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GET THE JUMP ON INDIAN RIVER TARPON

By DUSTIN HILL

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There are few fish as heralded among inshore anglers as the tarpon.  They are one of the world’s ultimate gamefish, possessing a perfect combination of strength, speed, and agility.  Watching a silver king catapult into the air through the water’s surface is an amazing spectacle, its iridescent scales shimmering and its gill-plates singing a sweet chatter with each violent head-shake.  Tarpon vary in size from miniscule to downright monstrous and they occupy territories as diverse as their size range.  Due to their air-breathing capabilities, juvenile tarpon are able to spend much of their “adolescence” in relatively stagnant backwater areas where predatory fish cannot survive.  As they grow, tarpon vacate the mangrove swamps and ditches of their youth and move into brackish creeks and canals.  Once tarpon reach 35-40lbs, they typically move into larger estuaries and eventually join schools of migratory adult fish.  Tarpon are excellent angling targets regardless of their size, and while battling a 100+lb silver king is truly an unforgettable experience, most light-tackle fishermen would agree that their juvenile counterparts are even more fun to catch.  Smaller tarpon (5-25lbs) are typically more acrobatic and are easily targeted without any specialized tackle.  Juvenile tarpon are excellent quarry for kayak-fishermen around the state of Florida, however the Indian River Lagoon on the state’s east-central coastline stands out as one of the premier destinations.

                There are innumerable creeks and residential canals between Titusville and Wabasso- a 70 mile stretch of Indian River- that hold juvenile tarpon over the course of a year.  Most of these areas are no-wake zones and are readily accessible to kayakers.  Some of the more notable locations include Sykes Creek on Merritt Island, the Satellite Beach canals on the east side of the Banana River, Crane Creek, Turkey Creek, and the Eau Gallie River in the Melbourne/Palm Bay area, and the Sebastian River just north the community of Sebastian.  In addition, there are countless smaller canals in the region that don’t show on most topographical maps but are clearly visible via satellite imagery.  Culverts that drain mosquito control impoundments on the east shore of the Indian River near Titusville also hold juvenile tarpon during times of heavy rain.  All of these locations share similar characteristics: slow-moving water, moderate freshwater run-off, abundant small forage, and generally deeper water than the surrounding territory in the Indian River.  Tarpon inhabit these areas year-round in places, although fishermen typically find the months of April-November to be the most productive.

                If there is a downside to the tarpon fishing in this area, it’s the fact that a large percentage of fish are residents that see many lures and baits over the course of a year.  Juvenile tarpon are finicky by nature, but that tendency is magnified in areas with greater fishing pressure.  However, anglers employing the right techniques can have excellent success with a little persistence.  Tarpon fishing isn’t supposed to be easy, right? 

Juvenile tarpon will readily hit both artificial lures and live baits.  The most popular local method for pursuing these miniature silver kings involves using 3-4” live finger mullet either free-lined or placed beneath a small cork.  Anglers typically locate fish rolling and then anchor up to deploy baits.  If fish are not rolling, it’s usually best to drift baits near canal intersections or points in the creeks where there is slightly deeper water and better water flow.  Fishermen opting to throw artificial lures can have success with a wide variety of tactics.  It pays to be prepared with lures that work every section of the water column.  In general, smaller profile lures get the nod due to the small size of the forage base in these waters.  Small topwater lures such as an Excalibur Spittin’ Image Jr. or Spook Jr. can be productive during low-light conditions.  Jerkbaits that work anywhere from 1-3ft under the surface are perhaps the best all-around lures for juvenile tarpon.  Zoom Flukes and Exude Darts are both good choices rigged on a 3/0 weighted hook.  Highly reflective hard-plastic jerkbaits such as the Yo-Zuri SS Minnow or Crystal Minnow will also draw strikes.  Going deeper in the water column, shad-tail jigs are always a good choice.  Either a 3” or 4” Storm Wild Shad or a Cocahoe Minnow rigged on a 1/4oz jighead will work very well when reeled at a slow, steady pace.  When possible, cast directly in the path of a rolling tarpon, leading the fish by several feet.  Oftentimes, the strike will come immediately.  Either conventional or spinning gear in the 10-12lb class range is suitable for juvenile tarpon.  Finish the rig by tying on a 12-18” piece of 30-40lb leader.  Fluorocarbon does not seem to be necessary, but it can’t hurt.  

Fly-fishermen often have better success with juvenile tarpon because flies mimic the size and behavior of the typical forage so well.  While tarpon are occasionally taken using floating lines and surface/near-surface flies such as small sliders or streamers, the best bet is to use either a full sinking line or a fast sink-tip to get down to the bottom quickly.  A small profile Clouser Minnow tied on a #4 chemically sharpened hook is usually an excellent pattern.  Color does not seem to be critical, but you can never go wrong with grey/white or black.  Slow, short strips are the rule when dragging a fly along the bottom.  A 7wt. or 8wt. rod is ideal for small tarpon.  Leaders should measure around 9ft. and taper to a 12lb class tippet attached to 8-12” of 30lb shock tippet to protect against abrasion.  If larger fish are encountered, 40lb shock tippet may be necessary.   

Tarpon feed and roll primarily in low-light conditions.  Therefore, the best fishing typically occurs during the hours surrounding daybreak and dusk.  Fish can be caught once the sun climbs high in the sky (particularly during the cooler months of the fall), but it’s always best to be on the water early and late. 

Juvenile tarpon are the ideal sport-fish for the kayak fisherman.  The combination of stealth and easy maneuverability make a kayak an ideal vessel for chasing tarpon in the frequently tight quarters encountered in the creeks and canals off the Indian River.  Good luck!  

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LINKS TO DUSTIN'S ARTICLES

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 NOTE:

We would like to take this opportunity to thank Dustin for contributing his expertise and experience to the website.  It is greatly appreciated.  If anyone has questions or comments about the article(s) email them to CAPTDICK@BELLSOUTH.NET and they will be forwarded to Dustin.

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