Throughout August, up and down the Atlantic coast from Virginia to Florida, the tarpon frenzy moves into high gear. Late summer is the time that tarpon roam the beaches and inlets, following huge schools of baitfish. Even small boaters have a chance at a huge silver king this time of year.
Baitfish, including mullet and menhaden shad, are at their northern most reaches during hot weather. They have migrated north, and right along with them the predator fish have moved as well. Bull red drum, cobia, sharks, and the mighty tarpon all follow the food.
The method is really quite simple. We call it chum fishing.The tackle needs to be a bit heavier than one might normally use close to shore, because a 150-pound tarpon can ruin a small reel in a hurry.
Tarpon can be found and caught this time of year one of two ways, both of which include the use of chum.
The first method, although it is the easiest, requires moving and looking for shrimp boats. Shrimpers always have by-catch when they bring in their nets. They dump the net on deck and separate the shrimp from the by-catch. When they start pushing the by-catch over the side, magical things begin happening. It is amazing how fish have learned to follow a shrimper and wait to be fed. But these predator fish have learned that by following the drone of a shrimper's engine, they will have a feeding party if they simply wait.
When you locate a shrimper, remember two things. The crew is making a living catching shrimp. Never, ever interfere with their operation. Stay well back and to the side of the shrimp boat when it has nets down in the water. Only when you see the by-catch coming overboard should you begin to fish. At that point, simply move into the area of that chum, and free line a live bait in the area. It won't take long, and you'll probably have more than a couple of fishing boats doing the same thing.
The live bait might be a menhaden shad (more below) or a live mullet. Either way, the bait needs to be alive. Fish will normally feed on live bait before they go after anything dead.
The second method requires a bit more work and the ability to throw a big cast net. Menhaden shad are the target of opportunity with this method.
Locate a school of menhaden in water 20 feet deep or less along the beach. It is tough to catch the shad in water deeper than that because they will run out from under the net as it drops to the bottom. A 3/8-inch mesh casting net with an 8- to 10-foot radius is ideal for catching menhaden -- if you know how to use the net!
Catch a large quantity of menhaden. When you think you have enough, catch some more. Many anglers fill a 120-quart cooler with bait that they will use for chum. Then they put thirty or forty good, lively menhaden in a round live well.
With bait in the box, boats anchor right in the area of the bait schools and begin chumming. Chumming consists of cutting up shad and pitching them overboard. This is where the cooler full of shad are used. A steady stream of shad pieces will set up a slick in the current behind the boat. It won't take very long for predator fish to appear. Tarpon will be visible behind the boat in the chum, rolling and eating. Sharks will also be in the mix, so be prepared for anything.
The rigs most anglers use consist of high capacity conventional reels and 6'6' or 7' rods. Thirty- to 50-pound test monofilament line is used with an 80 to 100 pound test fluorocarbon leader. The hook is a circle hook in the 10/0 size range.
While more than one rod is used in most cases, using only one rod will still catch fish. But, the more live bait you have in the water, the better your chances of a hook-up.
The "spread" of bait generally has two lines fished on the bottom in the chum behind the boat and two lines on the surface. Use an egg sinker above the leader that weighs just enough to get the bait to the bottom. The lines on the surface have no weight. They allow the live bait to swim relatively freely in the chum. All four of these rigs need to have a lighter than normal drag set on them. This allows a striking fish to run with the bait. Running away from the boat, the fish will be hooked in the side of that jaw as that circle hook does its job. Once a hook-up is made, the drag can be adjusted as necessary.
Once the lines are out, it is a matter of sitting back, keeping a flow of chum in the water, and waiting for a fish to strike. This time of year, it doesn't take very long!
Boats that anchor to chum fish usually have their anchor rope tied to an inflatable anchor buoy. When a fish is hooked, one person's job is to release the anchor and buoy so that they can chase the fish. Even of 50-pound line, a big tarpon can easily spool most reels. The fight will require running after the fish. The buoy makes for a quick anchor release, and allows you to return right to the same are when the fight is over.
The weather is very hot this time of year, and fish have a harder time surviving a long fight. Tarpon are not good table fare and are almost always released. When the fight looks like it is going to be a long one, please consider tightening the drag to reduce the fighting time. You may break a fish off that way, but you will help insure its survival.
If you want a trophy from your catch, pluck a scale or two from the side of the fish before you release it. Let it live to fight again another day!