11 Tips for Spotting Tarpon

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

How does a six foot long fish vanish?

It’s hard to imagine, but they do. Even big schools of tarpon can sneak up on you with surprising regularity. Tarpon fishing is a game of strategy and the earlier you see the fish, the better your chances of success. Having the time to set up a good angle and make a plan are key. It’s also important to read the fish’s attitude and in the best case see the eat. Good eyes are as important as the right fly.

Like any flats fishing, good polarized glasses are a must and your guide will be a valuable resource. Even with the help of a guide, knowing what to look for and what it means when you see it will make the difference between frustration and elation. Here are some tips to help you succeed.

Know what to expect

Tarpon shots come in a variety of favors. Tarpon can be laid up, sitting still alone or in pairs. They can be in schools, from three or four fish to three or four hundred. Those schools can be milling around on a flat or on the move. They can move as a big group or a single file procession. These processions sometimes swim in a perfect circle called a daisy chain. Knowing what each of these options looks like will help you quickly identify the fish’s behavior and plan your presentation.

Scan the water

It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you’re on the bow of a flats boat. Fixating on a suspicious shadow or looking where you expect to see fish can blind you to approaching fish. Keep your head on a swivel and scan the water from side to side and near to far. Spend a little extra time studying water where visibility is poor. Fish can literally come from anywhere so don’t get caught staring a hole in the water.


The easiest fish to see are the ones on the move. The human eye picks up motion quickly and if you are scanning properly you will pick up moving fish from a good distance. Just be aware that you could be looking for a single fish, a line of fish or a big school. A school of several hundred tarpon looks like the shadow of a cloud moving on the water. Make sure you know which direction the clouds are moving.


Like bonefish, tarpon have highly reflective sides which offer nearly perfect camouflage. What gives them away is their dark back. Over a white sand bottom, they make a striking silhouette, but over dark turtle grass they can be a challenge to pick out. They will appear slightly darker and slightly cooler in color than the bottom. In choppy water, or holding deeper, a school will appear to be a single large form.


Although they can move with extreme stealth, when a tarpon moves quickly it creates a V-shaped wake known as a push. A school which has been spooked by a shark can move an impressive amount of water. These pushes can be seen for some distance even when visibility is poor.


Tarpon have air bladders which help them respirate in warm water which holds little oxygen. When the water is still and warm, typically in the early morning you can spot them breaking the surface to gulp air. This arching rise is called rolling and is among the most thrilling sights I know. It offers the angler a chance to judge the speed, direction and size of the fish. Rolling tarpon are generally happy and ready to eat, so get ready.


Once the tarpon has extracted the oxygen from the air in its bladder it is expelled. This makes bubbles on the surface which can give away his location. It’s a good idea to spend a little extra time studying water where you see bubbles.

Tails and mouthes

Tarpon have a funny way of suddenly materializing right in front of you. What was a formless shadow will suddenly turn into a fish when you’re at the right angle and distance. As soon as this happens you need to determine which direction the fish is facing. Look for the forked tail and angular jaw. Only one of them eats flies.

Identify the lead fish

When you spot a school of tarpon it’s sometimes hard to tell where the school begins and ends. Tarpon on the move will always follow a lead fish. This will be a big female and identifying her will dramatically increase your chances of a hook up. The lead fish is on high alert and is almost always impossible to catch. She will generally have two very aggressive fish right on her tail. By dropping your fly on the lead fish’s back, you’re almost guaranteed an eat. You can read more about this and watch a video (HERE)

Judging depth and speed

Once you spot a fish it’s important to judge the depth and speed of the fish. This information will tell you how far you should lead that fish. A fish that is high in the water column will appear with great contrast and clarity while deeper fish will be vaguer in appearance. Deeper fish may be moving faster than they appear.

Keep your eye on the fish

It is truly remarkable how tarpon can vanish from right under your nose. Once you find a fish, or a school, don’t take your eyes off of it for a second. You may turn to check your back cast and look back to find an empty flat. Stay focused and in it to win it.

There is nothing as exhilarating as the sight of a school of tarpon coming straight for the boat. If you’ve never experienced it, you should. It’s the fly fishing experience of a lifetime. Hopefully these tips will help you land some tarpon this season.

You can read more tips on spotting fish on the flats by following these links

12 Tips For Spotting More Bonefish

10 Tips For Spotting Permit

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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5 thoughts on “11 Tips for Spotting Tarpon

  1. Thank you for the timely post Louis. I’m heading out Tarpon fishing next week, hopefully this refresher will increase my chances of an epic experience.

  2. Louis,

    Excellent tips.

    You say “Once you spot a fish it’s important to judge the depth and speed of the fish.”

    You should add: Once you spot a fish (or especially a pod of fish) approaching you should be ready for your heart to pound like a jackhammer and for the adrenalin to flow like no other experience. I, for one, have never lost the thrill of seeing these magnificent fish approaching. I expect I never will.

  3. I have only attempted tarpon fishing once, and it was entirely too early in my fly fishing career. I’d only ever “cast” a fly rod a handful of times and my experience at the time was about 4 fishing days on small, stocked water where a big fish was 15 inches.

    I happened to have booked a vacation on Isla Holbox shortly after taking up fishing and discovered that this magical island was fly fishing haven. After meeting a father and son who were on their annual fly fishing trip and staying at the same motel, I decided on a whim to book a guide and go tarpon hunting. How hard could it be, right?

    Talk about a humbling experience! Wind, waves, heavy salt water gear, total newbie, guide with about as much grasp of English as I grasped Spanish. Needless to say I did not catch that day. Only managed two noticeable strikes and was never close to setting any hooks. But I will never forget the guide yelling TARPON and the first time I saw a school of sliver kings headed toward the panga and trying my damnedest to shoot line anywhere close. Strip, strip, strip, strip…

    I am a little better at casting now and plan to visit Holbox again later this year. Maybe the stars will align this time. FISH ON!

  4. Pingback: Tippets: Fishing Beaver Island, Spotting Tarpon, Peacock Herl Up Close | MidCurrent

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