When you think of Tarpon fishing in Florida, you likely think of the Keys, the Southwest Florida Gulf Coast, or the Atlantic Coast. While it's true that these waters may offer some of the best Tarpon fishing in the world, fear not! You can still cross a Tarpon off your list on your Destin vacation. What do you need to know about Tarpon fishing in Destin?
Tarpon are a migratory species, and only spend the warmer months cruising the panhandle. Until the water temp is holding about 75 degrees or higher, running into a Destin Tarpon is unlikely. The Destin tarpon fishing season typically runs from early May through early August. This is when pods of big fish, which can weigh in excess of 200 pounds, are most commonly found in Destin's bays and coastal waters.
Anglers with access to a boat, or those who have hired a Destin fishing charter, have the highest chance of success in catching a Tarpon. There are many guides who specialize in Tarpon fishing during the summer run, and they know exactly how to get you on the fish. Tackle and bait are provided as well.
Your guide will typically take you up and down the beaches right before sunrise to look for schools of Tarpon surfacing. Throwing a live crab ahead of the lead fish will usually yield a strike, but hang on! These fish are not easily landed. Between their strength, speed, and acrobatic tendencies, roughly one in three tarpon hooked are brought to the boat.
If you are stuck on land however, you still have an opportunity to hook a Tarpon in Destin. Head to the Okaloosa Island Pier (now known simply as the "Island Pier") at first light, or get to the beach early and beat the crowds.
The Island Pier is a staple for many local anglers. Aside from a chance at a Tarpon, other popular species caught here include Kingfish, Redfish, Cobia, Jack, Barracuda and more. There is a bait and tackle shop on location that can get you outfitted for the day, and they also sell drinks and snacks.
Tarpon can grow big, and if you are fishing from the pier, you'll need to certainly "tackle up" a bit to ensure that your gear has the strength to fight the fish from a fixed location, and keep your fish away from the pilings. A heavy action rod is a must, and a 6000 series reel is recommended. Spool the reel with 50-60 pound braided line, and add a 100 pound fluorocarbon leader.
Anglers who wish to use artificials should focus on larger swimbaits or crab imitations, while anglers fishing live bait will have success with crabs, pinfish, or mullet. Cut bait is less popular, but a large chunk of fresh dead mullet can yield a strike from a Tarpon as well. Anglers using natural bait should opt for a circle hook.
If you manage to hook a tarpon off the pier, be prepared for a fight that lasts 30-60 minutes or more. Keep pressure on the fish and trust your gear. When the fish is further from the pier, it is easier to walk backwards from the pier railing, and reel while walking towards it to regain some line. Once the fish is closer however, you will have to rely on the pump and reel technique. If you are fishing from the beach, you can use the "walk backwards" method for more of the battle.
Tarpon will fight to their death, so the sooner you can get it pier-side or into the surf for a photo, the better. Tarpon over 40 inches cannot be removed from the water by Florida law, so simply pop your line and let the fish swim off as soon as possible if you are fighting the fish from the pier from the pier. The hook will typically fall out within a couple of days. Alternatively, depending on how busy the pier is, you can walk the fish down the pier to the beach and get a photo with it in the surf. If you are fishing from the beach, you can bring it into the surf for a photo, but do not remove it from the water. Your priority should be keeping the fish alive for the release.
If you are planning to visit Destin and are set on doing some Tarpon fishing, plan your trip around late June or early July. This is prime time for Tarpon, and gives you the best opportunity at running into a school. Book an inshore Destin Fishing Charter well in advance to ensure you have your pick of dates, and get ready for an unforgettable experience!