One of the most popular game fish in the world dates back to the time of the dinosaurs. Tarpon Fish, megalops atlanticus, are found in warm tropical waters throughout the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to right here in Central America. Their bodies are covered in large silver scales, which in addition to their incredible fighting ability earned them the nickname “the silver king.” Tarpon that spend most of their lives in freshwater and brackish water have a golden or brown tint to them due to the presence of tannic acid.
One of the most interesting traits about tarpon is their ability to “breathe” air. They can gulp air directly into their air bladder, which is what they are doing when you see them rolling at the surface. This allows them to survive in freshwater or even water that is basically void of oxygen, which is an incredible advantage when competition for food sources heats up. More importantly, very few predators can go where tarpon go so it is thought that they use this ability to spawn and raise their young in “nurseries” that are safer than the ocean itself. Tarpon can lay over 10 million eggs at a time and the survivors will take approximately seven years to reach maturity.
Most tarpon are in the 50-100 lb range, though large tarpon in the 100-200 lb range are caught every year in Costa Rica. The tarpon on the flats in Belize are typically much smaller as they are often juveniles that are using the mangroves and flats as a refuge until they reach maturity. Tarpon are a prized game fish because they are challenging to hook and even harder to release. Their boney mouths leave little room for a hook to be placed and once you do they’ll leap out of the water in an incredibly display of athleticism, sometimes reaching heights of 8-10 ft! Tarpon have sharp gill plates as well that seem custom designed to cut through your leader, so when they take off to start their leaps remember the all important phrase “bow to the king.”
WHAT THEY EAT: Tarpon have boney mouths with almost no teeth so they eat by swallowing their prey whole. Their diets vary based on what is available, including anything from shrimps and crabs to other smaller fish. Mullet fish, sardines, catfish, mackerel, jacks, and needlefish all end up on the tarpon’s menu. In Central America, especially in Costa Rica, tarpon can be found patrolling the coastline after the baby sea turtles hatch and make their way out to sea for the first time.
WHERE TO FIND THEM: Tarpon are so adaptable it isn’t surprising that they have a diverse habitat. They are most commonly found in warm coastal waters, bays, estuaries, mangroves and brackish water lagoons. Because tarpon are able to breathe air they can survive and flourish in fresh water too so it is common to find them miles inland, like in the Cano Negro Wildlife Reserve in Costa Rica. Tarpon will feed all day, but they are most active at night.