Migrations are a study in movement and endurance. The petite Arctic tern, for example, travels as many as 44,000 miles between Greenland and Antarctica each year. Or consider the eastern monarch, a butterfly with a microscopic cluster of brain cells that somehow each fall navigates 2,000 to 3,000 miles from the United States to forest groves in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico.
There are, of course, marathon migrators in the fish world, too. Atlantic bluefin are known for their far-reaching wanderlust, as are striped bass, many varieties of salmonids, eels, herring, shad, sturgeon and hundreds if not thousands of other species. Another fish that belongs on this list of long-distance wanderers is one of the most sought-after gamefish in the world: Megalops atlanticus — the Atlantic tarpon. The silver king.
One of the largest intersections of Atlantic tarpon movements happens for a few months during spring each year in South Florida and along the state’s Gulf Coast, where large schools converge to feed and prepare to spawn. They are met here by light-tackle and fly anglers who gun for a chance to tangle with the prehistoric-looking, hard-fighting fish. The tarpon run is a spring favorite.
San Carlos Bay on the Florida Gulf Coast is a silver king hot spot during the spring run, as are the Gulf waters north and south of it. Capt. Josh Constantine, who has run Caloosahatchee Cowboy Charters out of Fort Myers, Florida, since 2010, makes his living in these waters year-round but says the spring run is one of his favorite times of year.
“My first spring tarpon trips start as early as mid-February,” Constantine says, “and the run is in full swing by late March. I sometimes go 30-plus days without a day off, but I just love it.”
Constantine describes a lifetime of obsession with tarpon, a trait many of the anglers who charter with him share. “Tarpon are bruisers, a challenge to hook and a thrill to fight on light tackle,” he says. “Nothing puts on a show like a tarpon that’s just discovered a hook planted in its jaw.”
Constantine says he uses many tactics to catch these spring fish but that netting a pile of bait for the live well, then laying down a nice chum line of cut bait is how he starts most days. Three or four spinning rods tipped with live threadfin herring are arranged in the chum slick, an enticing sight for spring tarpon.
“Water temperatures around 78 degrees really kick things off,” Constantine says, “but the tarpon seem to move in and out based on a lot of different conditions. An incoming tide is usually better than an outgoing, especially when we get our crab flushes in April and May. That’s when a variety of crab species move into the inlets and cuts. It’s no secret that tarpon love crabs, and when we get that flush, the fishing kicks up several notches. I never met a tarpon that didn’t like a crab. It’s a freaking blast.”
Constantine’s comments about the fish pulsing in and out of his area made me curious about the movements and overall life cycle of tarpon. I connected with a biologist who has satellite-tagged at least 300 tarpon, and who also wrote a book about the biology and management of the species. Dr. Jerry Ault, who has been a professor and the chair of the Department of Marine Ecosystems and Society at the University of Miami for 28 years, is known as the expert on the Atlantic tarpon’s migrations and life cycle.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about tarpon — even spring tarpon — is that they stay put,” Ault says. “These are the so-called ‘resident’ fish that folks think are around in one area all year but school-up in spring. While some fish hang around certain spots year-round, the idea of a 150-pound tarpon staying under a bridge its entire life is not how these fish work, unless it’s living at a marina where it’s being hand-fed by tourists every day.”
Ault describes the South Florida tarpon that make up the spring run as comprising a few groups that move around the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf coasts, the Florida Panhandle and upper Gulf Coast, the Keys, Florida Bay and South Florida’s east coast for part of the year. “Some of these fish spend winters in the Caribbean and Bahamas and then congregate in South Florida during the spring,” he says. “Our tagging shows that once feeding and spawning have concluded around late May, a very large group of them head up the coast to Chesapeake Bay, where they spend the summer feeding on menhaden. Others move up the Gulf Coast, and some, we believe, head down to Cuba or out to the Bahamas.”
Ault says the most intriguing thing they discovered from the satellite tracking is that the year-round movements (from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico to the Mississippi River Delta, around Florida and to Chesapeake Bay) are based on food and spawning urges but also because tarpon are tuned in to an isotherm of about 78 degrees. “Ask most any Florida guide, and they’ll tell you that in spring the 78-degree mark is the sweet spot,” he says. “Our tags show that these fish follow these isotherms thousands of miles each year, and the food they eat just happens to thrive in these temperatures, as well.”
Capt. Russell Kleppinger, who runs tarpon trips out of Miami and the Keys, is one of many guides who helped Ault with his tagging program and is a known tarpon sharpie. I asked him about the 78-degree thermocline Ault mentions. “Sure, 78 degrees is certainly a marker for when we see fish piling in the Keys and feeding more heavily in the spring, but it’s not that simple,” he says. “Fishing is never simple. Since we have the Gulf Stream close by and the infrastructure of Biscayne Bay with food in it, [Miami] is the prime location for winter tarpon.”
Kleppinger says, based on his years of experience, that once air and water temperatures stabilize in February and early March, the Miami fish head for the Keys; the fish in the Everglades and off the Gulf Coast also start heading to that area. “When the fish move down to the Keys in the spring, their whole demeanor changes,” Kleppinger says. “That’s when we have different factors in play. When the wind blows over 25 knots in the Keys, or the pressure changes, the fish leave. And they’ll push out into the Gulf, or they’ll push out to the edge of a reef. When the fish are staging for spawning, or when a weather system moves in or the wind blows too hard, the fish will push away. It’s not temperature-related at that point; it’s shark-related. When the water gets too murked up, they can’t see danger coming, and they don’t like it, so they’ll leave and go out and sit off the edge of the reef in clean water.”
But when conditions are right, Kleppinger describes it as magic. “On a good spring-run year in the Keys, I will run many trips a day during a week,” he says. “I rarely step out of my boat. I live on energy drinks and drive-through food and have bait delivered boatside. A really good full day is jumping at least a couple-dozen fish and having a half-dozen or more alongside for release. It’s a great time of year for my clients to have one of those fishing days of a lifetime.”
I asked Kleppinger about the palolo worm hatches that occur each spring around the Keys, having heard stories of tarpon feeding on shoals of the critters in the silvery light of a full moon. “You look down, and there are millions of tarpon, worms going crazy, and if you’re lucky, you’re the only guy fishing in that spot when it kicks off,” he says. “You can use standard worm flies when this happens, but I like to drop live crabs down, too.”
The skipper says he prefers to show some restraint during the palolo hatches. “When you see a worm hatch, you’re like, oh, I want to catch tarpon, I want to catch tarpon, I want to catch tarpon. But as you start becoming a better wormer, you don’t want to catch tarpon anymore — you just want to have fun. That’s when we see how many we can jump, more than catch and release, because the worm thing is short-lived, and it can take 40 minutes to an hour to hook and land one tarpon. Most of my clients would rather enjoy the bite and ensuing acrobatics several times, rather than get beat up by a lone 150-pounder for an hour.”
Another guide from Miami who tunes in to the Keys during the spring run is Capt. Honson Lau, who at 37 has already built a solid reputation for putting clients on fish. “Any good guide will tell you that every spring run is different,” Lau says. “The warmer winters make for a shorter season. The cooler winters, which are what I prefer, make for a longer spring run. If the fish don’t start moving by the middle of April, then it goes on longer, all the way until you’ll have ocean fish migrating in July and even into August.”
Lau, like Kleppinger, loves a good spring-run worm hatch. “The first worm fly I tied was made from a piece of leather shoestring I cut from a pair of Sperry Topsiders,” Lau says. “The worm hatch in the Keys — that’s usually the second week of the full moon in May, in later May, early June, that’s typically when that happens. There are other factors that affect that, but that’s when it happens. And it can produce insanely good fishing.”
Lau points out that worm hatches, as exciting as they are, aren’t really his favorite part of the run. “Some people treat that as the end-all, be-all of the spring run, but they are very specific, short-lived hatches that only happen in certain areas, mainly over a coral bottom,” he says. “Of course, the tarpon go silly when the worms are in the water, but I still like hunting them more than anything. My best days almost never happen during a worm hatch. I’m talking spring-run periods where we stalk and hook as many as 17, 150-plus-pound fish, and not on worms.”
Asked what he loves about tarpon and the spring rush, Lau says it’s personality. “I think tarpon have personalities,” he says. “It’s much like turkey hunting. You can set up, talk to the fish through your fly rod and fly, and you can convince the fish to eat your fly. You can watch a tarpon, and they’ll show humanlike characteristics. I’ve seen laid-up tarpon stretch out and yawn just like we do.”
Lau also says that among the big three — tarpon, bonefish and permit — that spring-run tarpon can be the most forgiving. “You typically have many shots at those fish,” he says. “Tarpon are more forgiving than permit or bones if you don’t make that perfect shot. And even if you do make the perfect shot, sometimes things don’t come together. But because in spring we get multiple shots at different fish, we will find one that has the right attitude and will eat a fly.”
Lau says a big part of the spring tarpon fun in Florida is the camaraderie and relationships he has built with clients who return each spring. “The great thing about tarpon fishing is that you develop these relationships with these clients that come back year after year,” he says. “You develop with the clients. You watch them improve, and then you improve with them. Some of my clients bring me cool cigars, and we’ll smoke on the boat and have a good old time. It’s a relationship-builder. That’s probably one of the best things about being a guide during tarpon season: the camaraderie that you build with your clients.”
Ault says that by early to late June his tagging shows fish moving on and setting up in their summer spots, feeding and following their food sources. As cooler temperatures move in around September, tarpon are on the move again, eventually staging up in late winter for another spring run.
“Don’t miss the spring run,” Lau says. “You could very well have one of the best tarpon fishing days of your life down here.”