One of the most prized game fish by any angler who has ventured to the tropics has to be the megalops atlanticus – better known as the mighty tarpon. Their esteemed status as a world class inshore species has earned them the nickname “silver king”, derived from their huge shiny scales that glisten when they roll or jump. Typically found in the warm tropical waters from the Caribbean Sea to Eastern Africa, tarpon are one of the oldest and most interesting game fish on the planet thanks to hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary benefits. For anyone who wants to come tarpon fishing in Central America, locally known as ‘sabalo’, below are 10 interesting facts for you to know before you do battle with the mighty silver king.
1 – Tarpon Can Breathe Air
One of the most fascinating things about tarpon is that they can actually breathe air. Tarpon have evolved a specialized swim bladder that let’s them take in air and surface to supplement their normal breathing methods, which is of course passing water over their gills like all over fish. This specialized organ has a direct connection to their esophagus, so often times when you see tarpon rolling at the surface of the water they are actually gulping air. This evolutionary benefit has evolved over millions of years, and has no doubt led to their continued success as one of the top inshore predators in the oceans as they can survive in different types of salinity and water quality.
2 – They Have More Range Than Steph Curry
Due to this specialized air bladder tarpon can be found in saltwater, brackish water, and fresh water lagoons and rivers. When we fish for tarpon here in Costa Rica we fish for them near reefs a few miles offshore, in the rivermouths along the Caribbean Coast, and even in the Caño Negro Wildlife Reserve which is some 70 miles inland and accessed by the Rio San Juan. When we talk about the territorial range of tarpon however we are thinking on a much larger scale, as in transatlantic. Tarpon are found from the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico all the way to Western Africa nearly 5,000 miles away. They have been seen as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as Brazil.
3 – They’re Now on the Pacific Ocean!
As if that wasn’t impressive enough, tarpon are so tough and adaptable that they are now found on the Pacific Coast in Central America as well. No they didn’t round Cape Horn, like all the supertankers transporting goods from one side of the world to the other they took a shortcut through the Panama Canal. At first tarpon were seen in the nearby Bayano River, but over the years they have been found south in Bahia Solano, Columbia, north along Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, and even 50 miles offshore at Coiba Island. Scientists weren’t sure if these were just a few adults that struck up residency or if they were actually multi-generational tarpon, but over the years enough juvenile tarpon have been caught that it’s pretty clear they are reproducing. The long-term effects of this territorial expansion are still unknown, but as long as the delicate balance of the eco-system isn’t rocked by these Caribbean newcomers, anglers like myself are quite excited about the possibility of catching roosterfish and tarpon in the same day!
4 – They’ve Been Around Since the Dinosaurs
Tarpon are believed to be about 125 million years old. To put that in perspective, T-rex were chasing triceratops at the same time. The current version that we know and love is about 18 million years old, which still has us homo-sapiens beat as we only boast a paltry 6 million years of evolution.
5 – World Travelers
Anglers in Belize and Florida are well aware that tarpon are highly migratory, hence the fever when ‘tarpon season’ arrives. The best tarpon fishing in Belize occurs in the late summer months of July through September. Through tagging and research done by the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, it has been discovered that some tarpon travel as much as 1,200 miles. However, like humans some tarpon are born with a travel bug and want to see the world while others are perfectly content to stay in one spot and be homebodies. Through the same study of the BTT, some tagged tarpon never ventured more than a hundred miles or so from their home region. That helps explain why Belize can enjoy both resident tarpon at places like Tarpon Caye and bigger migratory tarpon that move through in the summer months. Apart from seasonally bad weather, the tarpon fishing in Costa Rica is good 12 months a year due to the fact the tarpon here are not migratory. Tarpon in Panama can be found year round in lagoons and around the reefs in places like Bocas del Toro and the San Blas Islands, but they do see more during the migration season. There are always going to be tarpon in these waters, but if you are planning your vacation specifically to come tarpon fishing in Central America certain destinations and months of the year should be targeted to increase your chances of success.
6 – One Big Family
Together with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the BTT did another fascinating, high-tech study over the span of two years to determine how many different tarpon populations. With the help of anglers, lodges, and fishing guides throughout the world they collected over 23,000 tarpon scales for DNA testing. Researchers poured over the extensive data and come to the conclusion, to the surprise of many, that here is actually only one giant tarpon population in the Atlantic Ocean. DNA samples of tarpon from the East Coast of the United States to South America, even over to West Africa, all shared the same genetic profiles. As interesting as that is, the question remains to be asked, “HOW does this happen?” As mentioned earlier, tarpon are capable of traveling over 1,200 miles, which could get you from the Florida Keys to Costa Rica. Tarpon larvae are also able to travel in the warm water ocean currents, so when tarpon from Central America spawn offshore their babies may grow up in the mangroves in Africa!
7 – From Larvae to Giants
The life cycle of these prehistoric beasts is fascinating from what little we know, and astounding that we still have so much more to learn. Tarpon are believed to head up to 100 miles offshore to spawn, often diving down to great depths where it is believed the water pressure helps males and females release their sperm and eggs. Once the eggs are hatched, the first month of life is spent as tiny, transparent eel-like creature called a leptocaphalus. These leptocaphali grow to be about 3-4 inches long and perform the first amazing feat in the tarpon’s life – they navigate the offshore currents and head into shallow water estuaries under the cover of darkness for protection. It’s here where the juvenile tarpon grow up and begin to look like a miniature version of their moms and dads. These backwater creeks, estuaries and mangroves are the perfect environment for juvenile tarpon to feed, grow, and hone their skills they’ll need as adults. These backwaters often have stagnant water which is low in oxygen, but since tarpon can breathe air it allows them to thrive in an area without fear of many predators. Juvenile tarpon will stay in these waters for years eating shrimps, crabs, and adding fish to their diets as they get bigger and more adventurous. Once they reach maturity around 10-12 years of age they leave these shallow waters and begin their adults lives, but it’s still unknown as to why some tarpon migrate and others stay in their home region.
8 -Tarpon Can Live up to 80 Years
Speaking of adult-hood, tarpon can live up to 80 years in the wild. While that’s not common, the average lifespan of a tarpon is still 55 years. That means that adult tarpon you are catching today may have been around for the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy assassination, and the rise of the Beatles and Bob Dylan. The oldest recorded captive tarpon was in the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and died at 63 years of age.
9 – Sadly They’re Still on the Menu
Tarpon are one of the most prized game fish in the Southeastern US and Caribbean, that much is understood. One of the tarpon meccas of the world, Florida, made tarpon a catch-and-release only species back in 2013. The tiny country of Belize became the first country in the entire world to mandate the catch and release of all bonefish, permit, and tarpon back in 2008. Unfortunately throughout the rest of Central America and the Caribbean very little conservation laws exist and tarpon are still harvested both for roe and their meat. It’s always a difficult situation when you see locals tarpon fishing in Central America for meat when they are such a prized game fish to us anglers, but one adult tarpon may be feeding a multi-generational home for people who don’t have many other options. Until more laws actually do exists to protect the species, the best we can do is make sure the tarpon we catch are released safely and unharmed. Certainly part of our hope as a local sport fishing travel agency is that we can educate the locals about the long-term economic and environmental benefits of protecting the population, Belize is a shining example of this.
10 – All Tackle World Record
The all-tackle world record tarpon is an astounding 286lbs 9oz. It was caught by Max Domecq off the coast of the small African nation of Guinea-Bissau on March 20, 2003. The fish was caught on a Daiwa Sealine 4/0 reel using 50 lb line and mullet as bait. For those of you who don’t believe in beginners luck, this was Max’s first ever tarpon. It’s all downhill from here…
If you love tarpon fishing as much as we do, you can donate to the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust here. Donations go towards the education, research, and conservation of our beloved game fish.