Texas Tarpon Tactics
Historically, the Texas tarpon fishery rivaled that of Florida. However, through the 1980s and 90s, the fishery declined to the point of being virtually non-existent. Luckily, over the past decade tarpon have returned in record numbers. While no one is certain why they disappeared or reappeared, anglers up and down the Texas coastal curve are once again enjoying seasonal runs of Silver Kings. As Texas fishermen have gained more experience pursuing these majestic game fish, they have also developed ways of chasing tarpon that are distinctly ‘Texan.’
Unlike Florida, where the vast majority of tarpon are pursued on shallow flats, Texas tarpon are typically taken in deeper water. This is not to say that these fish aren't sight-casting targets - tarpon are often found rolling on the surface even in deep water. And, in recent years, an increasing number of tarpon have found their way into Texas bays from Port O'Connor to South Padre. But, the safest bet for Texas tarpon remains fishing outside the bay.
Off the Beachfront
From Galveston south to the Mexican border, tarpon can be found roaming the nearshore waters off the beachfront. The biggest difference between different points along the coast is how far from dry land these fish are found. Off Galveston, anglers will routinely run from 5 to 15 miles out, while down at the southern tip of Texas, fishermen rarely wander more than a mile or two offshore. In either instance, these fish can be located one of two ways - spotting them rolling on the surface or marking them suspended at depth with electronics. Seasoned tarpon fishermen will often zig-zag over likely locales with an eye on their depth finder, waiting to come across a school holding at depth.
In many areas of the coast, jetties are the great equalizers - they offer equal access to tarpon for boating and non-boating anglers alike. The South Padre and Port Mansfield jetties are prime examples of areas where anglers can drive up and walk right to prime tarpon waters. The four major jetties that traditionally attract tarpon in good numbers are the Port O'Connor, Port Aransas, Port Mansfield and South Padre Island rock groins. Except for the POC jetties, each of these rocky outcrops can be accessed without a boat.
When fishing jetty structures for tarpon, anglers need to discern where the fish are feeding. Quite often, they will be rolling and feeding right up against the rocks. At other times, they may be holding off the rocks along a current rip. Typically, fish will follow a set pattern throughout a tidal cycle, so determining the pattern is essential to a successful outing.
Gulf passes are ideal hotspots for Texas tarpon. In some areas, the passes are lined with jetties, so there is a bit of an overlap. The Brazos Santiago Pass, which seperates South Padre Island from Boca Chica Beach is a good example of a jetty lined pass that attracts hordes of tarpon. Up the coast, Pass Cavallo outside of Port O'Connor is an example of a natural pass that produces plenty of tarpon throughout the summer.
Whether lined with jetties or left in a natural state, Gulf passes are areas of concentrated water flow and exchange between bays and the open Gulf. This daily water exchange creates a perfect environment for tarpon to feed. In as much, pass fishing for tarpon is typically most productive during periods of tidal flow - whether that flow occurs during early morning, midday or late at night. Anglers looking to jump tarpon in Texas Gulf passes should plan their trips accordingly.
Although random tarpon can show up in surf waters anywhere along the Gulf Coast, in Texas, there's a fairly short stretch of sand that can be considered a legitimate surf wading tarpon fishery. Basically, the area can be defined as reaching from the mouth of the Rio Grande River northward to a few miles above the Port Mansfield Cut. This encompasses the surf waters off Boca Chica Beach, South Padre Island and the southern portion of the Padre Island National Seashore. Although this area comprises less than a third of the Texas coast, it offers anglers an excellent opportunity to tangle with tarpon within few feet of dry sand. August through September is the best time to find surf run tarpon in Texas.
LURES, BAITS & FLIES
The Texas tarpon fishery differs from Florida not just in the areas tarpon are found, but also the lures, baits and flies used to tempt them. Sure, there is some overlap, but many of the lures and flies that produce results in Florida don't work near as well in Texas - and vice-versa.
Conventional Tackle - Lures
Most tarpon jumped or caught off the Texas coast are fooled by conventional tackle anglers throwing hardware. Luckily for these fishermen, there is a wide variety of lures that will tempt tarpon. Here are a few that lend themselves well to the conditions in which Texas tarpon are generally found.
MirrOlure 65M/77M - These 'big game' model MirrOlures are popular among Texas tarpon fishermen for two reasons. First off, most Texas saltwater fishermen are comfortable fishing them because of years of experience throwing 52M models for specks. The 65M and 77M versions are essentially the same, they're just beefed up for heavyweight encounters. Secondly, they flat catch fish.
RattleTraps - Texans have an affinity for lipless crankbaits. Texas tarpon fishermen are no different. More than a few tarpon have been jumped by anglers casting or jigging 1 oz RattleTraps to deep water tarpon. The only downside to these hefty lures is they are easily thrown by leaping tarpon. If you're interested in simply hooking and jumping multiple tarpon, these lures are a good bet. If you really want to land your fish, consider replacing the two treble hooks with a single J or circle hook.
A soft-plastic single hook mullet imitation, the DOA Baitbuster draws plenty of strikes and has a tendency to stay in place once it finds purchase in the fish's jaw. The Baitbuster is a good choice for anglers casting at rolling fish or working an area where fish are known to be. It can be worked at every level of the water column, from just under the surface to right on the bottom.
Conventional Tackle - Bait
The list of what tarpon won't eat is much shorter than what they will. A variety of natural baits, both live and dead, will draw strikes from tarpon. These natural baits can be fished under balloons, on bottom rigs or freelined. Traditional baitfish such as mullet and pilchards are good choices, as are crustaceans such as jumbo shrimp and blue crab. However, some of the very best natural baits for tarpon are a little less conventional. Live hardhead catfish and ladyfish (skipjack) are as good as it gets. One tip - if using catfish, clip the dorsal and pectoral fins before deploying them as tarpon bait.
Although most tarpon hooked up along the Texas coast are being targeted with conventional tackle, there is a surprising number of fly rodders also chasing tarpon in the Lone Star State. Quite often, the fly rod gang is as successful or even more so than their baitcasting brethren. However, fly selection offers perhaps the sharpest contrast between the Texas and Florida tarpon fisheries. If you're hoping to tempt Texas tarpon on a fly, you can pretty much forget about 'Keys-style' tarpon flies. Rather, you'd be much better off using an intermediate sinking line and one of these proven patterns.
Tarpon Bunnies - Purple, black, red - basically any dark colored bunny strip, preferably weighted, will result in plenty of tarpon takes. Best sizes are 1/0 and 2/0.
Clouser Minnows - Sure, Clousers are almost cliche because they're named as a top fly for virtually everything that swims. But, tying on a 2/0 lead-eye Clouser is perhaps the best way to get steady hookups when fish are feeding more than 4 feet deep.
Haines' Pilchard - As the name suggests, this is a baitfish imitation created by South Texas tarpon guru Larry Haines. Awesome late summer pattern for when fish are feeding at or near the surface.
These are just a few suggestions and general guidelines to help anglers get more action when pursuing tarpon. But, don't forget to experiment - after all, the book on Texas tarpon is still being written