Whether targeting the yearly tarpon migration along the gulf coast or targeting resident juveniles on light tackle in the backcountry, St. Pete Beach offers the best of all worlds when it comes to tarpon fishing in the area.
When To Target Tarpon
Tarpon fishing in St. Pete Beach is overwhelmingly the most active and popular during the summer months. Tarpon shy away from water temps lower than 70-75°F, and really love water warmer than that. At the same time, the annual tarpon migration takes place during the summer months. Combined, that makes summer the best time overall, but that doesn’t answer the whole question. Let’s look deeper.
This is the gray area of tarpon fishing in St. Pete. Why? Because it doesn’t align with the summer migration. These are resident fish, here all year. But, a couple of considerations in this. “Resident tarpon” are juveniles who are steadily growing in the estuary system here. They can be tiny, but they can be pretty sizable as well.
Generally in the 10-40lb range, sometimes a 50 or 60 can show up, in the world of tarpon- these are smaller. However, any size tarpon is what is globally considered “fun-sized”. It doesn’t matter if that fish is 6 inches or 6 feet, they still do backflips and get airborne on hook-up. It should also be noted, that on occasion, a full-size adult can be found hanging around all year, but this is not very common and are generally pretty slick fish (hard to trick).
But, juvenile tarpon offer another advantage that we don’t talk about but understand. You can utilize the same light tackle you are using for redfish, snook, and seatrout to target these guys. I have had inshore grand slams on a single twitch bait, 7ft med/light rod, 3500 reel, with 10lb braid, and a 20lb leader. Only a juvenile tarpon can fit in this equation, but fit- they do.
Juvenile tarpon will also generally be in protected areas.
In this, I mean a few things.
Protected by predators, namely in backcountry mangrove systems, waterways, and canals. Places that offer some easy meals and some structure to hide within or behind, being the perfect combo to look for. An important note here, the other reason some of these backwater creeks and canals are so popular for juvenile tarpon is still for predator protection, but in a different way.
These water systems can be stagnant and low in oxygen, while most fish species (including predators) cannot handle this, tarpon have swim bladders- that operate unlike the rest. Their swim bladder allows them to breathe air and divert the much-needed oxygen to a usable resource in these conditions.
The other protection is in the form of water temp. As things cool in the winter, they will seek that warmer water. St. Pete Beach has a few options for this. Sometimes that can be in deeper water pockets, shallow water areas where the sun warms things up, warm water outflows (such as those found at power plants), and up coastal river systems where spring feeds keep temps bearable. This will all come down to exactly how cold things are on the given day.
As with all inshore species, cooler water can also take the aggression out of the species. This is a time for easy bite-sized meals that are gently presented.
On the other side of things, spring through fall, they can be just as active and aggressive as their migratory counterparts and be targeted much the same way.
The annual tarpon migration is “the big show”. We are talking schools of dozens or hundreds of tarpon, at a time, that are 50-200+ pounds swarming along the coast, flats, and backcountry of St. Pete. This is when visitors and residents line up for their chance at one of the most epic inshore species available on the planet.
This migration starts down in the Florida Keys, during spring. From here they head north along the gulf coast (making their way nearly all the way around to Texas, and up the east coast into the Carolina’s and Virginia). And, there is a return trip for this migration keeping things fairly steady throughout the entire peak season.
The reason for the migration is rooted in chasing baitfish (which you will generally find them smashing) to create the energy required for the next part- spawning. Spawning takes place in the nearshore zone and up to 100 miles offshore. In either case, massive summertime schools of baitfish will be along the coast and in the backcountry, these tarpon know this and steadily venture in for these meals.
The other reason is water temps. They do like warm water, but down in the Keys, this quickly gets a little too hot.
Food, spawning/regeneration, and comfort all combine to create a massive species migration.
This migration can start at varying times of the year. It really depends on how winter played out. A mild winter can bring an early migration, and the opposite a later one.
In St. Pete Beach we generally see migrating tarpon in May and they can stick around until October (depending on the onset of winter).
The absolute peak of this is during June and July. This is when you’ll see the waterways lined up with anglers going after their shot at The Silver King.
Tarpon Fishing Gear
There are some preferences and setups people have figured out after years of chasing tarpon. What I will offer here is the general consensus for tarpon fishing gear.
- Rod: 7ft Medium-Heavy
- Reel: 5000 to 7000 Series
- Line: 50lb Braid
- Leader: 60 to 80lb Fluorocarbon
- Hook: 6/0 to 10/0 Circle Hook
*Fly fishing guys will want to look at a 10-12wt setup with similar overall terminal tackle specs as the above list.
Tarpon Fishing Charters
Captain Kevin here at Non Stop Fishing Charters runs clients out for tarpon each year. With over 20 years of experience and in the center of one amazing tarpon fishery, he is your best bet for success while chasing tarpon. These trips fill quickly during the peak of the migration, but there are decent shots at targeting these fish from spring through fall. The best thing to do is plan ahead.