Juvenile Downtown Tampa Tarpon

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 By CAPT. MEL BERMAN, 970-WFLA

There’s no doubt that one of an angler’s greatest lifetime achievements is bringing to heel a mighty 150-pound tarpon. Yet there comes a time when you’ve been there and done that – and would enjoy catching a gamefish with all the spunk, but not necessarily the extended arm and back challenging pulls. That’s when playing with juvenile tarpon becomes such a joy.

”I like the excitement. The fish are unlike the bigger tarpon,” said Tampa Guide Capt Dave Dennison. “They’re easier to handle for the novice angler, and you don’t need the heavy equipment that you do for the larger ones.” For most situations, Dennison is able to use typical snook tackle — an 8-foot medium action rod, and 30 to 40 series reel. He loads them with 20 to 30-pound PowerPro, plus a 30 pound fluorocarbon leader and a 3/0 Owner hook.

“This setup just makes it easier on people, and won’t wear them out during these hot summer days. My clients get a lot of enjoyment catching the little guys. They can range anywhere from 10 to 40 pounds and provide a great deal of fun for any angler. Now you are going to find an occasional 80 to 100-pounder, but most of the time they’re in that 10 to 40-pound slot. And catching them certainly makes for a great and exciting day on the water. “

Capt. Dennison hooks up with these playful juveniles right in the rivers of Downtown Tampa, surrounded by high rises and skyscrapers. He works the rivers along the series of seawalls and docks. “They bite best as long as there’s a tide movement. The outgoing – the incoming – it doesn’t matter, as long as there’s good movement to the water and there are baits schools available holding them in position.”

Juvenile tarpon, as with most species, seek their comfort zones. That’s why they come into the Tampa rivers this time of year. With typical depths of about 22 feet, water temperatures considerably cooler than the flats, and massive schools of bait available, these tributaries provide an ideal habitat for adolescent silverkings. In the cooler months, these same rivers provide the warmth they need to feel comfortable, so they hang around these waterways most of the year.

”These are the offspring of adult tarpon, spending the early part of their lives back in our estuaries and our rivers, “said Dennison. “Then when they grow up, they move out and begin migrating with the big schools of adults. They usually begin showing up here in the rivers at the end of June. And by August they are here in really great numbers, which coincides with the time that beach fishing for tarpon slows down.”

What kinds of baits get them to bite? “They’ll hit anything — but live threadfins are my favorite,” Said Dennison. “Now most would think that the greenbacks, which are a hardier bait would be my choice. But the threadfin just sits there and won’t run away from these small tarpon.” But as it gets closer to December and January, when the bait supply starts diminishing, we have more luck on the 52M MirrOlures. or any lure that’s going to sink down a bit. We also do well on your typical ¼-ounce Old Bayside shad tail jig.”

Now if one wants to fish for juvenile tarpon in the rivers of Tampa, Dennison suggest that you “come out when there’s not a lot of boat traffic, which keeps the fish down, so you’re not going to see them. But come out when it’s a nice quiet, still morning and they’ll be roaming all up and down these rivers. And like every other kind of fishing, weekdays are more productive than weekends, because it’s more peaceful for the fish. Then just stop and take your time, paying attention to the water’s surface, looking for the bait supply in the area, and watching for the tarpon rolling – and you’ll find the fish.”

Dennison looks for them to roll on the surface. “And the fun part with these small tarpon is that they don’t just roll – they jump and cavort with much more enthusiasm than the larger adults. Now I’m always watching for the fish to come up, break the surface and actually show me where he’s at. All I want to do is be in the area of him. I’m not necessarily trying to throw on the top of the fish. But I want to be in the same area where the juveniles are rolling. I just want my bait in the water around them.”

If you’re into fly fishing, these baby tarpon can provide a wonderful day of action. Fly fishing expert Capt. Pat Damico said that “tarpon rolling on the surface allow you to pinpoint their location. This rolling activity is usually not associated with feeding, but rather with their air gulping movements. In this situation, I feel their feeding activity is closer to the bottom rather than the top of the water column.”

He said that tossing flies that are near the surface usually results in frustration. “Using a sinking tip fly line with a sinking pattern will occasionally work. A “strip, strip, strip, pause” retrieve; similar to that used for large tarpon, will be a good starting place. Vary this if you get refusals or short strikes. Keep hooks sharp and use a shock tippet of thirty pound test Mason or fluorocarbon. Remember to bow with each jump to prevent a straight line to the gyrating fish that usually results in hooks coming out.”

Damico adds that “the acrobatics of smaller Tarpon will put a big grin on any fly fisher’s face. I have had them land in the boat as well as in mangroves or branches of trees lying in the water. Once your efforts are rewarded, you will put this smaller silverkings at the top of your “Fun Fish” list.

One final thought, since most tarpon are released, please make sure that you do not injure these magnificent creatures. Don’t gaff them, drag them up into the boat or pose with them in a vertical position. All of these activities can be an ultimate death sentence to the great fish. If at all possible, leave them in the water, take a picture, and then carefully release them.

For Capt. Dave Dennison charter information, call (813) 323-2366. Capt Pat Damico can be reached at (727) 360-6466, or go to http://captpat.com.