Boca Grande may have more tarpon per square foot than lower Tampa Bay in spring and early summer, but there's no where that the average angler has a better chance of connecting than right here at the foot of the Sunshine Skyway.
It doesn't take special boat or unique knowledge of the bottom to hook up with a silver king that might weigh well over 100 pounds and stretch more than six feet long.
Tarpon expert Larry Mastry of Mastry's Bait & Tackle in St. Pete long ago figured out the formula, and has shared it with hundreds of anglers over the years.
"Outgoing tide at sundown with live threadfins, on the up-current side of the pilings," says Mastry. "You don't need to know much more than that to get a hookup, but getting the fish away from the bridge is another matter."
Of course, if you go out there with your flats tackle, you're going to get your butt handed to you in a heartbeat, but Mastry's, at 1700 Fourth Street South in downtown St. Petersburg, specializes in supplying just the right stuff to take on Skyway tarpon.
Basically, you'll want an 8-foot conventional rod and a 4/0 reel loaded with 60-pound-test or heavier—80-pound braid is becoming a favorite with those who fish heavy spinning tackle, while revolving spool fans stick with mono.
Hooks are similarly stout, with 7/0 extra strong models popular with many anglers. Leaders are typically 100-pound-test to slow abrasion of the sandpaper jaws of the fish during a long fight.
The best bait is the same baitfish that the tarpon are there to eat, threadfins and scaled sardines. The bait can be caught at markers near the Skyway with Sabiki rigs or with heavily-weighted castnets. The silvery baits are typically 4 to 6 inches long.
Boats anchor several hundred feet uptide from the bridge supports and ease back once the anchor sets firmly. It takes a jumbo anchor, lots of chain and lots of scope on the anchor line to hold a boat in place on a roaring outgoing tide of the sort that occurs around the new and full moons each month.
Baitfish are nose-hooked and slid back with the current until they're just a few feet from the pilings. This is where the tarpon come to feed, and it's usually not long before one spots the easy meal and latches on.
Of course, the first thing a hooked fish does is head down-current, through the pilings, necessitating a mad scramble in the boat to get an anchor line float over the side, start the motor and follow the disappearing fish before it cuts the line on the concrete.
Once the fish is down-tide of the bridge and has put on a few head-shaking jumps to burn off excess steam, the fight begins in earnest. Some fish give up in 20 minutes, some fight for hours. The quicker fight is better for fish and fisherman, because tarpon fought too long are likely prey for the big bull and hammerhead sharks that roam the bridge during tarpon season.
Another tactic that's highly effective is to drift the tide rip that forms in the lower bay, again on evening outgoing tides; a line of seaweed and discolored water usually contains lots of baitfish and lots of small crabs, and tarpon prowl the weedline, sucking in the free groceries.
Successful anglers "fly-line" live crabs about 2 to 3 inches across near the weeds as the boat drifts with the tide. It's a similar tactic to that used at Boca Grande on what is called a "hill tide" there, and works equally well.
Tampa Bay tarpon anglers used to have the secret all to themselves, but in the last few years the lower bay in May and June has begun to look like Boca Grande north as the concentration of fish attracts concentrations of anglers.
If you don't like the crowds, you can ease out along the beaches on both sides of Egmont Channel and Southwest Pass and often find fish there, particularly from dawn until about 9 a.m., and these fish are often caught by casting live sardines or threads in front of them. They also occasionally take artificial lures like the DOA Baitbuster and BFL mullet. Some experts also catch them on fly tackle, but that's not a game for beginners.
The fun continues in this area until the full moon in July when the fish are believed to head offshore to spawn. They return at the end of the month and migrate up the bay into black water to feed on shad the rest of the summer and into early October, when they disappear for points south until tarpon time rolls around again the next spring.