Tarpon are found in shallow coastal waters throughout the Atlantic Ocean; from Angola to Senegal in the east; from Brazil to North Carolina, sometimes appearing as far north along the American coast as Nova Scotia and Canada. They also happen to be no strangers to the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Gulf waters from Tampa’s Homosassa Springs are reputed to host the largest Tarpon anywhere. Along the western Gulf Coast Louisiana and Texas, especially near South Padre Island, are known for many trophy-sized catches. The Florida Keys are home to year-round populations of large Tarpon who spend their days cruising back and forth near bridges from bay-side to ocean-side. Tarpon are among the most sought after gamefish for tournaments, Boca Grande, Florida host several of these large events.
Large, thick bodies with dark green tops graying to bright silver along the sides and belly make Tarpon extremely attractive fish. The Tarpon’s scales are proportionally thick and large, making it look very shiny, as if wearing a coat of armor. An oversized scoop-shaped, toothless mouth seems to open and close laterally, able to suck in food that may otherwise appear too large. With life spans averaging 55 years, Tarpon are able to grow extremely large, reaching over eight feet length and weighing over 300 pounds. Most Tarpon landed average between 25-80 pounds. The world all tackle record is 283 pounds, 4 ounces, caught off Sherbro Island, Sierra Leone.
Tarpon migrate with warmer salt-water currents, spawning offshore between May and September, and returning to grow and thrive in bays, estuaries, shallows, mangrove-lined lagoons, and flats along the coast. Extremely sensitive to cold weather, Tarpon may show up during warm periods in winter months, but will not regularly appear until water temperature reaches 75 degrees or better. Juveniles feed on zooplankton, insects, and small fish. After maturity they feed more exclusively on shrimp, crabs, and other fish such as mullets, pinfish, marine catfish, sardines, and Atlantic needlefish. An elongated bony plate along the upturned lower jaw allows them to crush crustaceans and other food not consumed whole.
Tarpon are hard fighters, judged to be one of the world’s most exciting game fish. They are respected by anglers for their great stamina and impressive, high, frequent jumps reaching almost 10 feet out of the water. Once hooked Tarpon of any size can fight for many hours, putting on exciting aerial displays and powerful runs. Since Tarpon are able to take air from the atmosphere, these maneuvers may actually fuel their fight. Also fun for the kids, Tarpon feedings are featured at many tourist stops throughout the Keys and along the Gulf Coast.