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The Ultimate Guide to Tarpon Fishing in the Florida Keys | Tips from the Pros

Embark on a captivating journey into the Florida Keys' waters for an exciting tarpon fishing experience. These magnificent fish, known as the Silver King, promise an adrenaline-filled adventure with their powerful jumps and colossal size. Before you cast your fly into this piscatorial saga, discover the essentials of tarpon behavior, optimal fishing times, and the right gear. This guide is your key to unlocking the secrets of successful tarpon fishing, making every moment on the water a thrilling chapter in your fishing career.

This article covers:

How to fish for tarpon

Tarpon fishing has long been a main attraction in the Florida Keys. There are a variety of techniques that anglers can use to catch tarpon — an elusive and powerful fish. Here are some of the best techniques for tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys:

Fly fishing for tarpon

Fly fishing for tarpon in the Florida Keys is a challenging and rewarding experience. Anglers typically use 11 or 12-weight fly rods with heavy-duty reels and lines. A variety of flies are effective for targeting tarpon, including streamers and poppers. Fly fishing for tarpon requires skill and patience, as these fish can be difficult to hook and fight hard once they are on the line. We recommend practicing your cast in a controlled environment like a yard or a local park. Mastering the basic cast, double-haul, and strip-set will help make your time on the water as productive as possible. Check out this article to learn more about fly selection for tarpon.

Live bait fishing for tarpon

One of the most effective ways to catch tarpon in the Florida Keys is to use live bait. Popular baits can include mullet, pilchards, or crabs, which are all commonly found in the waters of the Florida Keys. Live bait can be fished using a variety of rigs, including traditional bottom rigs — which anchor your bait to the bottom — or float rigs and flat lines, which allow your bait to suspend and drift more freely in the water column.

Jigging for tarpon

Jigging is another technique that can be effective for tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys, especially in deeper water. Anglers typically use heavy jigs with a slow, steady retrieve. This technique can be particularly effective when fishing around bridges, wrecks, or other deeper structures where tarpon are known to congregate.

Other tarpon fishing techniques to try in the Florida Keys

In addition to live bait fishing, fly fishing, and jigging, there are a variety of other techniques that can be effective for tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys. These include trolling with lures, chumming with cut bait, and sight-casting with artificial lures. Each technique requires its own set of skills and gear, so it's important to experiment and find the technique that works best for you, the fishing conditions, location, and time of year.

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How to fish for baby tarpon

Many anglers fail to distinguish between fishing for juvenile tarpon (or "baby" tarpon), and adult, migratory tarpon. Both types of tarpon fishing offer a memorable experience no matter the size of the fish. Ask your guide about what class of tarpon to expect when booking your next tarpon fishing adventure.

What are baby tarpon?

Baby tarpon are younger, smaller, and often more aggressive version of the larger migratory tarpon — making them great targets for younger or less experienced anglers looking to get into chasing tarpon. They are very acrobatic when hooked, and are often keep to eat topwater baits, flies, and lures. Baby tarpon are usually classified between 3 and 60 pounds, and are too young to take on the open ocean. Thus, they reside in nursery areas like lagoons, creeks, flats, and other inshore fishing backwater areas until adulthood. It can take a baby tarpon around 2 years to reach adult size and move into their migratory lifestyle. Most baby tarpon feast on shrimp, crabs, small bait fish, and other marine larvae like aquatic palolo worms. 

Baby tarpon fishing gear

Your AnyCreek guide will equip you with the appropriate gear to fish for baby tarpon — typically medium to heavy spinning rod and reel setups; or a 7-9 weight fly rod paired with a reel capable of holding at least 200 yards of backing. These setups are often strung with 20-30 pound fluorocarbon leader to withstand the tarpon's fighting nature and hard, bony mouths. Using live bait such as small mullet, pilchards, or shrimp can be effective, but artificial lures like small swimbaits, topwater plugs, or flies resembling small baitfish and crustaceans are also productive. 

Baby tarpon fishing tips

Your guide will seek out shallow flats, mangrove edges, or channels where baby tarpon frequently hang out, particularly during incoming tides. Cast your bait or lure near structures or into channels and allow it to drift naturally with the current. Keep an eye out for rolling or feeding fish, as baby tarpon often reveal their presence with surface activity. Once hooked, be prepared for an acrobatic fight as baby tarpon are known for their aerial displays. Exercise patience and steady pressure to tire the fish before carefully bringing it to hand or releasing it boat-side for a memorable catch-and-release experience.

Where to fish for baby tarpon 

Tropical destinations like the Florida Keys, Caribbean islands, and Mexico are great for targeting baby tarpon in the vast inshore habitats available in these locations. Places like Miami, Islamorada, Key West, and the Everglades are a few specific locations to target juvenile tarpon.

Understanding tarpon behavior

Mastering a wide range of techniques is a great way to effectively fish for tarpon. However, understanding tarpon’s behavior is also a great way to improve your chances of catching them. Here are some key characteristics of these gamefish to be aware of when tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys:

Tarpon feeding

Tarpon are opportunistic feeders, which means they will eat a wide variety of prey, including small fish, crabs, and shrimp. It also means that sometimes, when it comes to inducing a bite, the specificity of your bait or lure is less important than how you present it to the fish. Tarpon are most active during feeding periods, which typically occur during tidal changes and low-light conditions, such as early morning or late afternoon.

Tarpon surface rolling

Tarpon are known for their distinctive rolling behavior, which occurs when they break the surface of the water to gulp air. This behavior occurs more predictably during low-light hours, and is often a sign of feeding activity. Observant anglers can use rolling activity to locate tarpon on the water.

Tarpon jumping

Tarpon are known for their acrobatic jumps.  These contorting, mid-air displays are iconic.  When jumping, tarpon often throw hooks and break lines if not handled correctly. When fighting a jumping tarpon, bend your knees and drop your rod tip to the water each time the fish jumps. This practice, known as “bowing to the king,” gives the tarpon just enough slack to keep it from shaking loose.

Tarpon wariness

Tarpon are easily spooked, so it's important to approach them quietly and use the right techniques and equipment to avoid scaring them away. Lighter baits and lures are crucial to successfully inducing a bite from a wary tarpon.

Understanding some of these key behaviors can help you target tarpon more effectively and increase your chances of a successful day on the water.

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Tarpon fishing spots in the Florida Keys

Crystal clear waters with a slight breeze make for excellent sight fishing conditions for tarpon. Image by Glen Richard.

The Florida Keys have long been a premier destination for tarpon fishing enthusiasts from around the world. With its crystal clear waters, abundant marine life, and beautiful scenery, it's no wonder that the Keys are home to some of the best tarpon fishing spots in the world. If you're planning a trip to the Keys and want to catch some tarpon, here are some of the best spots to consider:

Tarpon fishing spots around Islamorada

Located in the middle of the Keys, Islamorada is known as the "Sportfishing Capital of the World" and is a popular destination for anglers of all levels. The area is home to numerous tarpon fishing spots, including the flats of Florida Bay and the channels that run through the islands and surrounding mangrove keys. During the summer months, the tarpon migration brings thousands of fish to the area, making it an ideal time to plan a trip.

Tarpon fishing spots around Marathon Key

Marathon is located in the heart of the Florida Keys and offers anglers some of the best tarpon fishing opportunities in the area. The Seven Mile Bridge, which connects Marathon to the Lower Keys, is one of the most popular spots for tarpon fishing, especially during the summer months. Other hotspots in the area include the flats around Boot Key and the Bahia Honda Bridge.

Tarpon fishing spots around Key West

Key West is located at the southernmost point in the continental United States and is a popular destination for tourists and anglers alike. The area is home to some of the best tarpon fishing spots in the Keys, including the flats around the Marquesas Keys and the channels around the Boca Grande Key. During the tarpon migration season, which typically runs from May to August, the fishing can be especially good. 

Other popular tarpon fishing spots in the Florida Keys

There are numerous other tarpon fishing spots throughout the Florida Keys that are worth exploring. These spots include the bridges along the Overseas Highway, including the Long Key Bridge and the Channel 5 Bridge, and the flats around channels between some of the lower Keys. These spots are popular and may receive more fishing pressure. However, tarpon congregate in these areas during certain times of the year, and the fishing can be extremely productive.

Florida tarpon fishing seasons

The Florida Keys tarpon migration

The availability of world-class tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys is dictated by the annual tarpon migration season. Every year, from April through September, tarpon migrate to the Florida Keys from their wintering grounds in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico to spawn.

During this time, anglers from all over the world come to the Florida Keys to take advantage of incredible, visual tarpon fishing opportunities. Tarpon frequent the shallow, crystal-clear waters of the Keys, making them an exciting and thrilling target for anglers.

The peak of the tarpon migration season in the Florida Keys is from April through June. During this time, large schools of tarpon can be seen swimming in the shallow inshore waters, making it easier for anglers to target them. This is also the time when many tarpon tournaments are held in the Keys, drawing in anglers from all over the world to compete for cash prizes and bragging rights.

As the season progresses into July through September, tarpon can still be found in good numbers, although they may not be as plentiful as they are during the peak season. Late-season tarpon fishing can be a great way to avoid the crowds and still have a chance at catching some big fish.

Overall, the tarpon migration season in the Florida Keys is an incredible sight to see for anglers and nature enthusiasts alike.

Peak Tarpon fishing seasonApril-June
Late Tarpon fishing seasonJuly-September
Winter Tarpon fishing seasonNovember-February

Fishing conditions in Florida Keys

When planning a tarpon fishing trip in the Florida Keys, it's essential to consider the weather conditions. The Keys experience a tropical climate, which means it can be hot and humid throughout the year, with occasional thunderstorms and hurricanes.


Weather and storms when tarpon fishing

During peak tarpon season, the weather is typically warm, and the waters are calm and clear, making it easier to spot tarpon.

However, it's important to keep an eye on the weather forecast before heading out on a fishing trip. Thunderstorms can pop up quickly, especially on hot, Florida afternoons. Storms can be dangerous, especially on the water, so it's essential to avoid going out on the water when there is a chance of a storm. It's also crucial to keep an eye on the wind direction and speed, as strong winds can make it challenging to navigate and fish effectively and safely.

Best water temperature for tarpon fishing

Another weather consideration to keep in mind is the water temperature. Tarpon prefer warmer water temperatures, typically between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. When the water temperature drops below 70 degrees, tarpon tend to become less active and move to deeper waters. Cold snaps can drop water temps and shut the fishing down, so keep an eye on the weather the week prior to your anticipated trip time. In the winter months, it's best to focus on fishing in the warmer, shallow waters of Florida Bay.

In summary, when planning a tarpon fishing trip in the Florida Keys, it's essential to consider the weather conditions, including the time of year, the likelihood of storms, wind direction and speed, and water temperature. By keeping these factors in mind, you can increase your chances of having a successful and safe fishing trip.

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Tarpon fishing equipment and gear

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Rod setups for a light tackle fishing adventure in Islamorada, Florida. Courtesy of The Seahunter Fishing Group.

When it comes to tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys, having the right equipment is essential to your success. From fishing rods and reels to clothing and gear, each piece of equipment plays a vital role in your overall fishing experience. Here are the essential pieces of equipment you'll need for tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys:

Tarpon fishing rods and reels

For tarpon fishing, you'll want to use a strong and durable rod and reel that can handle the size and strength of these large fish. For spinning and conventional gear, a 7-8 foot rod with a medium-heavy to heavy action is ideal for tarpon fishing. For fly fishing, a 9-10 foot, heavy-action fly rod works best in size 10 and 14-weight. A good reel should have a strong, smooth drag system that can handle the size and power of a tarpon.

Tarpon fishing lines

When it comes to fishing lines, you'll want to use a heavy braided or monofilament line on your spinning gear. Braided line is popular because it has a thinner diameter, which means you can hold more of it on your reel. Monofilament or fluorocarbon lines are also good options because they are easier to handle and have more stretch. These line types are both more abrasion-resistant than braid.

Hooks, baits, flies, and plugs for tarpon

For tarpon fishing, you'll want to use a circle hook, which allows for catch-and-release fishing while minimizing harm to the fish. Live bait such as crabs, shrimp, and mullet are popular options for tarpon fishing. Fly fishing is also popular for tarpon fishing, with the most effective flies imitating crabs, shrimp, or baitfish. Topwater plugs can also be quite effective for tarpon fishing, as they create a lot of noise and disturbance in the water. These work especially well when fish are keyed in on schools of bait near the surface, or on calm mornings.

Tarpon fishing clothing and gear

The Florida Keys can be hot and humid, so wearing lightweight, breathable clothing is a must. Wear clothes that provide good coverage and UV protection, even on cloudy days. The right pair of polarized sunglasses will not only protect your eyes from the sun but also help you spot fish in the water. A hat and neck gaiter will also help protect your face and neck from the sun. You'll also want to wear shoes with non-marking soles and good traction, as the decks of boats can get slippery when wet. Bringing a cooler with plenty of water and snacks is also a good idea, as well as sunscreen, bug spray, and foul weather gear.

Florida tarpon fishing regulations

It is important for all anglers to be aware of the regulations in place to protect the tarpon population and ensure sustainable fishing practices. Note that tarpon fishing regulations can change from year to year, so be sure to check the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) website or consult with a licensed guide or tackle shop for the most current rules and guidelines. By following regulations and practicing responsible fishing techniques, anglers can help ensure a healthy and sustainable tarpon population in the Florida Keys for generations to come.

Tarpon fishing license requirements

To legally fish for tarpon in the Florida Keys, anglers need to have a valid Florida saltwater fishing license, which can be obtained online or from a licensed vendor. The Florida Keys tarpon fishery is predominantly a catch-and-release fishery.

Catch-and-release rules and tarpon protection

Tarpon are considered a game fish in Florida, and their populations are carefully monitored and protected by the FWC. There are several regulations in place to protect tarpon, including catch-and-release rules and gear restrictions. Here are some key guidelines to be aware of when tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys:

  1. Tarpon must be released immediately, without being removed from the water, unless you have a tarpon tag.
  2. Tarpon must be landed quickly and handled with care to avoid injury.
  3. Circle hooks can increase your success and safeguard the fish's well-being when targeting tarpon.
  4. Do not use multiple hooks when targeting tarpon.
  5. Do not use gaffs or other devices to puncture or damage tarpon when fishing.

Check out this full list of tarpon fishing regulations, or follow this link to purchase your Florida fishing license online.

Guided tarpon fishing regulations

If you are fishing on a for-hire vessel that has a valid charter boat or captain's license, like any of our tarpon guides on AnyCreek, passengers are covered under the license of the captain or charter boat while on board. However, if you are fishing from shore or on a private boat with a guide, you will need to obtain your own fishing license. It is always a good idea to check with your guide beforehand to ensure that you have the necessary licenses and permits for your outing.

Pro tarpon fishing tips for success

Tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys can be an exhilarating experience, but it requires a lot of patience and preparation. Here are some tips and tricks to help you land trophy tarpon.

Timing your casts to tarpon

When tarpon fishing, timing is everything. You want to cast your line when the tarpon is close enough to see your bait, but not so close that it spooks the fish. A good rule of thumb is to cast your line about 10 to 15 feet in front of the fish's path.

Tides and currents when tarpon fishing

Understanding daily water movement caused by the tides and currents is essential for successful tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys. Tarpon prefer to feed during moving tides, so plan your fishing trip accordingly. Also, look for areas with strong currents, as tarpon like to congregate in these areas to feed.

Choosing the right baits and lures for tarpon fishing

Tarpon are notoriously picky eaters, so you need to use the right bait and lures to entice them. Try to match the food source that is most-readily available at your fishing spot with your baits and lures. Experiment with different baits and lures until you find what works best for you.

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Other pro tips for catching tarpon


When fighting a tarpon, keep your rod opposite the direction the fish is pulling throughout the fight. Pulling along their backs and applying constant side pressure is the quickest way to tire them out. Don't be stingy with your drag pressure. Tarpon are known for their acrobatic jumps, so be prepared for the fish to leap out of the water. If they jump, “bow to the king” to prevent them from coming unhooked. Also, use a heavy-duty leader to prevent the fish from chafing your line, as tarpon have very rough mouths.

Visit a local fly shop

Stopping by one of the local fly, tackle, or bait shops is a great way to gain some local intel, find the best gear, and hear the latest Florida Keys fishing report. Shops like The Angling Company on Key West, or 7 Mile Fly Shop on Marathon Key are also great resources for connecting with the best Florida Keys tarpon fishing guides.

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Learn from a guide

If you are new to tarpon fishing and want to learn from a professional, start your journey with AnyCreek. Your guide will have the necessary licenses, gear, tackle, and equipment to ensure your trip is smooth and successful. A guided trip will allow you to fish tarpon habitats properly.

Check the local forecast before you start packing to ensure you’re prepared. Your guide will have all necessary licenses, gear, and tackle, but don’t forget to pack essentials — snacks, sunscreen, hats, polarized sunglasses, sunshirts, a raincoat, and a camera.

Want to try tarpon fishing with a larger group? No problem! Check out this article to book a trip for your large group.

Florida Keys Tarpon Fishing FAQ

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