By Terry Gibson
Long before he became “Captain Christian Yergens,” I traveled with Christian and his twin brother, Haley, back when they were hotshot pro surfers and I was a young journalist writing for Surfer Magazine.
I loved traveling and hanging out with the Yergens brothers. We’d grown up surfing and fishing the same waters on Florida’s Treasure Coast, and we share a strong connection with the region’s unique ecology and community.
Also, I quickly realized that whether surfing or fishing, the twins have an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time. So when Capt. Christian disappeared from Vero Beach one May about 15 years ago, Maverick flats skiff in tow, I knew he was onto something superior. No captain in his or her right mind leaves fish to find fish. And for that reason, nobody leaves the Treasure Coast in May -- the best month for fishing along the beach and in the Indian River Lagoon -- for just about every species imaginable, including tarpon.
It turns out that Christian’s destination was Apalachicola, where a “new” tarpon fishery was slowly making the radar screens of discerning traveling anglers. Even before Florida emerged as dry land, tarpon have migrated along shorelines in the northwestern hemisphere, yet this part of the migration never garnished much attention. Meanwhile, during the latter half of the 19th Century and throughout the 20th Century, tarpon fishing made icons of several destinations on the Gulf of Mexico, including Homosassa, Fort Myers, and of course, the Florida Keys.
But recreational fishing in the northern Gulf focused primarily on culinary favorites in the deep blue Gulf such as snapper, grouper, and swordfish, or inshore in the marshes for tasty redfish, speckled trout, and flounder.
Perhaps the tarpon run past towns including Apalachicola, Port St. Joe and Panama City Beach was too seasonal to attract much attention. Now, nearly 20 years into the 21st Century, a quiet but elite group of guides including Capt. Christian has the migration wired. There are few if any places in the world that offer better tarpon fishing along such beautiful stretches of coast.
Dr. Aaron Adams, Director of Science & Conservation for the Florida-based Bonefish Tarpon Trust (BTT) recently explained why these almost exclusively large, adult tarpon migrate so far north and west along Florida’s Gulf Coast.
“From satellite tagging studies, we know that during the late spring adult tarpon migrate clear to the Mississippi River from the Keys and Charlotte Harbor. There’s evidence that they spawn off the Mississippi split. Tarpon migrate nearshore because the estuaries produce the oily forage fish they depend on, such as menhaden and pinfish, to provide the energy for the migration and for spawning. As soon as the water starts to cool off in the fall, the fish turn around and head back.”
One of the reasons why the tarpon fishing is so good along Florida’s northwest coast is that the fish are in full-on pre-spawn feeding mode. They’re hungry, and very likely to attack a well-presented fly, lure or live bait. The other reasons are water clarity and lack of significant fishing pressure. Captains typically stake out their boats along the migration route, or poll the shallows in search of fish. This fishery involves 100-percent sight fishing over lush grass flats and sandbars along the brilliant beaches. The tarpon run lasts from late May through early September. Excellent shallow-water fishing for speckled trout, redfish and flounder, among other species can be expected year-round in the region.
Top Tarpon Trips
Located along Florida’s gorgeous Nature Coast, Homosassa is legendary for its giant tarpon. Anglers have set numerous world records in these pristine open waters that serve up a smorgasbord of crabs, shrimp and forage fish for the hungry, migratory fish. The migration typically begins toward the end of April and the majority of the fish will roll in by the middle of May. The migration tails off beginning in June, but there are usually fish around through the summer. The beauty of these coastal marshes cannot be overstated. The Homosassa River is lined with cypress, live oak and sabal palm trees. Meadows of emergent marsh grass rise out of the tides, while lush seagrasses sway below. In addition to tarpon fishing, the area provides excellent fishing for cobia, redfish and speckled trout. And the wildlife always captivates.
Tarpon fishing literally put Boca Grande and Pine Island Sound on the map. In the late 19th Century, northern anglers flocked to the area for opportunities to catch what many consider the world’s greatest gamefish. Pine Island Sound produces spectacular crab hatches as well as oily forage fish such as pinfish. Adult migratory tarpon spend May and June in the area fattening up. Mangrove creeks and shorelines around the sound also hold juvenile tarpon year round, as well as snook, redfish and speckled trout. Fort Myers and Matlacha, as well as the islands of Sanibel and Captiva, all serve as great base camps for tarpon anglers.
It’s hard to imagine a more primeval setting for tarpon fishing than the labyrinth of mangrove creeks, islands and bays in the Rookery Bay National Research Reserve, or in the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge to the south. Picking the right tackle is often the challenge, since one minute you may cast to rolling juvenile tarpon, then suddenly spot a 100-pound-plus fish laid up sunning itself. Naples and Marco Island are also favorite destinations for traveling anglers targeting the big migratory fish headed toward Boca Grande from late March through June.
The fishing villages of Everglades City and Chokoloskee rise near the northwestern border of Everglades National Park, and the southern border of the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. This area is the wildest and most remote in all of southern Florida. Anglers in the know pick warm days in March to target big fish sunning themselves on the surface. The big migratory fish push through early April through June and are targeted off the tawny beaches. Tarpon of all ages and size ranges are caught year-round in the wilderness creeks and rivers, where mangroves several stories high tower out of the tannin water.
The Florida Keys remain the most popular tarpon-fishing destination on the planet, and Islamorada is the fishery’s epicenter. Anglers target giant tarpon around the bridges with live bait and conventional tackle. Fly fishermen stalk the flats and shallow “lakes” sight-fishing for giant fish. Mangrove islands hold lots of baby tarpon. And many anglers opt to run over toward Flamingo in Everglades National Park to chase the Silver King and myriad other species including snook, redfish and Spanish mackerel.
Miami’s biggest tarpon claim to fame involves Government Cut and the waters just outside that inlet. The best fishing typically coincides with the legendary Miami Boat Show, which takes place in February. The bite is hot courtesy of a shrimp hatch. Excellent tarpon fishing is found in Biscayne National Park, where in the late spring anglers have a legit shot at a “slam” including bonefish, tarpon, and permit.
Located on the southern end of the Treasure Coast, Stuart is where both forks of the St. Lucie River converge with the legendary Indian River Lagoon and where those estuaries pour out into the open Atlantic, over coral reefs. Tarpon are available in the rivers year-round, but the best fishing takes place in the late spring summer months. Fish of all sizes converge on menhaden and other baitfish up the St. Lucie River. They feed into the current along channel edges in the Indian River Lagoon. And the big Atlantic migration is headed north along the coast’s gorgeous beaches. The best tarpon fishing also coincides with the best snook fishing of the year, in the place that’s just loaded with snook.
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