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They don't call the tarpon the "Silver King" for nothing – as there's no greater thrill than hooking up and fighting with one of these big game fish on the back of a fishing kayak to finally bring it in. The Gulf Coast of Mississippi might not seem like a destination to catch the Silver King, but there’re a ton of them there, and catching tarpon while kayak fishing is as much about finding them as it is anything else.
I'll give you some insights into where they hide out, how to find them, what to use to catch them, and why Mississippi is such a great place to go after them. The fishing kayak you'll want to use is going to be either a Vibe Yellowfin 120 (fast and agile), or Cubera 120 (go anywhere on this hybrid SUP), or Sea Ghost 130 (the stable 'Swiss Army knife of big water kayaks') – or, if you are a true pro angler going after every game fish between fresh, inshore and off, then the pedal-power-paddle Shearwater 125 (sight fishing masterclass) is the must-have.
Mississippi's History With The Silver King
Mississippi has a long history with tarpon dating back to the early 1900’s. Back then, it wasn’t uncommon to catch fifty and sixty pound tarpon from the nearshore piers. Old newspapers have plenty of pictures of anglers standing next to respectable-sized tarpon.
Sometime around the 1930’s, they started disappearing. Coincidentally, the tarpon’s disappearance coincides with the highest oyster harvest in history from nearby Mobile Bay, MS. Now there’s no conclusive proof that the oyster depletion had anything to do with the silver king disappearing, but it’s hard to deny that the water quality fell as the filter-feeding oysters were being over harvested.
In more recent years, great lengths have been taken to restore Mobile Bay and its oysters. The water quality has vastly improved within the last 20 years, and as with any good comeback story, the tarpon started showing back up.
Tarpon Habitats & What They'll Bite On
To help learn more about tarpon, where they live, and what they eat, I spoke with Patrick Graham, research associate, and Jim Franks, senior research scientist, at University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Fisheries Research and Development at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, whose work is funded by grants provided by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources Tidelands Trust Fund Program. The following is a quote from them:
"In terms of tarpon habitats in Mississippi, they frequent places that include shallow channels, canals, and creeks, as well as salt marsh pools, typically at the northernmost reaches of salt marshes. A limited number of older juveniles (2 years of age or older, 2-3 ft in length) have been documented in deeper habitats such as Back Bay of Biloxi and Fort Bayou during winter and spring months.
As for what they eat and target, we've observed invertebrates (penaeid shrimp, grass shrimp, young blue crabs) and fishes (killifish, bull minnows, mosquito fish)."
How To Catch Tarpon – Spot Them, Then Throw The Right Bait
Now as far as catching tarpon... there’s a lot of work to be put in, and the first and hardest part is finding them.
Tarpon have a crude lung and can breathe air by “rolling” on the surface of the water. Observing for tarpon rolls can be an excellent way to pinpoint their location.
For lures, a “mule rig” (double fluke rig variation) is an excellent option for enticing juveniles. The rig consists of a small crappie jig tied about a foot below a small treble hook.
A Zoom Tiny Fluke can be a great option to add on this rig; just nose hook the plastic that goes on the treble.
Another option to match deeper bodied baitfish is the Lunker City “Fin S Shad” in 3.25”.
The Retrieve To Bag A Tarpon
The retrieve can be varied, but a twitch-twitch-pause dances the two flukes in a very natural, enticing way. Tarpon usually hit hard enough to set the hook themselves, but they have a very low percentage catch rate after being hooked. This is due to their very hard, bony mouths – so hooks need to be razor sharp to have a chance.
Since the typical MS tarpon is small, (2-8lbs), a light spinning rod makes for an excellent sporting fight, as long as the reel paired with it has a high quality drag. Another option is fly tackle in the 6-8 weight range. Simple fly patterns such as, wooly buggers, clousers, and deceivers are sure to get a look.
Hopefully the Mississippi Gulf Coast will continue to see improvements from its tarpon fishery. With organizations like GCRL, we can learn more about the fish, its habitat, diet, and instinctive behaviors in the Magnolia State. Maybe one day the 60-70 pound fish of yesteryear will be caught from the nearshore piers again.
Tight lines and make sure to add a "Silver King" to your kayak fishing bucket list.