Tarpon, scientifically known as Megalops atlanticus, are large fish that are highly sought after by anglers for their size, strength and acrobatic behavior when hooked. They are found in warm coastal waters, primarily in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. Tarpon are known for their silver-colored scales and their large, upturned mouths.
- Atlantic Tarpon (M. atlanticus)
- Indo-Pacific Tarpon (M. cyprinoides)
They are the only members of the family Megalopidae.
Where are Tarpon found?
As above, Tarpon are found in warm coastal waters, primarily in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. They inhabit both saltwater and brackish environments, including estuaries, bays, lagoons, and coastal areas.
In the United States, Tarpon can be found along the Atlantic coast from Virginia to Florida and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Some popular Tarpon fishing destinations in the U.S. include the Florida Keys, Boca Grande Pass in Florida and various coastal areas of Texas.
Tarpon are also present in the Caribbean Sea, including locations such as the waters surrounding the Bahamas, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. They can be found in other parts of the Caribbean as well, including the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Dominican Republic, and Belize.
What do Tarpon look like?
Tarpon are large fish, with adults capable of reaching impressive sizes. They can grow up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) in length and weigh over 200 pounds (90 kilograms). However, it’s worth noting that most Tarpon encountered by anglers are typically smaller, ranging from 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 meters) in length.
They have a striking appearance due to their shiny, silver-colored scales and elongated, cylindrical bodies with a thick midsection that tapers towards the tail. They are also known for their distinctive, large mouth that opens upward, forming a characteristic “bucket” shape. Their lower jaw protrudes beyond the upper jaw and both jaws are equipped with numerous sharp teeth.
Tarpon have a prominent dorsal fin located along their back, which is usually elongated and stretches most of the length of their body. The anal fin, located on the ventral side of the fish, is similarly elongated. Their tail fin, or caudal fin, is deeply forked and provides the power for their rapid and powerful swimming.
Tarpon can live between 30 and 50 years, although some individuals have been known to live even longer under favorable conditions.
They are known as “epipelagic spawners,” meaning they release their eggs and sperm into the open water column, rather than depositing them in nests or guarding them. This occurs depending on the local temperature but generally around late spring or early summer.
What do Tarpon eat?
Tarpon are opportunistic predators that feed on a variety of prey, including:
- and occasionally small mammals.
They are known for their ability to gulp air at the surface, allowing them to breathe in oxygen-poor waters.
World Record Size
The current all-tackle world record for Tarpon was caught by Max Domecq in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa, on February 20, 2003. The fish measured 7 feet 2 inches (2.18 meters) in length with a girth of 5 feet 1 inch (1.55 meters).
It’s important to note that Tarpon can reach even larger sizes, and reports of larger specimens are not uncommon. However, setting an official world record requires following specific guidelines and documenting the catch according to the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) regulations.
Tarpon can be caught all year round as follows:
- Spring: Spring is a significant season for Tarpon fishing. As the water temperature rises, Tarpon begin their migration from warmer wintering grounds to their spawning grounds. They move along coastal areas and into estuaries, bays and rivers. During this time, Tarpon are actively feeding to replenish energy reserves for the upcoming breeding season. Anglers often target Tarpon in spring as they move into their preferred habitats.
- Summer: Summer is considered prime Tarpon season in many areas. Tarpon are typically present in larger numbers during this time and they continue to feed actively. They can be found in various habitats including nearshore areas, channels, flats and around structures such as bridges and docks. Anglers often target Tarpon in summer for their excellent fishing opportunities and the thrilling fights they offer.
- Fall: In the fall, Tarpon behavior can vary depending on the region. In some areas, Tarpon start their southward migration to warmer waters as the water temperature begins to cool. They may move back towards coastal areas and estuaries. Fall can still offer good Tarpon fishing opportunities, especially in areas where they are present year-round or where late-season migrations occur.
- Winter: During winter, Tarpon behavior can differ significantly based on location. In colder regions, Tarpon migrate to warmer waters or deeper offshore areas to escape the colder temperatures. They may become less active and feed less frequently. In warmer regions, such as southern Florida and parts of the Gulf of Mexico, Tarpon can remain in coastal areas and estuaries throughout the year, although their activity levels may decrease in response to cooler water temperatures.
It should be noted here that many jurisdictions implement seasonal restrictions and well as licensing and bag limit regulations -always check with local fishing authorities if you are fishing in a new area.
Best Gear for Catching Tarpon
Fishers use both spinning and baitcaster reels effectively and successfully. In general, to catch Tarpon, you will need
Spinning reel – 5000 – 8000 – lined with mono or braid
Baitcaster reel – 500 – 800 – lined with mono or braid
Rod and Reel combo – around 7 to 98ft and matching of reel size
Tarpon will take both bait and lures.
Can you eat Tarpon?
While Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) are known for their size, strength, and acrobatic fights, they are not commonly targeted for their culinary value. Tarpon are generally considered a catch-and-release species due to their importance in the sport fishing industry and their role in maintaining healthy ecosystems.
Reasons why Tarpon are not typically consumed include:
- Regulations: In many regions, there are regulations that prohibit the retention or harvest of Tarpon due to their conservation status or sport fishing value. It’s important to check local fishing regulations to ensure compliance with catch-and-release guidelines.
- Flesh Quality: Tarpon are not typically sought after for their meat because the quality of their flesh is often described as coarse, strong-tasting and not particularly palatable. The meat can be oily and contain high levels of bones, making it challenging to prepare as a culinary dish.
- Conservation Considerations: Tarpon play an essential ecological role in their habitats, and their populations have faced challenges in the past due to overfishing and habitat degradation. To protect and sustain their populations, catch-and-release practices are encouraged, allowing Tarpon to continue their natural life cycles and contribute to healthy ecosystems.