South Texas Tarpon
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The salty waters at the southern tip of Texas, nuzzled against the Mexican border, are home to fishable numbers of tarpon most of the year and offer anglers an excellent opportunity to pursue one of the most majestic gamefish in the Gulf.  This may come as a surprise to many saltwater fishermen who have read volumes about Upper Coast tarpon fishing, yet seen scant a word on the southern venue for silver kings.  

Don't let the lack of publicity fool you.  The stretch of beach extending from the Rio Grande River north to the Mansfield Cut accounts for not only a large number of caught tarpon, but is indiscriminate in access.  Anglers fishing from the South Padre jetties or standing on dry sand are just as likely to jump tarpon as fishermen plying the nearshore waters by boat.  In addition, this fishery is known for light-tackle and fly rod hookups, which is infinitely more exciting than deepwater dredging for fish.  

The other great thing about this fishery is there are tarpon for every angler.  From 10-pound babies to 200-pound brutes, every imaginable size of tarpon spends a portion of their time here.  And, unless you are planning on targeting fish on the far end of the scale, you probably have everything you need already in your tackle lineup.  

The Lower Texas Coast tarpon fishery is different than other state waters holding populations of silver kings in more ways than one.  To begin with, tarpon swim much closer to shore here.  Fish are caught primarily in the Brazos Santiago Pass, which is lined by the South Padre Island jetty to the north and the Boca Chica jetty to the south.  Additionally, hot summer months find tarpon cruising along the beachfront, where they can be caught by fly rodders and light-tackle anglers fishing the first and second guts.  

Since tarpon are readily available close to shore, a large boat is not necessary, as it is when pursuing tarpon further up the coast.  In fact, a boat is not necessary at all.  Jetty and beachfront fishermen account for as many or more fish caught each season than those fishing from a boat.  This small-boat and pedestrian access puts tarpon within reach of every angler.  Few fisheries in the nation can boast such indiscriminate access to such a magnificent fish.  

And, while on the subject of access, tarpon are available in these waters for a greater portion of the year than elsewhere in Texas.  Fish usually begin showing in late March or early April, with the biggest fish leading the way.  These top-end tarpon hang around for a couple of months before continuing their northward migration.  

However, by the time the mature fish leave, hordes of juvenile tarpon have filled the pass.  Fish ranging from 15 to 80 pounds are most common, although a few triple-digit fish remain.  For most anglers, these fish represent the best opportunity for landing their first tarpon.  Not only are they represented in good numbers throughout the summer, but they are more easily duped than their mature brethren and can be tamed on mid-weight tackle.

After honing their skills on lightweight tarpon all summer, anglers get a chance to tackle the heavyweights once again in the fall.  The over-150 crowd begins showing on their return migration around September.  Depending on temperature and frontal passages, these fish will remain deep into November and occasionally into December.

A final difference is the tackle and technique used.  Unlike their Upper Coast counterparts, few South Texas tarpon fishermen drift-fish or use natural baits.  The majority of fish taken along this southern stretch of sand are conquered by anglers casting light-tackle and fly fishing gear.

Conventional tackle anglers generally choose from a handful of offerings.  One-ounce Rattle-traps have gained some favor among fishermen looking to simply jump fish.  These big, noisy baits draw plenty of strikes, but the weight of the plug is easily leveraged free by tarpon of any substantial size and fish rarely stay hooked for more than a few jumps.  Lighter-weight plugs such as 52 series Mirrolures and Rebel Windcheaters also command plenty of attention and, when fitted with single-hooks, allow for a better chance at landing fish.

However, odds-on favorites for hooking and landing tarpon remain jigs and DOA Baitbusters.  Jigs of various types produce results.  However, large C-tail soft plastics, bucktail and fly-fur jigs are relied on most heavily.  Jigs are especially handy when tarpon turn finicky or the water is ultra-clear, as is often the case during the summer months.

DOA's Deep Running Baitbuster, a 5/8 ounce mullet-imitating soft-plastic bait fitted with a large single hook, is probably the best all-around choice for South Padre tarpon.  This bait has all of the hook offers all the hook-setting and fish-fighting advantages of a jig.  However, it also gives fish a broader profile to zero in on and imitates one of their favorite forage fish.  Color 372 (pearl/green with red chin) is a consistent, all-conditions producer, but smoke/glitter, near-clear and other translucent color combinations earn their stripes under clear water conditions.  Additionally, the Baitbuster gets the nod for simplicity.  A steady retrieve is all that is needed to entice tarpon, making it ideal for beginners and experts alike.  

Fly fishers also keep their selection of offerings simplistic.  Large Clouser Minnows (1/0 or 2/0), Deceivers and Tarpon Bunnies in chartreuse/white, white/red, or purple are good starting points.  Keys-style tarpon flies have not proven consistently effective in these waters, although a number of shrimp and baitfish imitating patterns others than those listed can tempt tarpon.  

The primary decision for fly fishers seems to be whether to throw and weighted or un-weighted fly.  Let the current answer this question for you.  A good rule of thumb is to use the lightest fly possible, with the goal being a steady retrieve two to four feet below the surface on an intermediate line.  A strong tide may dictate using a weighted fly to achieve this, but it is possible to get below the fish.  So, always error on the lighter side.  

Keep in mind that tarpon are tough on leaders.  Whether you are throwing fly or conventional tackle, it is wise to rig with a foot or so of 50 to 60 pound shock leader.  Conventional tackle anglers can make due with 15 to 20 pound test standing line, spooled on a spinning or casting reel capable of holding 175 yards of the chosen line.  Casting and spinning rods should be 6 1/2 to 7 feet long, with plenty of backbone.  A typical medium-heavy casting rod will suffice.

Fly rod fishermen should take the heaviest rod they own.  Twelve-weight sticks are ideal for casting heavy flies, as well as fighting large fish.  However, fish to 70 pounds can be tamed on a 10-weight and fish to about 40 can be conquered on a nine.  Whichever weight you take, make sure it is equipped with a disc-drag reel spooled with intermediate line and at least 150 yards of backing.  

As mentioned, the Brazos Santiago Pass is the most consistent area to find tarpon.  For those unfamiliar with this pass, it is natural pass that has been framed by jetties and is located at the southern tip of South Padre Island.  For accessibility reasons, pedestrian anglers generally fish the north jetty, located inside Isla Blanca Park on South Padre.  However, some intrepid anglers make the drive to Boca Chica beach to fish the south jetty.  This passage can difficult depending on beach conditions.  Boating anglers, however, often fish the tip of south jetty with good results.

The Mansfield jetties, reachable by driving north 24 miles on South Padre Island or down roughly 70 miles of the Padre Island National Seashore via Corpus, also hold generous numbers of tarpon, particularly in the summer months.  These rock formations also receive considerably less pressure than those lining the Brazos Santiago Pass.  However, for reasons that remain unknown, the tarpon around these jetties rarely rival those further south in size and numbers.

Late-summer also sees tarpon frolicking in the surf, making them available to beachfront anglers.  These fish can be found along the entire length of South Padre Island during this time of year.  However, the beaches within the town's limits, approximately four miles worth, usually become crowded with surfers and bathers by mid-morning.  Additionally, town beaches are not open to vehicle traffic, meaning aspiring anglers must park and walk.  Therefore, most serious tarpon chasers opt for the county-operated drive-on beaches north of town.  Riding the beach in a vehicle allows anglers to cover much more distance, which is sometimes necessary to find and/or follow schools of rolling fish.  

One final option, the only one that is open to boating anglers only, is the Laguna Madre itself.  Tarpon are occasionally spotted throughout the shallow bay, but not consistently enough to target.  The exception to this occurs during late-summer and early fall on the flats immediately inside the pass.  Mexiquita Flats, a large expanse of grass cradled between the Brownsville Ship Channel and Tompkins Channel, fronts the Pass and often serves as a playground for silver kings.  A hard incoming tide is necessary to get fish on this flat and, even then, they remain less consistent than those within the Pass.  However, this represents the best opportunity to tangle with a tarpon in less than four feet of water.
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