Key West's tarpon worth the trip

Key West is known for many things. It's the last stop of the famous Overseas Highway, where every evening's sunset is cause for celebration from Mallory Square (the southernmost point in the continental United States, by the way).

Key West has the Ernest Hemingway cats, the Shipwreck Museum, lots of Jimmy Buffet music and, of course, the best Key Lime pie in the world.

It's also famous for something else: world-class, nighttime tarpon fishing. If you're shivering in the deep throes of winter, consider this a worthy excursion down south for middle-of-winter warm weather fishing.

Channels hold tarpon

Located on the north side of Key West are a series of small islands ("keys") separated by small bays ("basins").

Some of these basins are 2 or more miles wide, emptying into the Gulf of Mexico via bottom channels. On each dropping tide, water drains from the shallows through the channels, effectively concentrating forage in the passages.

At a depth from 2 to 5 feet, the basins are deeper than the surrounding turtle-grass flats, but the channels running through them vary, from 8 to 20 feet deep. This is where large numbers of tarpon gather to feed.

Fishing locations

View MapAnchoring in the channels is usually the best way to fish them.

Guides anchor near the edge of a channel, being sure to position their boats so there's still a good current moving under the hull. That good current helps the action on baits and lures.

And, as you might guess, anglers increase their odds by anchoring up-current of any surfacing tarpon.

Nearby "scum lines" — floating concentrations of seaweed and foam — are another good tarpon indicator because they hold tarpon-favored forage like baitfish, seahorses, shrimp and crab.

Guides and skippers look for scum lines along the edges of currents where faster channel water abuts slower bay water — the perfect storm for tarpon.

Top gun

Top Key West tarpon guide Capt. Robert Trosset ("R.T.") likes to toss plugs, especially when the current is slow, and soft plastics. He retrieves them slowly, a foot at a time, followed by twitching the rod tip. This imparts a crippled baitfish appearance to the lure, often prompting lazy or wary tarpon into striking.

"You want to cover a lot of water," said R.T., "and you want to try to get a fish's attention with the lure. Swimming the lure by using the current is better than constantly retrieving it because it's in the water longer, covers more territory and gives the fish a much better chance to find it."

Faves are 5-inch Storm Wildeyes, Ripping Swim Shads or D.O.A. TerrorEyzs. Fave colors are black backs/silver sides for night fishing.

Live baits, particularly small blue crabs or mullet, are also effective.

Live baits are cast out with the current with a rod-length of 50-pound-test fluorocarbon leader, attached to the main line with a blood knot that's modified by using 10 wraps instead of five (dispersing the tension and preventing the sharper braid from cutting through the leader material).

Crabs are also often fished under bobbers.

Timing tarpon

Tarpon are largely nocturnal and known to feed ravenously as the sunsets.

Foraging is triggered during low light and darkness because that's when shrimp wiggle from their sand burrows to the surface, where they attach to large strands of floating turtle grass. But tarpon are opportunistic feeders and will also gladly gobble small crabs, seahorses and a variety of baitfish near the surface.

Tarpon are voracious fighters, making a trip south in the winter more than worthwhile to fish for them.

Key West basics

Travel and Lodging Info: Key West Visitor's Bureau (P.O. Box 1147, Key West, FL 33041; 800-FLA-KEYS)

To book a trip: Capt. Robert Trosset (305-294-5801; 305-797-5693)

Accommodations: Hotels in Key West can be spendy, up to $300 a night. On the cheap, try the Fairfield Inn by Marriott, 3 miles from Key West Airport (800-246-8357), starting at $99.

Material from Fishing & Hunting News
published 24 times a year.

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