Tarpon Fishing…A Month to Month View

One of the first things people ask me is “When is tarpon fishing season in the Florida Keys and Islamorada”. When most guides and fishermen in the Keys refer to ‘tarpon season’, they really are referring to when the migrating tarpon show up here in the Keys. During these months we are in ‘tarpon mode’ where most of our clients are coming to target them specifically, and many of us are focused on this type of fishing the majority of the time we’re out.

We catch tarpon in the Florida Keys year round, so really the ‘season’ (in regards to good times to catch them) can last much longer than most people think.  However there are times when it is more unlikely to have good tarpon fishing, which is mostly due to weather (tarpon don’t like the cold).  So what I will do is just go through a rundown of each month and what my general feelings are about how tarpon fishing is during that time. Though do remember every year is different – weather patterns are not always predictable, nor are bait migrations or tarpon migrations – so what is a good time one year may not be the next. Also remember conditions change day by day, sometimes hour by hour, so just because fishing wasn’t good one day (or morning) doesn’t mean it won’t be so later or tomorrow. If possible, fishing multiple days will always give you a better opportunity at catching the silver king. So what I am writing is just a general guideline which is all you can really go by for what is the Islamorada tarpon fishing season.

January – This is probably the worst month to come tarpon fishing in Islamorada.  We usually have our coldest weather of the year during January. Cold enough that it forces tarpon out of many of the usual haunts to go find warmer water elsewhere. I do not catch many tarpon at this time and would not book a tarpon fishing charter in advance during this month. We have plenty of other types of fishing that are good especially when it is colder, but if it is unseasonably warm and it looks like it’s worth trying, you may get lucky. So I would tell anyone in January to book a fishing charter to expect to catch other things, and leave it up to the Captain if he thinks it is worth trying.

February – February is usually when I do start to catch a few tarpon. Some years are better than others. I would still probably not tell somebody to specifically come for tarpon this time of year, though you could have a shot at catching one.  Chances of cold fronts are still pretty high which isn’t a good thing for tarpon, but if conditions are favorable there is a good chance some fish may be around.  Though usually water temperatures are still just warm enough that you may get a bite or two… usually I am not catching a ton of fish this time of year. They are usually larger fish – some of the first arrivals and often they haven’t been ‘messed with’ too much.  Most tarpon fishing this time of year is done on full day trips, where we catch other things like Spanish Mackerel, Ladyfish, and Cobia. We may then spend part of the day after large critters like tarpon and sharks. If it is very calm and warm though I may say things look very good, let’s go all in for tarpon. If it is cold and windy, I’ll probably say it isn’t even worth trying yet.

March – March usually is the start of when we really consider ‘tarpon season’ to be beginning in Islamorada. Chances of cold fronts still exist though, but usually they aren’t cold enough to totally shut the tarpon bite down. We usually have good numbers of migrating tarpon at this point and guides are starting to fish them daily. You can often find tarpon in the backcountry and locally in Islamorada now, so a full day or half day can work. There are often larger fish around at this time of year. The bite still isn’t usually red hot consistently, though you will definitely have your very good days of fishing. A good number of days you may only get a shot or two, usually due to wind or cold, but if you get lucky and have fairly calm weather those will be the big days with a good number of bites. Though where and when the bite is will change, so I always say go with what the Captain recommends as far as half day vs. full day. The tarpon also are usually not too ‘beat up’ yet either which can be a good thing. Mullet are plentiful and tarpon are keying in on them, so I will start fishing with them mainly. Most guides are starting to do a few evening trips; evening trips can be a good time to go to beat the crowds on the water. The guys who sell live bait are usually starting to do that sometime in this month, but your Captain may have to catch his own bait. March is our windiest month of the year though and it is very busy down here with spring breakers. It can be good fishing but on the exceedingly windy days sometimes that makes it tougher. But overall it’s not a bad time to come.

April – April is one of the prime months for tarpon fishing. We do a lot of live bait fishing locally around Islamorada. Some years the fishing in the backcountry is very good at this time as well. The tarpon migration is in full effect with plenty of large tarpon mixed in. The guys who sell bait are usually selling every day at this point and have bait consistently. Some of the best live bait bridge fishing is at this time.  The bite can be red hot many days during April. Most guides in town will be tarpon fishing every day during April, and it is one of the busiest months for the evening trips too. April can still sometimes be fairly windy, and occasionally you get a late cold front but it is unlikely. April the month I strongly recommend overall for tarpon fishing, and it is one of our busiest months of the year. Half days or full days will work, half days we fish the bridges and local channels, full days gives you the option of fishing the backcountry for tarpon; which sometimes may be better.

May – May is another fantastic month for tarpon fishing and probably our busiest month in the Florida Keys. Most guides, whether they are established or not, are fishing every day. You usually will have a hard time finding somebody short notice this time of year for day trips; though you may be able to find a charter for an evening trip; as those are generally not quite as busy as the day trips. Typically the cold fronts are done with which is nice. The winds can still blow somewhat, but you do get a lot more calm days versus earlier in the spring. I am usually still doing a lot of fishing around the bridges and start to fish the backcountry more on my full days, especially when the winds are light. In May we often get big number days especially when conditions are ripe (calm, light winds). So in May we get a lot of very good days with plenty of bites. You can still do half day trips but again full days are best because it gives you the option of fishing in the backcountry. Bait is still usually fairly easy and the bait guys are selling daily. Sometimes I start to leave a little earlier on some trips this time of year at 6 AM, especially if fishing has been a little tougher for whatever reason.

June – June is usually one of my best months for tarpon fishing as far as number of bites and landed fish. Summer has officially arrived and there are no more cold fronts. Winds have usually subsided and are often in the 10 mph or lower range. This usually means that conditions stay relatively the same day after day and are great conditions for tarpon fishing. Fish stay in much more predictable patterns when the weather is predictable. I primarily fish the everglades this time of year, so I usually recommend at least a 3/4 or full daytrips. The bait guys still sell some bait for when we do fish locally, which for me is usually just in the evenings; however the mullet are usually starting to thin out in the local areas, and the tarpon start to feed on crabs. Crabs are best when used near dusk and after dark and in June they can work even before sunset.  I primarily want to leave the dock early this time of year by 6 AM, and the bait catching in the everglades usually gets fairly consistent at this time and so does the fishing.

July – July can be just as good as June though the business is usually starting to slow down a bit. Personally, I still fish a fair amount in July, especially since the tarpon fishing can still be very good. July is one of my favorite months to fish for tarpon. Some will tell you it’s gotten too hot though that just isn’t true. If you make the far runs as I like to do into the everglades, the day time fishing can be red hot this time of year. Evening trips are still productive fishing crabs or even dead bait; usually the live mullet fishing isn’t quite as good as it is in the spring. Sometimes even going after dark is a good bet at this time especially to beat the heat. Pilchards, if you can find them, work wonders especially during the daylight hours around the local bridges and channels. I am usually dialed in on my full day backcountry fishing for tarpon at this time. Many of the migrating tarpon have moved on in July, so we don’t catch as many 100 pounders, but many in the 30 to 80 lb range. Usually the bait guys are done catching and selling live mullet by this time, but if you are someone like me that primarily tarpon fishes I am still catching them daily in the backcountry. 3/4 or full days are recommended and early 6 AM departures as well.

August – August can still be very productive for tarpon fishing in the everglades, though it usually isn’t quite as consistent as July. The weather is usually nice and calm which, for me, probably is the most important factor for good tarpon fishing.  Also there aren’t many other boats on the water to worry about so you get the place all to yourself.  Some years I’ve had very good fishing all through August, other years it comes and goes in spurts. But overall I still like August a lot, probably more so than the early spring due to the nice weather. The local fishing can still be OK especially in the evenings, but by this time many guides including myself are a little burned out so we aren’t doing too many evening trips any longer.  3/4 or full days are recommended and early 6 AM departures as well.  Much of the fishing I do this time of year is further back in the Everglades, so a full day is even better.

September –  September is always a slow month in the Keys; however the conditions can be very good for tarpon fishing. Barring any hurricanes the weather is fairly calm and warm. The other nice thing is you have the place all to yourself and you won’t often see another boat on the water. Even the resident fish this time of year can be more hit or miss. I’m usually not fishing very much at this time, so if we do go I don’t always have that ‘day to day’ knowledge that I have earlier in the season when I’m fishing 5 to 7 days a week. So if we tarpon fish sometimes we are just having to go fish areas and see what’s there, put some time in, and hope for the best. Sometimes we may get lucky and find hungry fish in the first place we stop, other times you may have to check multiple areas. Obviously having time helps, so I recommend a full day if you are serious about it.

October –  October can be very good for tarpon fishing as we usually get the ‘fall bait run’ going on. Many tarpon are starting to make their way back south as it’s cooling off further north. It’s not as consistent as the spring run, but some years we get lots of bait and tarpon going crazy crashing them in the everglades. Other years the bait just doesn’t push this far down and you don’t see all that crazy action. October is usually has fairly good conditions and things have cooled off just a hair from the dead heat of summer. Some years I’ve had some of the best tarpon fishing of the year in October. It’s busier then September, but still fairly slow. I like fishing this time of year and it’s usually a good shot at getting a tarpon, and sometimes some larger fish can be showing back up too before the winter. 3/4 or full days usually recommended, though if bait is around locally sometimes you can have good local bridge/channel fishing and do a half day. My routine is usually more in the everglades so I’ll usually recommend a longer trip to do that.

November – November is usually not a great month for tarpon fishing. We usually start to get some cold fronts and wind which tarpon do not like. If it is still warm and summer-like conditions, tarpon are possible. I’m not usually fishing for them a whole lot though, so similar to September if you want to go it may be a bit of looking around and just trying areas. I would usually not book a trip in advance really focused on tarpon at this time, but if you are OK with targeting other fish and perhaps trying tarpon for part of the day if conditions look good, that’d be a better idea.

December – December I usually do not do a whole lot of tarpon fishing.  Cold fronts are much more likely. Christmas week is always crazy busy, but before that isn’t so busy. Similar to November, if it is unseasonably warm tarpon are possible.  Though I’m likely not targeting them too much so not dialed in with the bite.  Probably best to book with the idea of catching other fish and again if it looks reasonable, perhaps try it for part of the day.  Like January, if it is unseasonably warm it may be good.

So there you have it that is my run down, month to month, of the best months for tarpon fishing in Islamorada. Obviously booking a trip ahead of time you just can’t predict many of the conditions such as wind, temperature, what’s happening with the bait and fish migrations, etc; though one thing you can also know ahead of time is moon phases. I don’t particularly like full moons for tarpon fishing, especially during the daylight hours. I think the fish sometimes gorge themselves at night and can be very finicky during the day. If you are planning your trip months in advance, this is the one condition that you have a little control over. Try to avoid it.

Written by Captain Rick Stanczyk, one of Islamorada’s premier fishing Guides with expetise in Tarpon Fishing. Captain Rick is located at the famous Bud N’ Mary’s Marina.

Rick can be reached at 305-747-6903 and by email at rick@islamoradatarpon.com Please visit his website at www.islamoradatarpon.com