It was like nothing Peter Miller had ever experienced. A challenge, a thrill, an achievement so grand it would make an indelible impression that he’s been chasing since 1986.
During a visit to Boca Grande Pass – the world-famous tarpon destination between Cayo Costa and Gasparilla Island – an 18-year-old Miller hopped aboard a charter boat for what would be a soul-stirring encounter. His traditional pass guide trolled live baits on heavy braided line and instructed his anglers to hold the rods perfectly still until they felt that unmistakable strike, which led to a simply unbelievable display of power and acrobatics.
“It was a nighttime trip and my first fish was approximately 110 pounds,” Miller recalled about that first tarpon. “It was incredible seeing it jumping in the air in the lights behind the boat. Getting it up to the boat was pretty special. That definitely lit the fire.”
Even though those strict trolling techniques varied significantly from his more active modern-day tactics, Miller, a Mercury Pro Team member, said the excitement hasn’t dulled in the slightest. Simply put, there’s nothing like a tarpon.
“It’s one of the only fish you can target from land (or close to shore) that’s similar to a blue marlin, which you may have to go 20 to 50 to 100 miles offshore to catch,” Miller said. “With tarpon fishing, you can do it right off the beach and have a 150-pound fish ripping drag. I would call it an ‘inshore blue marlin.’”
Making his home in Miami, Miller treasures his South Florida waters, particularly those of Government Cut, Haulover Cut, Miami Beach and Key Biscayne. Although he knows he can find tarpon throughout much of the day, Miller said his absolute favorite time to tangle with these silver warriors comes at the day’s conclusion.
“I like to find an outgoing tide at sunset and fish that last little bit of light with a nice ripping tide,” Miller said. “You fish into the dark – and hang on!”
Why the after-hours preference? Miller explains: “The tarpon’s eyesight is 5,000 times better than a human’s, so they have the ability to see very well. If something doesn’t look right, like a leader, a hook or a dead bait, they’re going to pass it up.
“I feel like, as it starts to get a little darker, it gives you an advantage and maybe you can get a few more bites. In the daytime, they’re more aware of you, so I think that lower-light conditions make them more apt to bite.”
What They Like
Tarpon have a diverse diet, but Miller prefers to fish with live shrimp, crabs, mullet and pinfish. Whether he’s buying at a bait shop or catching it himself, he insists on the freshest, most lively bait he can find. Nothing but the best for the “silver king.”
“We’ll have a pinfish trap or, sometimes, we’ll go out to a grassy flat, put out a chum bag and catch 20 to 30 pinfish so we’re armed for tarpon and for snook, which are typically in similar areas,” Miller said. “We buy shrimp and crabs, but if we see crabs drifting by us in the current, we’ll net those. It’s nice to bring a good little smorgasbord.”
Mullet tend to interest the larger tarpon, but Miller said it’s important to not overdo it. He’ll keep multiple sizes available to determine the tarpon’s preference, but he finds 6- to 7-inch mullet most consistent.
On the artificial side, Miller said tarpon will readily eat topwater, swimbaits, shrimp lures and lead-head jigs with soft-plastic bodies. One of his favorites is a fluke-style bait Texas-rigged on a stout hook.
“I used to use this bait for bass and it was always fun to do that walking-the-dog pattern,” Miller said, referring to fishing the lure with short twitches to get it to dart left then right. “With tarpon, you kind of twitch-twitch the bait, you turn your head to speak to somebody and all of a sudden the rod’s almost ripped out of your hands.
“To me, that’s pretty exciting. It’s one thing to get a bite on live bait – you feel it, it’s happening, you’re ready, you set up, it’s going; but this fluke bite is a shocker.”
Explaining the fluke’s appeal, Miller pointed out that, the twitching and pausing action resembles vulnerable prey, and the pause is key.
“It imitates a baitfish on its last leg, so it’s an easy meal and that’s their time to strike,” Miller said. “It’s a sneak attack for them and it gets them lit up.”
Miller’s experience has taught him the wisdom of matching his tackle to the size of fish he’s targeting. What he’s found is that his standard sailfish setup – a 7-foot, heavy-power spinning rod and high-capacity reel – also fits his tarpon pursuits. The only difference is that he replaces monofilament with 50- to 80-pound-test braided main line.
“That way, I can put some heat on the fish and not worry about him burning me off or breaking the line,” Miller said. “I like 40- to 80-pound fluorocarbon leader, and I’ll use about 6 feet. Some anglers like a 3-foot leader, but I prefer a 6-foot just in case I get a bite and I miss one. I just clip off the hook (and the chaffed leader section) and retie.”
For live bait fishing, Miller uses only circle hooks. For one thing, they’re very efficient. When the fish bites, you wind down to steadily increase the pressure and the hook rolls into place for a solid connection. Circle hooks also tend to hook fish toward the front of the mouth, which makes it easier to release them.
Miller only uses traditional J hooks for smaller tarpon, when he typically sees the bite and he can more precisely time the hookset. Dropping his rod tip, he’ll give the fish about a foot of line, then reel tight and drive the hook home.
However he engages these magnificent fish, Miller does his best to ensure a prompt, safe release. Tarpon photos are a great way to capture the memory, but all but the smallest fish should be kept in the water at all times. This minimizes unintentional injury and keeps the tarpon's gills in the water, which reduces stress. In Florida, it's actually illegal to lift a tarpon over 40 inches long from the water without the appropriate tarpon tag, which can only be used for recording a potential record fish. So remember to keep the fish in the water and, if necessary, to revive it prior to release by gently holding and moving the fish through the water so the water passes over its gills.
Send them back unharmed and they'll live to fight another day.