11 Tips for Spotting Tarpon

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo 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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4 thoughts on “11 Tips for Spotting Tarpon

  1. Briliant stuff Louis, I used to fish for the related but much smaller tarpon in Australia (Megalops cyprinoides). there was always much discussion about the rolling/breathing and the subsequent bubbles. Any links to more information about that?

  2. Nice post Louis. I have just a couple points from my years of tarpon fishing with experienced guides.

    By the way, your last paragraph is spot on. Every fly fisherman should experience tarpon fishing. Watching video or reading about it does not show the body’s visceral response to seeing those torpedoes coming at you. It is a physical as well as emotional experience even before you hook up. Best outdoor feeling ever for me, bar none, in my several decades of fishing.

    Because the guide is normally on a polling platform with a height advantage looking into the water and has tons more experience and eyes conditioned for the correct visual cues, it is important to have good communication worked out for direction and distance so the guide can put your eyes on fish. The tougher the visibility, the more important this is.

    Seeing fish is a learned behavior. The guide will help. The fisherman has to try to condition his or her eyes to learn what to look for every time the guide points out fish. As you learn what to look for and how to search, four eyes become somewhat better than two because there are 360 degrees of water to search. It is possible to lay down the line and strip on command without seeing the fish, but that is the least effective way to fish. Learning to see fish is critical in my opinion.

    In the military many years ago, we learned techniques of overcoming camouflage through systematic search, scanning for targets, and offset vision as opposed to staring. I have use the techniques I learned then every time I sight fish. Understanding visual cues (size, shape, movement, shadows) and technique are critical for success and also for avoiding eye fatigue, which will erode your effectiveness. This is true for salt and freshwater fishing. I often see shadows on the bottom before I see the fish. (By the way, how to see fish in general would be a great topic in and of itself for a blog by you or Kent.)

    Early morning was always golden for me on the inside of passes at Boca Grande. The water was calm, boat traffic was absent, and any fish we could observe were rolling. With low light and glassy water, looking AND LISTENING for rolling fish was the key. The tarpon often seemed were comfortable and ready to eat, but golden time does not last long. When the sun comes up and breeze starts, the equation changes. Getting a fish to eat early sets a great tone for the rest of the day. I appreciated my guide’s willingness to prepare the night before and leave at zero dark thirty in order to be there for this special experience.

  3. Pingback: Tippets: Spotting Tarpon, Steelhead Survival Rates, The Angler’s Art | MidCurrent

  4. Louis,

    Well written and very informative. You are correct when saying tarpon can show up from any direction however it’s important to note they typically navigate using contours along the bottom. For example, a slight drop off from a bar or an opening through a shallow bar during low tides.

    Anglers posting up awaiting the arrival of fish can take advantage of these patterns and to some extent begin to anticipate the incoming directions.

    Also, watching low flying birds such as pelicans flying just above the surface of the calms waters of a bay can cause laid up tarpon to bust thus revealing their position.

    Over the years of fishing for tarpon I have found that water depth is typically an issue when fish are not swimming on top. In deeper water fish swimming low can be difficult to spot. However, there are areas in our fisheries where tarpon swim on the surface regardless of depth. I don’t fully understand why this is the case but it occurs with regularity. These fish, with added water under them often eat presentations more readily.

    Thanks for your suggestions and I enjoyed reading your tips. Bill Bishop

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