The area, located between Sarasota and Fort Myers on the Gulf Coast, is a Mecca for tennis, golf and boating enthusiasts. However, fishing is the real attraction. With vast Charlotte Harbor, the Myakka River, Peace River and the Gulf of Mexico, there are literally hundreds of miles of water from which to choose.
Many folks head for the Gulf in order to test their skills on grouper, snapper, kingfish and whatever else might take their offerings.
Some stick with Charlotte Harbor to do battle with snook, redfish and spotted seatrout. And others may take to the rivers for a variety of fresh, and saltwater fish.
Without a doubt, the crown jewel of the area is Boca Grande Pass, world famous for its tarpon. The silver kings show up in the pass each spring by the thousands and put on a spectacular show.
However, Charlotte County has some tarpon fishing that's not nearly as famous and it's literally unknown to most. While most anglers take to Boca Grande Pass, Charlotte Harbor or the Gulf of Mexico to fish for tarpon, there are a select few that never leave home. They'll head for the canal systems of Port Charlotte, Punta Gorda Isles or Pirate Harbor in order to match wits with the silver fish.
These tarpon are plentiful, cunning and spectacular. They show up in the canals in spring and remain through fall. The peak of the season takes place in late summer and into October.
For the most part, canal tarpon are diminutive aerialists, ranging in size from 5 to 15 pounds. Mixed in with this wide array of juvenile jumpers are some monsters that will go well more than 100 pounds.
My first experience with these fish took place several years ago with Port Charlotte guide Les Hill, who is generally thought of as the area's foremost authority on canal tarpon. We fished a series of canals in Port Charlotte with good results.
Using medium-weight spinning tackle and live finger mullet, Hill and I jumped a number of fish on that outing and caught and released several. The fish were typical -up to 17 pounds or so.
My best outing took place in the early 1990s when I was fishing with Sarasota guide Rick Grassett. We'd fished a number of Punta Gorda Isles canals without much success, and decided to try another area.
That decision turned out to be the best of the day. We crossed the Peace River and headed for a Port Charlotte canal that featured a large basin. When we entered that basin, we could see several tarpon rolling on the surface.
Tarpon have primitive air bladders and will roll on the surface in order to gulp air. When they do, they give themselves away. So, it's important to be observant anytime you're in tarpon country.
On that outing, Grassett, Sarasotan Mike Lang and I hooked and landed several tarpon. The first came on nothing more than an exploratory cast with a 1/8-ounce Cotee Jig. I'd cast the lure out and had nearly completed the retrieve. As I was reeling in to cast again, I looked down and saw the 25-pound tarpon making a beeline toward the jig. I stopped reeling, dropped the jig, and watched in amazement as the tarpon opened its cavernous mouth and inhaled the offering.
Top artificial lures include jigs
, DOA Shrimp
, DOA TerrorEyz and a variety of MirrOlures
We also caught a couple of fish that day on fly rod. We were using 8-weight rods and sinktip lines. Top flies no doubt are rabbit strip creations (zonker strip tail and palmered crosscut rabbit collar) with lead eyes.
Black-and-chartreuse and blue-and-white were the top color combinations. As far as spinning tackle goes, 10-pound outfits are perfect for canal tarpon. Seven-foot rods and matching reels make a good combo. I like to tie a short length of 30-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon to the end of my line via a double Uni-Knot to use as a shock leader.
When live bait fishing, I prefer a No. 1 Eagle Claw Baitholder. The circle hooks (2/0 to 4/0) are great, but you have to remember not the set the hook when using them. Simply reel down on the fish when it takes the bait and the hook set is virtually automatic.
As far as live bait goes, finger mullet are the prime ticket. However, live shrimp, small crabs, pilchards and threadfin herring also will work.
Both the nearby Myakka River and Peace River have sizable tarpon populations. Fish in the rivers can range from 10-pound babies to 150-pound monsters. So, it's wise to carry a variety of tackle in order to accommodate the size of fish you encounter.
Port Charlotte guide Robert Moore is a master of river tarpon. His favorite method is to net a bunch of pilchards or threadfin herring, then chum around the U.S. 41 bridges that span the river.
"What I like to do is to use my trolling motor the maneuver around the bridge and look for rolling fish," he said. "When I spot fish, then I get in position, anchor and start chumming by tossing out handfuls of live bait. "It usually doesn't take long for the action to begin."
When the fish start popping the chummed pilchards, it's time to cast a little hooked chum into the fray.
Most of the time, you'll encounter small tarpon, but on a trip a couple of years ago, Moore and I jumped 12 monsters of 100 pounds or more. The fish were herding baitfish -- threadfins, pilchards and ladyfish at the mouth of the Myakka River. Moore used his trolling motor to get us close to the action, then we'd lob out ladyfish or other baits we had on large spinning rigs equipped with 30-pound test mono and 100-pound leader.
Even though word is getting out about this wonderful fishery, the water's rarely crowded. Most anglers jump into their vessels and head for such destinations as Boca Grande Pass or the Gulf of Mexico.
I just wave as they roar past, and anticipate another day of fine tarpon fishing.
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