Like many saltwater sport fish, the Atlantic tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) is not commercially valuable, which means it has not been much studied and little is known about its life cycle, migrations, and habits. But when they appear in inshore waters, especially from Florida to Texas, tarpon attract anglers who want to test their mettle—and their tackle—against a species notorious for fickle eating habits, ferocious “eats,” blistering runs, and gill-shaking jumps. When a “’poon” takes to the air, the angler must bow to the fish, often a fitting symbol of who is in charge of the situation.
Range and Life History
In the Western Hemisphere, the Atlantic tarpon is found from Virginia to Brazil, with the greatest concentrations in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. However, fish often travel in the Gulf Stream to more northern waters, and sightings off Cape Cod are not uncommon. There is evidence that some Atlantic tarpon migrate through the Panama Canal to inhabit waters of western Central America. The range of their cousin, the Indo-Pacific tarpon, Megalops cyprinoides, encompasses the coastal waters of southern Asia and Australia. To the east, tarpon swim off the coast of Africa from Senegal to southern Angola, and the IGFA all-tackle record—a 286-pound, 9-ounce monster—was caught off the tiny nation of Guinea-Bissau in 2003. Unfortunately, political unrest has kept most anglers from the region for the past decade.
Our knowledge of the tarpon’s life history—its average life span is 55 years—is somewhat sketchy, but it is believed to begin far offshore, where females lay up to 12 million eggs. Larval tarpon are transparent, ribbon-like creatures. These vulnerable creatures migrate or drift to brackish or fresh waters, where they develop into juveniles. They appear to use the most backwater habitats for the first year, then move to a wider array of habitats for years two and three, further increasing their range of habitat use as they age. As adults, they may migrate long distances, sometimes in schools throughout the rest of their lives. Adult tarpon will return to fresh water, swimming up rivers, in search of baitfish. Other tarpon seem to enjoy the solo life or remain in one area.
Tarpon are known to “roll” or “gulp” air, and their unique swim bladder serves as a pseudo-respiratory organ. It is lined with capillaries that can remove oxygen from the air. Juvenile tarpon are “obligate” air breathers, which means that they must have access to the surface in order to survive, and the frequency with which they surface depends on the dissolved oxygen in the water the inhabit.
The tarpon is an ancient species, having changed little over the past 125 million years. It was first described by science in 1847, and its Latin name “Megalops” means “large eyed.” The earliest mention of fly-caught tarpon appears in a 10-pounder taken by James Henshall in the 1880s. Even as late as 1928, the record was still under 20 pounds. According to sporting writer Vic Dunaway, the first tarpon over 100 pounds on a fly was a 115-pound fish caught by Cliff Fitzgerald Jr., in the early 1950s, but the record was disallowed because his tippet was deemed “too heavy.” Most folks consider the first to top the century mark to be the 101-pound fish caught by Charlie Clowe in 1955. The current fly-caught record is a 202.5-pound fish taken in Homosassa, Florida, by James Holland.
Although tarpon are a catch-and-release fishery in many locations, scientists at the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust argue that the species still faces many challenges from habitat loss, recreational harvest, and commercial or subsistence harvest in other countries. Because the fish are so long-lived, damage to a population can have effects for decades. Port Aransas, Texas, once known as the “Tarpon Capital of the World,” is an example of how ill treatment of a tarpon population can lead to collapse. Starting in the 1960s, the fishery declined rapidly, and despite decades of conservation it has not recovered. Nowadays, a single tarpon caught in the area warrants special mention, and years of no-harvest regulations have not brought the fish back. Scientists believe that we need more studies of tarpon migrations and critical habitats in order to develop conservation models that will avoid such collapses in the future.
Tarpon are aggressive feeders, but despite their size, they will often eat surprisingly small prey, including shrimps, crabs, and worms. However, their main diet consists of fish, such as mullets, pinfish, and sardines. Tarpon swallow their prey whole and have extremely bony mouths, so setting the hook can be a challenge. Lefty Kreh’s Cockroach is a good example of a pattern than can mimic both a baitfish and a crustacean, and it has proven itself over the years. Other popular flies include the Tarpon Toad, Gurglers, and the Borski Worm. Many guides in the Florida Keys have found that they need to go to smaller patterns as the fish have become more pressured, but larger flies still work in other places, such as Belize.
Note: A few pieces of information here were graciously provided by Dr. Aaron Adams, of Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, but any errors are mine alone.