An ineffable passion for tarpon and tarpon fishing has long driven anglers to lengths that the uninitiated might consider a bit deranged. Most hardcore tarpon anglers – and there are plenty of them throughout the world – will spend their last dollar sleeping outside in a swamp in pursuit of the silver king.
That’s exactly what adventurous tarpon-fishing pioneers found in southwest Florida in the late 19th century, the area where the earliest reports of this highly sporty pursuit originated. One of the most widely publicized catches, a 93-pounder landed by W.H. Wood circa 1884 at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River, near Fort Myers, helped spark tourism development in the area.
Yep, tarpon fishing helped put the Fort Myers area on the map, and to this day, it thrives as one of the area’s most thrilling outdoor attractions. Though the wild essence has been preserved by conservation initiatives including the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, contemporary anglers can enjoy the fishery along with a wide range of lodging and dining opportunities, as well as a host of other attractions. It’s arguably the most refined place to intercept the annual spring migration of large tarpon, or to catch a bevy of species year round.
The tarpon fishing takes place in sublime settings, including the sugar-sand beaches off Captiva and Sanibel, swift-flowing passes such as the legendary Boca Grande Pass, and the crystal-clear flats of Pine Island Sound. You will be astounded by the water clarity and the abundance of marine life.
May and June are considered “peak season,” but the migrating schools of large fish show up as early as April and linger well into July. Rising water temperatures and “hatches” of bait, especially crabs that float from Boca Grande Pass on the tide, prove too inviting for these fish to leave, so plenty of fish stick around after the peak.
Hint: Talk to your guide about booking the dates with the best tides and moon phases, and book them early. Fishing the best tides and lunar phases can make the difference between a good day of fishing and an unforgettable one.
Those big tarpon will wear you out, but they’re not the only game in town. The extensive mangrove ecosystems within Pine Island Sound and Charlotte Harbor provide a high-quality habitat for young tarpon, and support healthy populations of red drum, spotted seatrout and snook, among myriad others. Extensive tracts of these essential fish habitats are protected by J.N “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, which is a paradise for anglers, bird watchers and nature lovers of every variety. Juvenile tarpon, as well as some “resident” adult fish, are caught year round from Matlacha to Captiva Island and beyond. There’s never a shortage of fun fish to catch.
Two celebrated tarpon tournaments take place annually in the region, Doc Ford’s “Ding” Darling Tarpon Tournament in Sanibel and the “World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament” in Boca Grande. These tournaments offer great social settings as well competitive action, while promoting resource protection.
When You Go
Norm Zeigler and his staff at Norm Zeigler’s fly shop, on Sanibel, are some of the most knowledgeable area pros in the business. They will outfit you with exactly what you need for tarpon or any other species, and set you up with an excellent guide. Tell Norm I sent you.
For more information, check out Fort Myers – Islands, Beaches and Neighborhoods.