Nearly all saltwater anglers consider landing a tarpon as the angling world's premier lifetime achievement. Celebrated for its spectacular fighting ability, the "silver king" is so challenging to land that only about one of every eight hookups ever results in the angler putting their hands on the prize. The tarpon's dramatic struggles at the end of a line, includes arguably the most impressive aerial display of any sportfish species. Combined with an ability of making stunningly swift runs, often anglers recant watching the line being played out on one side of the boat while the tarpon jumps on the other. Capable of weighing in over 300 lbs, in Texas most that are hooked or landed weight less than 100 lbs. The current state record being caught by Jeremy Ebert on October 4, 2006 weighing in at 210.7 lbs and measuring over 7 1/2 feet in length. In Texas, most tarpon are found in nearshore Gulf waters, making surf anglers and boaters fishing near Gulf passes the most likely to encounter this exciting gamefish.
Despite being a popular gamefish, relatively little is known about the tarpon's life history. Found on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and throughout the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, they are thought to spawn in offshore waters. Tarpon are an ancient species, undergoing an elongate, transparent larval stage called a "leptocephalus", a larval type characteristic to eels and bonefish, indicating a close kinship to these otherwise dissimilar species. In the leptocephalus stage, they possess a long transparent ribbon-like body, undersized head and fins, and grow large fang-like teeth. It lacks gills and red blood cells and its gut is closed, absorbing oxygen and nutrients through the skin. After approximately 20 to 30 days the leptocephalus actually shrinks in size and begins a transformation into the adult form.
Growth is rapid through their early years, reaching about nine inches by the end of their first year. As juveniles, they show an affinity for fresh and low salinity waters such as rivers, sloughs, drainage ditches and estuaries. Likely these areas offer abundant sources of food and habitat safe from predators. By the time they reach four feet in length and ten years of age, they become adults. As adults they are top predators in their world and are susceptible to predation only by the occasional large shark. While the majority of adult tarpon in Texas are caught in nearshore Gulf waters, they have been known to surprise the occasional bay angler.
Until the 1960's, tarpon were a major draw for Texas anglers. In fact Port Aransas was once called "Tarpon" for the abundant tarpon caught there each year. However, overfishing and loss of habitat have contributed to a significant reduction in population levels over what once was. While current populations are not what they once were, a major effort to conserve the species has led to more opportunities for Texas anglers. Each year, typically in the late summer and early fall, anglers target tarpon with some degree of success.
Most tarpon are often hooked incidentally while fishing for other species, however the tarpon's habit of supplementing oxygen intake by gulping air (often referred to as "rolling") can alert anglers to their presence. Tarpon are opportunistic carnivores, feeding on a variety of prey. Anglers typically use dead or live fish for bait, such as menhaden or mullet, but live crab, live shrimp and artificial baits (including flies) that resemble baitfish or shrimp can tempt a hungry tarpon as well. Hard bony plates in the mouth make tarpon difficult to hook, but circle hooks have been found to provide the best hookup ratios. Due to the presence of sharp gill plates, anglers typically use long 80# test or heavier leaders as insurance against cut offs. Nevertheless, hooking a tarpon and bringing it to the hand is easier said than done, with most hookups resulting in the tarpon winning the battle.
The Tarpon Observation Network hopes to use volunteer based sightings of tarpon to augment what is known about tarpon in Texas waters. Over time, these observations may be able to shed some light on juvenile use of estuaries, movement of adults along the beach shoreline, or use of particular habitats, such as jetties, artificial reefs or petroleum platforms. Sport anglers - either shore based or boaters - can all contribute to the program, as well as divers and the nature lover. Each observation is important and can be useful in understanding this interesting and elusive gamefish.
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