The time is right to take a shot at tarpon in South Florida

By Susan Cocking/McClatchy Newspapers

MIAMI — You could wait for the southerly spring migration along the southeast Florida coast to catch a tarpon. Or you could do it now.

Tarpon of all sizes are patrolling the beaches from Haulover Inlet south to Government Cut — mainly at night. Hollywood, Fla., light-tackle guide captain Gavet Tuttle has been successful at intercepting them all winter just south of Haulover while drifting live shrimp. Last week, when water temperatures hovered around 68 degrees — far from optimum — Tuttle still managed to score two hook-ups and one release for charter customer John O’Neill of Saratoga, N.Y., in a four-hour trip.

“They’re here for the shrimp runs from Biscayne Bay,” Tuttle said. “We start catching them at the beginning of December. The big fish oceanside are here til the beginning of July.”

According to Tuttle, the best time to fish the Haulover area is from December through now when, he believes, tarpon are pouring out of Dumfoundling Bay in north Miami-Dade to join fish heading for Government Cut.

“They stack in Dumfoundling Bay during the fall,” Tuttle said. “As the water temperature drops, they come out of the bay and this is their first stop.”

Tuttle and O’Neill began their evening trip aboard the guide’s 26-foot Andros in about 15 feet of water south of Haulover. They put out two conventional outfits loaded with 20-pound braid fastened to about six feet of 60-pound monofilament leader. Tied to the leaders were 5/0 circle hooks threaded with live shrimp. Tuttle fastened Styrofoam floats above the leader to keep the baits off the bottom.

“Just freeline them back 80 to 150 feet, depending on the wind,” Tuttle said. “You want the wind to push you along. The hardest part is figuring out how much line to let out. If the (bait) is skipping, you won’t get a bite. If it’s too close to the bottom, it gets hit by bottom critters. (Tarpon) will hit on any tide out here; that’s the beauty of it.”

The pair drifted along with the light northerly wind for perhaps an hour before one of the lines started squealing out. O’Neill showed he had previous experience with tarpon by bowing to the fish when it jumped and pulling it in the opposite direction of where it wanted to go when submerged. After a 15-minute fight, he was rewarded with a fish of about 35 pounds.

“My first tarpon over 10 pounds,” O’Neill said happily.

Tuttle rerigged the rods and began another drift. Again, the bite came after about an hour. But this fish was much bigger than the first. When it jumped, the rattle of its gills had a deeper, clankier sound. O’Neill shuffled to the bow as Tuttle spun the boat to chase the fish.

The next time it jumped, the men got a closer look; this tarpon appeared to be around 90 pounds. O’Neill’s tactics were flawless as he slowly gained line on the fish. But after about 20 minutes, the leader broke, and the fish was gone.

“Would have liked to have seen that boy,” O’Neill said.

Tuttle recommended a return engagement.

“It only gets better now through June,” Tuttle said. “May and June is when you get the biggest fish.”

To book a light-tackle fishing trip with captain Gavet Tuttle, call 954-448-1211.