The Key West Tarpon Migration


You have no doubt heard me say it before: the Florida Keys offer some of the best fishing in North America.

In the spring, Keys Tarpon are on the move, and the fishery really shows its stuff.  It appears that there may be two separate groups of fish that converge in the Keys in spring, with one group circling in from the Gulf, and the other moving out of the Atlantic and the east coast of Florida.   Whatever path they take, the great junction occurs in the Keys, and literally hundreds of thousands of tarpon join in this migration each year, making for some tremendous fishing.  Though slightly smaller in number, a good population of tarpon anglers make the same migration, and I am, whenever possible, one of that number.

key west tarpon12I obsessed about my April trip to the Keys this year for a solid four months.  The plan was to dig right into the heart of the migration, and feed lures to the silver king.  It was to be an epic trip: big fish, light tackle, incredible chances for some amazing footage…but as the trip date drew closer, I could see that wind was going to be an issue.

Though I was fishing under the eye of renowned Keys guide Aaron Snell,

nothing could undo sustained winds of 20 that gusted to over 35; our first morning out, the seas were already white capping at 7:30 in the morning.  Aaron and I spent some time in the backcountry through the morning, trying to find a lee and blind casting channels.  We managed a few fish, but no tarpon.  By the afternoon I was certain that this was going to be a tough few days of fishing.

[pull_quote_center] It was to be an epic trip: big fish, light tackle, incredible chances for some amazing footage…but as the trip date drew closer, I could see that wind was going to be an issue.[/pull_quote_center]

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Towards evening, Aaron tied on a Hogy, while I continued with the Yozuri crystal minnow.

I had caught a few jacks and a couple barracuda when all of a sudden Aaron hooked the fish we were looking for.  We had finally struck silver! This fish looked to be over 100 lbs, and it gave us a good look with a few cartwheels fully out of the water.  I quickly got on the trolling motor as Aaron waged battle.  On about the 5th jump, after a vicious twist, Aaron came unglued.  Fortunately Tim and Dan, my cameramen, had managed some great footage.  And it was fortunate that they had, as that one fish was the only fish we hooked all day.

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Day two began just as slowly as day one.

Winds were still howling, and in many of the places we had hoped to explore, the bottom was so churned up that it was difficult to sight any fish.  We did manage some casts at the few fish we saw, but we never really got a good response.  Every now and then a fish would turn in the roily water, but none would fully commit.  I could see the disappointment in Aaron’s face; he had worked hard to show us the legendary tarpon fishing that the Keys are known for, but no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t control the weather.  In the afternoon, each of us had a solid eat on lures, but we just never came tight.
I started to stress a little bit.  I was really hoping to get two shows worth of material out of the three days, but it began to look like we would be lucky to get one.


Nonetheless, it was clear to me that Aaron Snell was and is an excellent guide.  Building on a remarkable knowledge of the area and the tides, Aaron moved us at very specific times.  His plan was clearly well thought out.  We were hitting 8 – 10 places each day, depending very specifically on tide.  With our lack of success, I started to discuss with Aaron other possibilities.  He suggested that we have a go at night fishing.  We pulled off the water on the second afternoon a bit earlier than usual, so that we could get a little rest and some dinner before heading out again at sunset.

[pull_quote_center]His plan was clearly well thought out.  We were hitting 8 – 10 places each day, depending very specifically on tide[/pull_quote_center]

tarpon night biteThere is something about the night bite that always gets me excited. I really enjoy fishing at night; it adds a whole different dimension to the fishing experience.  Tarpon are generally nocturnal feeders, so assuming conditions worked in our favor, the night-fishing plan seemed like a solid one.  We started out by blind casting through one of the channels next to Key West harbor.  No luck.  Aaron knew he needed to make something happen.  We made another move, and started fishing the lights right on the waterfront in Key West Harbor.  These light lines were loaded with small and medium-sized tarpon.  We saw them swimming in the shadow lines, and watched them pot shrimp and minnows.  This was really exciting.  Both of us managed to catch a few, though nothing over 40 lbs, and Aaron suggested that we go try another channel.  On his second cast, Aaron hooked a great fish.  I drove the boat while he fought the fish, and after about 15 min we had him boat-side.  It was a beautiful 80 pounder, and we decided to call it an evening.

By day three, we had captured enough footage to make a show, which took off some of the pressure for the last day.  That 3rd morning, the wind had not let up.  We likely cast to a few more fish than we had seen in the previous days, and I even had one boil on my lure 3 times, though it never ate it.  The whole experience left me wanting more.

I know for certain that I will be back to the Keys next spring; once you get a taste for tarpon fishing, you can never get enough.