Inshore anglers, particularly those down south, often long for a fish that goes hard like the ones offshore and jumps madly when hooked but can be handled comfortably on light tackle. The solution to this problem for me is the Indo-pacific tarpon, and fishing for them takes me to some very strange and interesting places.
Tarpon ‘boof’ lures like a barramundi, run hard like a mackerel and jump frantically like a queenfish. This makes these little bars of chrome the ideal light-tackle sportfish and they are readily available if you just know where to look.
Indo-pacific tarpon (Megalops cyprinoides) are a carbon copy of the Atlantic tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) found in America and West Africa, but unfortunately our tarpon don’t grow to nearly the same size.
Usually sporting a magnificent silvery/chrome colouration and big shiny scales, they are certainly very photogenic little fish.
As sea-going adults, they can reach around 10kg! Although most tarpon encountered in Australia and South East Asia are around 1kg with the exceptional fish pushing the 3kg mark.
Tarpon can be found in bays, rivers, creeks, drains, billabongs and even landlocked lakes all across the top end and down as far south as Sydney on the east and Onslow on the west.
Tarpon have a primitive lung, which allows them to breath oxygen from above the water when the water quality is bad, and for this reason that they can be found in a variety of different locations. It is also believed that they can breed in both salt and fresh water unlike many estuarine fish species.
Often considered to be a very mysterious fish, not a lot is known about our tarpon and they aren’t usually a prime target for anglers. Most are taken as by-catch for other species like bream, bass, flathead, trevally, mangrove jack, barramundi and even tailor.
The range in the aforementioned species is no typo, because tarpon can live anywhere! Make no mistake, if you fish for any of these species regularly you will likely run into one of these chromed speedsters and wonder where you can get more!
Finding tarpon can range from dead easy to frustrating depending on where you live. Below the tropics they can be a bit of a challenge to find, but this is yet another attraction.
As mentioned above, tarpon are capable of living almost anywhere but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be anywhere at anytime. The time to be looking for tarpon is during the warmer half of the year. Before and after storms tend to produce some great results, although these conditions are not necessary.
Location types they are found in can vary a lot, and this needs to be understood if you plan to go out looking or tarpon. While most mangrove creeks will hold tarpon, there are several things that make a particular creek standout – depth, clarity and fishing pressure.
You want the creek to be deep enough for fish to feel safe while you’re fishing for them, so at least 1m of water or preferably deeper.
The water needs to be clear enough to fish with lures. At least 30-40cm of clarity is enough.
Lastly, the creek should be fairly fisher-free and quiet, not necessarily remote but definitely not over-fished.
Mangrove creeks however are not the only places where you will find tarpon. They are often found in land-locked lakes, golf bunkers, lagoons and duck ponds, but only if these bodies of water occasionally, or at least in the past, have linked up to a stretch of water that holds tarpon. This may be a river or creek, a canal, a beach or another lake known to hold tarpon.
If you can see fish like mullet, herring and noxious species like tilapia or carp in your chosen lake then it is very likely to hold tarpon. In fact, if a tidal body of water has flooded any sort of pond in the last 10 years, it’s a pretty sure bet they’ll be in there, along with other things! These artificial lakes are basically just like billabongs of the south, providing fish like tarpon with a safe nursery to feed and grow in.
Of course, canals are another great option and are available to most people in one form or another. The three tests above should be applied for all the location types to help maximise your chances of tangling with tarpon.
Tackle for these guys is simple. Anything light that you would usually throw at bream or bass is fine, so a rod between 1-5kg and a 1000-3000 size spinning reel will work a treat.
Your mainline should be kept fairly light, 4-10lb braided line will allow you to make lengthy casts often needed for tarpon.
Tarpon have a very hard, bony jaw that can do damage to a light leader, so a 12-20lb fluorocarbon leader, depending on the size of fish, is necessary.
Lures are a personal choice, but anything you feel comfortable throwing at bream, whiting or bass should get snaffled by a hungry tarpon. Tarpon eat small baitfish, shrimps, prawns and insects when conditions allow, so presentations should be kept fairly small and close to the surface. Small stickbaits, walkers, poppers and fizzers about 5cm long worked fairly quickly consistently produce results for me.
Tarpon also love small, lightly rigged plastics hopped all through the water column, so always have some small plastics ready to go with some 1/4oz jigheads and smaller.
Suspending hardbodies are fantastic to add to your arsenal of tarpon lures, my favourite tarpon catchers of late have been Rapala’s range of suspending X-Rap hardbodies in the 4, 6 and 8cm models. These lures should be worked with a series of twitches and pauses, allowing the lure to catch the sunlight and glimmer like an injured baitfish.
Always make sure your lures have small, razor-sharp hooks so you can drive the hook through the notoriously hard jaw that tarpon are known for.
One of my favourite things about our tarpon is that lovers of the long wand, like myself, can target them on fly! Tarpon are an excellent fly target at any size and smash all sorts of fly patterns.
Your fly outfit can be kept fairly light; 6-8wt rods are fine. A 6wt gives you the chance to have some fun with them and an 8wt necessary if the winds pick up.
Floating lines will usually cover most situations but an intermediate or sink tip line may be useful if they are found to be schooling down deeper.
Flies of many varieties can be used, which makes it all the more fun. Clousers, small Pink Things, shrimp patterns, even Bass Vampire style flies will work. Surface patterns like Dahlberg Divers, Bass Bangers, Miss Prissys or any home tied popping bug on 2/0 hooks or smaller will catch you tarpon on the right day.
Again, be sure to buy or tie flies with razor-sharp hooks or you’ll be telling the ‘one that got away’ story.
When you arrive at the water, always scan around for signs of tarpon. They have a habit of coming up to the surface and gulping in a mouthful of air in an action commonly referred to as ‘rolling’.
If they are feeding on the surface they may also be boofing small fish and insects, similar to small barra, and this can lead to some very exciting fishing.
But if none of this is happening then your lures will have to find them. Depending on the day, tarpon can sometimes be hanging around structure or just cruising around in open water looking for a feed. This makes covering water quite important when finding tarpon.
Once you find one, you may be lucky enough to have stumbled across a school. This means the next 10-15 minutes may turn into absolute mayhem with screaming drags and fish flying all over the shop.
When a tarpon hits you, it can sometimes be incredibly difficult to get a solid hook set and keep them attached. Fly fishing can be a great remedy to this issue because after a good strip-strike to set the hook has been employed, they struggle to shake the fly out because it’s just too light.
With conventional gear however, a sharp lift from the rod may be in order if you’re having a lot of short strikes and dropping the rod when they take to the air helps to keep them attached, because tarpon will jump!
Always try to handle tarpon with care, as their scales come off easily and they kick about so watch out when using trebles.
Tarpon have been documented as a poor table fare because of the amount of bones they have, so they should be enjoyed purely as a sporting proposition before being released.
Tarpon are a very under-valued sportfish in Australia, probably because they often co-exist with more famous sporting targets such as barra, tailor, bass and mangrove jack. Although tiny in comparison to their trans-Pacific cousins, they still pack a punch on modest tackle. I encourage those wanting to find a new and exciting species to fish for to go out scouting for tarpon, I guarantee you’ll become hooked!Reads: 1509