In Key West, Florida, PENN Fleet Captain Gonzalez Makes Tarpon Fishing Simple
Tarpon fishing is the epitome of a saltwater angler’s battle against depth-dwelling monsters. With proper technique, the right gear, and a relentless attitude to match that of a Tarpon, it doesn’t have to be so hard. Discover how PENN Fleet Captain Pepe Gonzalez makes tarpon fishing as easy as wetting a line.
Tarpon are widely considered the ultimate inshore sportfish. People travel the world and spend years just to get a shot at one of these huge, silver-armored fish. But catching tarpon doesn’t have to be hard. In Key West, Florida, PENN Fleet Captain Pepe Gonzalez has a trick that makes tarpon fishing as easy as taking candy from a baby.
The huge, silver fish live in exotic places with palm trees and clear, green water. With keen eyesight, metallic armor, a head like a brick, and a mouth like a rock, it is almost impossible to hook a tarpon.
With Keen eyesight, metallic armor, a head like a brick, and a mouth like a rock, it is almost impossible to hook a tarpon.
Each spring, tarpon converge on the southern tip of Florida to spawn and gorge on palolo worms. The action heats up under the full moon with schools of tarpon staging in deep channels. This is the best time to find hundreds of fish swirling below the surface. But even with tarpon rolling around the boat, there are no guarantees. “It’s like a chess match,” Gonzalez laughs, “I always have to stay ahead of the curve.”
A typical trip on Gonzalez’ 27-foot center console starts at 7 a.m. First, the party leaves Key West Harbor and empties the captain’s pinfish traps into his livewell. “I like to start with 150 to 300 pinfish,” Gonzalez says.
Then, the captain heads to the tarpon grounds. “I know places where the tarpon feed on the incoming tide and other places for the outgoing,” he says. Instead of pointing his bow towards the crowd, Gonzalez prefers to find his own fish. “I’d rather see five fish feeding than 1000 fish rolling hard,” he says.
Gonzalez anchors the boat 50 feet upcurrent of the tarpon. Then he cuts up a handful of pinfish and throws the chunks behind the boat. “It’s like a potion,” Gonzalez grins, “the smell turns them on.”
With the tarpon in the mood, Gonzalez deploys a live pinfish on a PENN® Slammer® III spinning reel and Carnage™ II Boat rod, then hands the rod to his client. “The Slammer® III is a tank, I like the big knob on the handle,” he says. Next, he grabs a PENN Torque Lever Drag 2 Speed size 30 with a Carnage™ II Boat rod, hooks a chunk of pinfish, and pitches it behind the boat. Gonzalez says the compact conventional reel is bulletproof with an amazing drag.
To target the world’s greatest inshore sportfish, Gonzalez relies on the lightest line and leader possible. He spools the reels with 50-pound Berkley Pro-Spec braid and adds a 20-foot length of 30 to 50-pound Berkley Vanish fluorocarbon.
At the end of the line, Gonzalez attaches a thin-wire, non-offset 8/0 circle hook. He swears by circle hooks, insisting his hook up ratio is higher. Even an inexperienced angler can hold on to the rod while the fish moves away and the hook comes tight in the corner of its mouth.
The rig seems light for a 100-pound tarpon, but Gonzalez claims anything heavier would spook the fish. Instead, he relies on tough tackle and angler skill to beat trophy tarpon. “It’s amazing that a 100-pound fish will eat an inch-long bait.”
"I know places where the tarpon feed on the incoming tide and other places for the outgoing," he says. Instead of pointing his bow towards the crowd, Gonzalez prefers to find his own fish. "I'd rather see five fish feeding than 1000 fish rolling hard", he says.
Holding the rod puts the angler in the center of the action. When a man-sized tarpon takes the bait and launches head-high into the air, Gonzalez instructs his anglers, “don’t freak out!” He suggests holding the rod with the tip slightly raised to maintain tension on the line while allowing the fish to jump and run.
With the tarpon hooked and line leaving the reel, Gonzalez cautions against high-sticking the rod. “When the fish jumps, point the tip at it,” he says. This prevents excessive pressure on the line. “If the rod is high, something will break,” he adds.
To shorten the fight and avoid other anglers, Gonzalez will leave his anchor and chase down the biggest tarpon. “We tighten the drag to keep the fight as short as possible,” he says. Once the captain has the leader in his hand, the angler poses for a quick photo. Then Gonzalez takes a wrap on the line, pulls hard and the giant silver and green fish swims off into the clear green water.
“I never lose interest in tarpon fishing,” Gonzalez says. After releasing thousands of fish over years at the helm, the angler is still figuring out his adversary. “It’s like a mind game, the tarpon know what I’m doing and I have to stay one step ahead of them,” he says.