Picture Perfect Sight Fishing day
The June morning dawned gray and dingy as low clouds hung a dull shingle over the sun: certainly not the beginning of a picture-perfect sight-fishing day. Capt. Phil O'Bannon picked me up at the Boca Grande guide docks in his 24-foot Yellowfin Bay boat, and we waited in the dim light for our buddy boat. O'Bannon has fished these southwest Florida waters all his life and guided more than 35 of those years. If anyone could pull a rabbit out of this hat, it would be him.
Landed a 60 pound tarpon
Within two hours, the sun began to paint the sky; we caught whitebait over the grass, released half a dozen snook to 33 inches and landed a 60-pound tarpon — all without entangling ourselves in the usual crowds. The Only Way to Go When anglers think of spring and summer tarpon fishing, many probably picture a congested Boca Grande Pass where boats and hammerheads swarm among schools of stacked-up 'poons. But as the traffic has increased at this popular tarpon hot spot, captains have fanned out to explore the beaches and bays.
That's prime time to target
Once summer arrives, tarpon pods and schools of snook cruise the beaches after bait or push into estuarine areas like Pine Island Sound to feed in quieter waters. That's prime time to target these war-weary fish in different locations with live whitebait and pinfish; a few may still take flies. Make no mistake; these Boca Grande 'poons have seen it all. They migrate to the region from various points in April and May, once the water reaches about 78 degrees. They linger in the pass — a pre-spawn staging area — then leave on the full- and new-moon phases to reproduce in offshore waters. While they're stacked up in the deep inlet, they're bombarded with every bait, jig and fly a human can fix to a hook. Once the June full moon arrives, the fish depart in a great horde, spreading throughout the region, some heading north. Others stay nearby and may linger year-round as long as the water stays warm enough.
Don't worry The fishing's worth it.
My late June trip occurred while the water was still a steamy 85. No doubt in my mind that we'd see tarpon if we literally could see them. Fortunately, summer on the Gulf Coast usually means plenty of bright skies and humidity, though you may have to wait out a wet weather pattern for a day or two. Don't worry: The fishing's worth it, even if you can only spend a few hours on the water. Those hours can be chock-full of action. The area also features miles of explorable beaches, acres of sea grasses and myriad mangrove islands.
Yellowfin Bay boat truly suits this area.
Fluid Strategy O'Bannon's Yellowfin Bay boat truly suits this area. It floats in skinny water just off the beach and ably handles the boat-wake slop in the passes. When searching for bait over the grass, he can stab the Power-Pole anchor into sand and hold position while throwing the net. Optimum bait for tarpon this time of year includes big whitebaits (scaled sardines), threadfin herring, crabs and pinfish. To net the whitebaits inside Pine Island Sound, we first chummed dry fish-food pellets infused with menhaden oil. Then, as the sardines frantically sought the oil-rich food, our buddy-boat captain Mark Lieberman tossed a cast net over the school.
O'Bannon goes light
To fish snook, many of which may be undersized, O'Bannon goes light. He uses Quantum Cabo spinning outfits spooled with 6- to 10-pound-test braid and ties on 3 feet of 25- to 40-pound leader and a 2/0 circle hook. He moves up to stouter Quantum Boca rods for tarpon with Cabo reels, 30- to 40-pound braid, tapered leaders of 50- and 80-pound-test and a 5/0 Owner J hook.
Barker's bait disappeared in a whirlpool
As the gray morning brightened, O'Bannon motored to the end of the south jetty at Captiva Pass and dropped his trolling motor to hold position just off the rocks. He and Yellowfin Yachts' vice president Kevin Barker tossed liveys to several snook that they could see were terrorizing a small ball of tiny whitebaits. Once the anglers' much larger offerings smacked the water, the snook pounced like ravenous pack dogs. The anglers each released back-to-back snooklets measuring up to about 18 inches. Then Barker's bait disappeared in a whirlpool of white water as a 33-incher engulfed the hook. As the boat drifted away from the rocks, Barker fought the snook to a standstill boat-side. O'Bannon lipped the fish and supported its body horizontally with his left hand. The fish's head appeared almost translucent and its body light silver due to the clear blue-green water and white-sand bottom. Because all snook must be released during summer off-season months, O'Bannon slid the fish into the water.
We drifted the pass
When they motored back into position, the bite turned off. While snook certainly sweeten the pot for summer beach fishing, our primary quarry remained silver kings. We motored along the beach south of the pass, looking for tarpon moving in with the tide, swimming toward the edge of the channel or along the shore chasing bait. We drifted the pass to intercept fish coming into Pine Island Sound. Seeing little that stirred him to trust the area, O'Bannon withdrew to the sound. In the calmer water, stealth becomes all the more important. With no other boats around, O'Bannon sunk the Power-Pole into the sand and set out liveys under popping corks to keep the baits out of the grass.
According to Dr. Aaron Adams
No Noise Outside of Boca Grande Pass, whether in the sound or along the beaches, tarpon fishing becomes a different game, according to Dr. Aaron Adams, the director of operations and research for the not-for-profit Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (www.tarbone.org) and a Pine Island resident. In the deep pass, which drops to 70 feet in places, tarpon often hold near the bottom, so boat noise makes little difference. But in the 5- to 8-foot-deep waters of the estuary and beaches, boat noise can turn off the tarpon bite and ruin the day. In shallow waters, stealth is key. To avoid shutting down the bite and to show respect for other anglers, Adams recommends these simple rules:
- When under way, always give a wide berth — at least several hundred yards — to any boat with anglers actively tarpon fishing. The boat may be idling or stopped with anglers looking for tarpon; the crew may be tracking a school or actively casting.
- Don't run your outboard motor where people are fishing for tarpon or tarpon have been spotted. A running outboard, even at idle, shuts off the bite and may push the fish to other locations. When you have the option to run a trolling motor or pole, choose the pole. The quieter your presence, the closer the tarpon will come to the boat and the better chance you have that one will eat a fly, lure or bait.
- If you see fish moving along the beach or another pathway, don't cut off another boat that may be waiting on these fish. Take a position well clear of other boats and wait for the tarpon to move toward your location.
- If you're near another boat that hooks a fish, stay clear of the line. If necessary, move out of the way and then back to the area holding fish once the angler and boat are clear.
They quietly scanned for moving fish
Find the Action Lieberman and I watched O'Bannon and Barker from at least 200 yards away on the grass flat as they quietly scanned for moving fish, poised to drop a nugget in their path. Not half an hour later, Barker's rod arced and the line zipped tight, flinging floating grass in the air. The 60-pound tarpon leaped and shook, flipped and yanked, running off yards of line as Barker held the pressure. O'Bannon deployed the trolling motor and kept close to the fish, hoping to leader and release it quickly in the warm water. Barker successfully turned the fish multiple times, but it remained boat shy and stubborn. Still, within 15 minutes, the anglers high-fived and the fish swam away.
Back to Captiva Pass
With the flat disturbed and the tide receding, O'Bannon headed back to Captiva Pass. He drifted both sides of the pass, sighting nothing. We motored north along the beach to Johnson Shoal. The tide was low enough that we could see water breaking over a large sandbar. Boats anchored around the edge of the bar, watching for tarpon to transit the deeper water. We respectfully took our proper place above them. I was reminded of setting up on similar tarpon trails in the Keys. The anticipation of seeing one large or even a school of smaller fish swimming steadily toward the boat is enough to throw any angler into a case of serious jitters. I wasn't on the rod, but I could still feel the tension.