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Ultimate Guide • Updated Mon, Aug 28, 2023

Best Baits, Lures, and Flies for Tarpon Fishing in the Florida Keys

When choosing the best bait for tarpon fishing, it is important to choose a bait that will trigger a bite by mimicking the movements of their natural prey. Using effective flies can enhance your chances of success while tarpon fishing. The benefits of using effective flies include attracting the tarpon and, eventually, getting the tarpon to strike. The following article is a guide for the best baits, lures and flies to use while tarpon fishing. Along with information on the characteristics, techniques and considerations for selecting the most effective options, this guide will help anglers enhance their chances of landing one of the most exciting species of fish in Florida.

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Understanding Tarpon Fishing in the Florida Keys

Tarpon inhabit many different types of habitats in the Florida keys, ranging from saltwater to freshwater. They inhabit much of the area's vast network of flats, channels, passes, and reefs. They are aggressive predators that feed on baitfish and crustaceans, but can act incredibly selective when choosing their meals. 

Tarpon have distinct seasonal patterns and take on impressive migrations in the Florida Keys. During the spring, they migrate northward along the Atlantic coast, stopping in the Florida Keys for food and spawning. The summer months, particularly June through August, are considered prime time for Tarpon fishing in the Keys. In the fall, late October to early November, Tarpon begin their southward migration back to their wintering grounds.


Learn about tarpon behavior, tarpon fishing conditions,  tarpon fishing gear, and more check out our Ultimate Guide to Tarpon Fishing the Florida Keys. While this article focuses on tarpon fishing in Key West, Islamorada, and other areas around the Florida Keys, many of it's principles can be applied universally to tarpon fishing anywhere.

Natural Baits for Tarpon Fishing - Live Baits


Shrimp are a popular choice of live bait for tarpon fishing. Their natural scent and enticing movement in the water attract tarpon. Shrimp can be cast-netted at certain times of year, or purchased live from your local bait and tackle shop.

Situations and Techniques for Fishing with Shrimp

Shrimp are especially effective when targeting tarpon in shallow waters or around structure. Anglers can present shrimp using various techniques — such as free-lining, knocker rigs, or floating under a popping cork.

Tips for Fishing with  Shrimp

When using live shrimp, it's essential to ensure they are lively and fresh. Hook the shrimp through the head starting from the bottom side, be sure to avoid the two translucent dark spots, the shrimp's vital organs. This will ensure your bait stays alive longer on the hook. Like with most types of live bait fishing, make sure you have a well-kept bait pen to store your baits. Ensure your bait pen stays well oxygenated and does not get too hot. Avoid keeping baits in direct sunlight for extended periods of time if possible. 


Crabs, such as blue crabs or pass crabs, are highly regarded as natural bait for tarpon. They emit a distinctive scent and have enticing movement in the water. Crabs can either be netted, trapped, or purchased from your local bait and tackle purveyor.

Situations and Techniques for Fishing with Crabs

Crabs are often used when targeting larger tarpon or in areas where crabs are abundant. Hook them through the shell and allow them to swim in order to entice a bite.

Tips for Fishing with Crabs

Select live crabs that are appropriately sized for tarpon — about 1 to 2 times the size of a silver dollar. Rig your live crabs by passing a sharp circle hook upward through the corner of their shell. If you have leftover crabs and plan to fish multiple days, drop a chunk of raw fish into your bait enclosure to allow your crabs to feed. They will keep for extended periods of time if kept properly. Ensure your bait pen stays well oxygenated and does not get too hot. Avoid keeping baits in direct sunlight for extended periods of time if possible. 


Mullet is a favorite live bait option for tarpon fishing because of its robust, protein-packed size and wide availability. They are a preferred natural prey for tarpon throughout their lifecycle. They have a strong, oily scent and good swimming action in the water. Your best bet for healthy, lively mullet is cast-netting your own.

Situations and Techniques for Fishing with Mullet

Mullet are effective when targeting tarpon virtually anywhere they may be. Free-lining or using a float rig allows the mullet to swim naturally and entice strikes. One of the best times to fish with live mullet is during mullet run — their annual migration when these bait school up by the thousands all along Florida's beaches. Live-line mullet around the edges of schools of mullet with feeding tarpon nearby. These takes are often explosive and visual, so be ready.

Tips for Fishing with Mullet

It is important to choose healthy mullet as they will be more lively — sending out more vibrations and attracting more fish. It is also important to choose a mullet that matches the size of bait that is most available in the area at that time of year. Rig live mullet by passing a sharp circle hook up through the upper jaw of your bait and out through the nostril. Ensure your hook point is clear of any scales or obstructions before fishing. Adjust the presentation depth based on water conditions and experiment with different rigs to find the most effective approach.


Pinfish are small baitfish with a distinctive round shape and spiny fins. When live-lined, they are an excellent choice for bait to target tarpon and other inshore gamefish species such as snook and redfish. 

Situations and Techniques for Fishing with Pinfish

Pinfish can be effective when targeting tarpon in shallow water or near structure like mangroves. They can be fished free-lined, under a popping cork, or set up on a weighted bottom rig. 

Tips for Fishing with Pinfish

Always use fresh, lively pinfish whenever possible. To rig your bait securely, utilize a sharp circle hook. Pass your hook upward through the lower jaw of your pinfish and out through the nostril. If your bait becomes lethargic or dies, swap it out for a fresh one.

Natural Baits for Tarpon Fishing - Cut Baits

Mullet Cut Bait

Cut mullet is a popular choice for tarpon fishing, as the mullet's oils provide a great scent trail in the water, mimicking injured baitfish and appealing to the predatory instincts of tarpon.

Situations and Techniques for Cut Mullet

Cut mullet is effective in areas with good current and less concentrated tarpon presence. This technique is a good fallback when sight-fishing conditions are poor. Cut mullet can be presented on a bottom rig free-lined or suspended under a float. Your approach should take into account current speed, water depth, and structure.

Tips for Fishing with Cut Mullet

Use fresh cut mullet and vary the depth and location of your presentation to find where the tarpon are actively feeding.

Ladyfish Cut Bait

Ladyfish, also known as 'poor man's tarpon,' are an oily fish that generate strong scent trails in the water. They are highly attractive to tarpon and are a popular choice as cut bait. They can be caught using small jigs and lures, or purchased frozen at your local tackle shop.

Situations and Techniques for Cut Ladyfish

Ladyfish cut bait is particularly effective when targeting tarpon in deeper waters or areas with strong currents. It can be presented on a bottom rig or used in chunk form for surf fishing.

Tips for Fishing with Cut Ladyfish

Use fresh ladyfish cut into chunks or strips. Experiment with different sizes and presentations that entice the most strikes. As always, adjust the weight and depth of your rig to match the fishing conditions.

Artificial Baits for Tarpon Fishing - Soft Plastic Lures


Swimbaits are soft plastic lures that are made to mimic baitfish in the water. They often come in various sizes, colors and shapes that are complemented with a lifelike swimming action to match tarpon prey. 

Situations and Techniques for Fishing Swimbaits

Swimbaits are preferred in open water areas or areas with a moderate current. They can be fished at various depths with a swimbait hook or jighead. Slow retrieval to erratic movements can entice tarpon strikes, so experiment to find what works. 

Tips for Fishing Swimbaits

It is important to choose a swimbait that resembles the present baitfish at the tarpon's feeding grounds. As always, experiment with different depths, speeds and pauses to trigger a bite. 


Jerkbaits are minnow-shaped lures with a suspending or floating action. Jerkbaits are usually made of hard plastic with internal rattles to attract nearby fish. They come in various shapes, sizes, and colors that often resemble injured baitfish.  

Situations and Techniques for Fishing Jerkbaits

Jerkbaits work especially well when tarpon are feeding in shallow waters or near the surface. Use movements that imitate a wounded fish with sharp twitches and jerks. Experiment with erratic retrieves at different speeds. 

Tips for Fishing Jerkbaits

Research and observe the baitfish in your fishing area in order to select jerkbaits that closely match the size and color of the tarpon's preferred forage. When fishing jerkbaits, pauses allow time for the jerkbait to rise a little in the water, imitating an injured bait fish. Don't be afraid to throw in some long pauses when blind-casting more expansive areas. 


Artificial Baits for Tarpon Fishing - Topwater Lures


Poppers are a topwater lure designed to create splashing and commotion on the surface, mimicking an injured baitfish to attract tarpon. Poppers have a cupped face that displaces water when twitched or retrieved, splashing water and creating a popping sound. 

Situations and Techniques for Fishing Poppers

Poppers are ideal for a situation in which tarpon are actively feeding near the surface. Use a combination of short pops and pauses to create enticing surface disturbances and elicit a bite.  

Tips for Fishing Poppers

Select poppers that match the size of the prevalent baitfish and an enticing color pattern. Lean toward using a slightly smaller popper than the size of your baitfish, as surface splashes can increase the percieved size of your lure. Maintain a steady retrieve while incorporating occasional pops to entice strikes. 

Walk-the-Dog Lures

Also commonly known as pencil poppers or stickbaits, walk-the-dog lures are long slender lures that have a side to side swimming action when twitched rhythmically during retrieval. These lures are typically made of hard plastic with a smooth shape, often pre-packaged with multiple treble hooks and interior rattles. 

Situations and Techniques for Fishing Walk-the-Dog Lures

Walk-the-Dog lures are especially effective during low light in calm, clear water or when tarpon are feeding near the surface in shallow water. Twitch your rod tip rhythmically while retrieving to create the perfect side-to-side action that predator fish can't resist. 

Tips for Fishing Walk-the-Dog Lures

Select Walk-the-Dog lures that match up with the size and shape of the tarpon's prey. Vary the length and speed of the twitches. Avoid using this type of lure during rougher conditions and bright sunlight.

Flies for Tarpon Fishing

The Dragon Tail Tarpon Fly

The Dragon Tail Tarpon fly is a popular pattern for tarpon fly fishing. It is a combination of synthetic materials and bunny fur, it has a bulky profile with long flowing fur that provides natural movement in the water. It can incorporate flashy accents like bead chain eyes to attract the attention of tarpon. Check out this video to learn how to tie the Dragon Tail Tarpon Fly.

Situations and Techniques for Fishing the Dragon Tail Tarpon Fly

This fly is considered an effective fly in various tarpon fishing situations, but it is perhaps best used on migratory fish during the peak tarpon migration. This fly is often presented with a slow, steady, slightly twitching retrieve. Consider using a hand-over-hand This allows the material to pulsate naturally in the water and imitate the movement of fleeing or injured prey.

Tips for Fishing the Dragon Tail Tarpon Fly

Casting accurately and in the path of a cruising tarpon will expand your chances of triggering a strike. Varying the retrieval speed, pauses, and sudden jerks to imitate real prey is important.

The Tarpon Toad 

This is a versatile fly pattern for tarpon fishing originated by Gary Merriman of The Fish Hawk in Atlanta, Georgia. The Tarpon Toad has a slender profile with long flowing material and contrasting color combinations. The pattern is often tied to be neutrally buoyant, and has a lifelike appearance in the water that imitates small prey like shrimp, crabs, or baitfish. 

Situations and Techniques for Fishing The Tarpon Toad

The Tarpon Toad is effective in most tarpon fishing situations. Flats, channels, and beaches are all great situations to throw a Tarpon Toad. It is also extremely effective fly for throwing at laid up fish as it lands lightly on the water.

Tips for Fishing with The Tarpon Toad

When using the Tarpon Toad, you want to cast the fly ahead of the fish and allow it to sink to the ideal depth before retrieving it. Often a very slow, steady, lightly-twitching retrieve will do the trick. 

The Tarpon Cockroach

The Cockroach fly is a must-add to any tarpon angler's fly box. This old classic pattern is simple and effective, consisting of a dark-colored body made of brown saddle hackle and buck tail. The fly imitates a variety of smaller prey — resembling a fleeing crab, shrimp, or baitfish. 

Situations and Techniques for Fishing the Tarpon Cockroach

It can be fished with both floating and sinking lines, and is presented with quick strips to imitate the erratic movement of smaller crustaceans.

Tips for Fishing the Tarpon Cockroach

The cockroach is a versatile fly and can be thrown in clear or slightly off-colored waters when blind-casting or sight-casting. Retrieving this fly with small twitches allows the material to pulsate in the water.

The Black Death 

The Black Death is a classic, commonly used fly pattern among tarpon anglers. The fly features a black and red color scheme that typically consists of rabbit fur, often complemented with subtle flash material.

Situations and Techniques for Fishing the Black Death

The Black Death is effective in a range of tarpon fishing situations, particularly low-light conditions or when tarpon are feeding on dark colored prey. It can be thrown with a floating or sinking line, often retrieved in a slow and steady manner to imitate a wounded or dying baitfish or aquatic worm. 

Tips for Fishing the Black Death

The Black Death is most effective when using a slow and steady retrieve, that allows the fly to swim naturally. Consider stocking up on versions of this fly that incorporate a monofilament foul guard to prevent the tail from wrapping around the hook during casting.

The EP Everglades Special

The Everglades Special is a popular fly pattern for tarpon and other inshore gamefish species. The fly has a bulky baitfish-type profile, known for its durability and lifelike appearance in the water. The synthetic fibers of this fly displace lots of water, making it highly attractive to gamefish.

Situations and Techniques for Fishing the EP Everglades Special

The EP Everglades Special is a versatile fly and can be effective in various tarpon fishing situations. It can be fished in shallow flats and along mangrove shorelines. This is an effective pattern when tarpon are feeding on larger baitfish.

Tips for Fishing the EP Everglades Special

This fly is often presented with a strip-pause retrieve to imitate injured or struggling prey. Use a floating line and fish it high, or try a sinking line to cover areas at greater depths.

Additional Tips for Successful Tarpon Fishing

To increase your chances of success, it is crucial to understand the feeding behavior of tarpon. Pay attention to the movement and activity of tarpon and their prey species to locate areas where tarpon are likely to feed. Once you find feeding fish, observe and adjust your fishing techniques accordingly. Check out our detailed article on tarpon fishing to learn more tarpon fishing tips from the pros.

Hiring a knowledgeable guide will increase your chances of success exponentially. Finding a guide that is familiar with local waters, understands tarpon behavior, and provides insights and advice to hone your skills will enhance your experience on the water. AnyCreek works with some of the top guides in some of the world's best tarpon fisheries like Key West and Islamorada.

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