Tarpon Fishing: Following the Migration Up the FL Coast


Down in Tampa Bay, when the summer heat cranks up and the tarpon migration hits full swing, that’s where you want to be if you’re after some serious silver king action. From June through August, these fish are all over the bay—near the bridges, along the shipping channels, and out in the open water. It’s the peak of the migration, and man, does it show. The tarpon are big, they’re hungry, and they’re ready to fight.

But the thing about tarpon is they don’t just hang around one spot. These fish are travelers—they’ve got a whole circuit they follow through the year, which means if you’re looking to hook into one, you gotta know where to be—and what time of the year to be there.

Whether you’re an old salt or a weekend warrior, chasing tarpon can be the thrill of a lifetime. Those big, silver beauties get every angler’s heart pumping. The way they flash in the sunlight when they jump, it’s like something out of a sports highlight reel.

Let’s break down how and where to find them during their annual migration, starting in the Florida Keys and moving on up along the western coast of Florida.

Following the Tarpon Up the Gulf Coast of Florida

Florida Keys (Early Part of the Year)

In the early parts of the year, the water’s cooler, and many of the larger tarpon haven’t arrived yet or are just starting their journey. But that doesn’t mean they’re not around. You might find some juveniles in the backcountry waters, places like the mangroves or deeper channels where the water holds the heat a bit better.

You’re not as likely to see the big monsters that make the covers of the fishing magazines, but you can still get in some great tarpon fishing action. Hooking any tarpon can be a blast, with all their jumping and thrashing.

A picture of Tarpon Fishing: Following the Migration Up the FL Coast with West Coast Fishing Charters

As the first part of the year progresses, the fish that overwintered in the warmer Caribbean waters or deeper parts of the Gulf start moving towards their traditional spawning and feeding grounds, which include the inshore waters of the Florida Keys. The resident fish that were already there and the newcomers start to become more active and feed aggressively in preparation for the long migration ahead.

As the water temps rise, these fish start moving in more consistently. This is when you can start getting into the resident fish that stick around before the big migration crowd shows up. Live bait like crabs or mullet can work wonders here. They mimic the natural diet of tarpon, attracting not just the juveniles and residents but also some of the early migrating fish looking to bulk up after the winter.

Everglades (February – March)

As early as February and March, the ‘Glades are already buzzing with tarpon activity. The waters here are generally shallower and warm up faster. That’s where fishing guides like Captain Chris Brown head to chase the early season tarpon.

Tarpon fishing in the Everglades is more about stealth—using smaller boats to get into the skinny waters that big boats can’t enter. You might be casting around river mouths and mangroves, keeping your eyes peeled for the roll of a tarpon breaking the surface to grab a breath of air.

A picture of Tarpon Fishing: Following the Migration Up the FL Coast with West Coast Fishing Charters

Everglades tarpon aren’t always the giants. Most are in that 30 to 80-pound range, and let me tell you, they fight like they’re twice that size. It’s a good testing ground for refining your tarpon skills, especially sight casting, which is killer to try in these parts.

Cast near the fish, lead them a bit so when that fly moves, it catches their eye naturally. And always, always watch the tides—the moving water stirs up bait and gets these tarpon feeding.

The Everglades serve as a critical early “waypoint “for tarpon. As the waters warm up, they start moving from their winter haunts deeper in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean towards these accessible, food-rich shallows. It’s like a pit stop for them—somewhere to bulk up before the long haul north towards the spawning grounds.

Boca Grande (April – May)

As the waters warm up, these fish are heading north, and Boca Grande Pass is one of their key routes. So naturally, come April and May, Boca Grande is the place to be fishing.

This spot is famous—like, real famous—for tarpon fishing. It’s got the passes where these fish funnel through in droves. Now we’re talking the big boys—fish that can push well over 100 pounds. Fishing in Boca Grande can be a circus with the number of boats out there during the peak season, but it’s a circus worth attending.

You’ve got boats everywhere, fishermen from all over, all there for the same reason—to catch these massive tarpon. It’s busy, sure, but the energy is electric. Everyone’s waiting, lines in the water, hoping for that bite.

When it comes to tactics, live bait is king here. Threadfin herring or pass crabs are good bets. Timing is crucial, especially during the hill tides—that’s when the outgoing tides are strongest due to the new or full moon. The stronger currents stir up all sorts of food, which gets the tarpon really going. They’re more active, more aggressive, and a lot hungrier, making them more likely to hit your bait.

A picture of Tarpon Fishing: Following the Migration Up the FL Coast with West Coast Fishing Charters

Everyone wants to be where the currents flow strongest because that’s where the tarpon are going to be feeding. It’s a spectacle—tons of tarpon and everyone jockeying for the best spot to catch them.

Fun Fact: The hilltide is primarily driven by what’s called “spring tides.” These occur when the sun, moon, and Earth are in alignment, which amplifies the gravitational pull on the Earth’s oceans. During these powerful tides, crabs, especially pass crabs, get swept out of the bays and estuaries in massive numbers. This is a natural conveyor belt of food, and it’s exactly what the tarpon are waiting for. They come into the estuaries and passes of places like Boca Grande and Pine Island Sound to feast on these crabs.

Tarpon have large, upturned mouths that are perfectly adapted for gulping down crabs as they float by. The tarpon will roll on the surface, showcasing their silvery scales, which is a sight to behold. From a biological standpoint, tarpon are equipped with a swim bladder that functions like a lung, allowing them to gulp air at the surface. This adaptation is particularly useful during hilltides, as they can thrive in the oxygen-poor waters often found in these tidal conditions.

The hilltide doesn’t just attract tarpon, though. It brings in a variety of predators and opportunistic feeders. You’ll see sharks, jacks, and even dolphins getting in on the action. But the tarpon are the stars of the show. For fishermen, this means you’ve got a prime opportunity to hook into these powerful fish.

Techniques vary, but some of the most effective during hilltides involve drifting with the tide, using live crabs as bait. Fishermen will typically use heavy tackle to handle the sheer power of these fish—which can grow over seven feet long and weigh more than 200 pounds!

When you’re talking about fishing for tarpon in Boca Grande, especially with all the factors like timing, bait, and where to be in those currents, hopping on a tarpon fishing charter boat is a good move. Local fishing charter captains know the waters like the back of their hand. They’ve been tracking these tarpon migrations, know the patterns of the tides, and more importantly, they know exactly where those tarpon are likely to be feeding during those hill tides. (Also, handling a boat in those strong currents while keeping an eye on your line is a lot. It’s a multitasking challenge that can get overwhelming fast.)

Boca Grande can get crowded, and finding the right spot in the current—where you’re not tangled up with ten other lines—takes some serious local knowledge. Charter boats are out there every day—they have an understanding with the other captains to position themselves so everyone on board has the best shot at a fish without crossing lines with the boat next door.

Tampa Bay (June – August)

As summer rolls in, the tarpon migration pushes north to Tampa Bay, a big, wide area that offers a mix of open bay waters and urban fishing around the bridges and shipping channels. From June through August, tarpon fishing here can be outstanding. You’ve got early mornings and late evenings as prime times, avoiding the heat of the day.

In Tampa, the pace is a little more relaxed than in Boca Grande during hill tide. You’re not jostling for space as much as in some other spots. You can find your own little area in the flats or a good position near the channels and set up for some serious inshore fishing. You might be fishing the flats or around the Skyway Bridge, where tarpon congregate to feed.

A picture of Tarpon Fishing: Following the Migration Up the FL Coast with West Coast Fishing Charters

As for bait, live pinfish are like gold for tarpon here. They can’t resist them. But if you’re into using artificials, a well-placed lure mimicking a baitfish can also lead to some explosive action.

Following the tarpon migration from the Keys up through Tampa Bay is like following a fish highway. Different stops along the way, different fishing styles needed, but all leading to the same thing: a chance at battling with one of the most exciting fish in the sea.

Whether you’re looking for the sheer thrill of hooking a tarpon—or the challenge of catching one in every key spot along their route—you’re in for an adventure!