller crabs will drift along with the current, you never see them sitting still or swimming up current. Therefore what you need to concentrate on is making your crab look as natural as possible by drifting your crab with the current as well.
There are situations where you can anchor just out of the current in channel bends and float crabs while anchored and do quite well. These are low current areas adjacent to a strong current line. Look for areas of back flows and eddies off the main current. Tarpon love to sit just out of the current in these areas. There is a spot like this in Indian Key Channel in Islamorada that saved a week long trip for me. A big low pressure formed and the wind swung out of the west blowing close to 30 churning the big exposed channels into a limestone white milky tint. We never saw a tarpon roll the entire trip but we were able to consistently catch fish anchored and floating crabs in my little protected back flow spot that had cleaner water
Under normal weather conditions, I much prefer to get in the big passes when big tides are flushing through and let the boat drift with the crabs under a cork. It lets you present your bait to many more fish than just sitting anchored waiting on them to come to you. Ideally, I prefer an evening falling tide or a falling tide at night. You don't have to be right next to the bridges either, we often start our drifts as much as a mile or more from the bridges.
One variable that seems to shut things down for most people is a strong wind moving a different direction than the tide. I'm talking about a wind strong enough to drift your boat backwards against the tide. Under those conditions your crab is getting pulled up current or across the current which is totally unnatural. It took me a little while to figure out how to cope with this condition properly. I use my trolling motor to negate the effects of the wind and let the boat drift with the tide. To do this I point the boat into the wind and play with the speed until I find the right speed to keep the boat neutral to the wind but still drifting with the tide. This also allows your crabs to drift out over the fish before your boat passes over which also results in more bites.
My trolling motor has the electronic anchor function and whenever I start a drift I will hit the anchor button and allow the motor to hold my position while we get the baits out. I then note the direction the trolling motor is pointing to hold position and the speed. I then will bump the tolling motor to a slightly lower speed at the same heading to start my drift. This will usually allow a perfect drift along with the current no matter what the wind is doing.
I am always amazed at the number of boats that have trolling motors that aren't using them as they drift. Last year in a one week trip in May we had very high winds that were pushing other boats across the tide. I only saw one other boat hook a fish all week. Using the drifting techniques outlined above, we were able to get 23 tarpon to the boat and countless more that jumped off. Keep in mind this includes fishing at night which can be red hot. The previous, year when conditions were better, we leadered 28 fish in 7 days with very little night fishing. With the better conditions, other boats not using their trolling motors were also able to drift their baits properly so everyone was catching fish.
We leave later this week for a 8 days in Islamorada. I will post a report on how we do.
By Chip Willimon
Bio: Chip currently lives in North Carolina but makes 4 separate week long self guided trips a year to the Everglades Park or Keys. He primarily targets Tarpon and Snook from his 18 foot Egret flats skiff: "Miss Katie". His favorite months to fish the area is from Mid March to Mid October. Since most of his friends that accompany him on his adventures are generally not hardcore fishermen he tends to focus on light tackle and live bait fishing, only pulling the fly rod out on occasion.