This big tarpon is the main attraction for those wanting to fish in the Florida Keys

Capt. Grif Helwig of Key West with a tarpon at the side of his flats boat before releasing the fish.
Capt. Grif Helwig of Key West with a tarpon at the side of his flats boat before releasing the fish.

Of all the different fish that can be caught in the Florida Keys, tarpon are the most sought after. And now through June is the best time to catch and release the fish known as the Silver King.

“They’re my favorite fish,” says legendary fisherman Stu Apte of Tavernier, who has caught just about everything that swims and set dozens of world records. “They’re top of the list.”

Among the reasons tarpon are so popular: They get big, they fight hard, they jump and they can be caught in shallow water.

“I don’t think there’s a better sport fish available, and the inshore fisherman on average can catch more big fish than the bluewater fisherman,” says Capt. George Clark Jr. of Key Largo. “The only way you’re going to top a 120- or 130-pound tarpon is a blue marlin or swordfish or yellowfin tuna.

“Every time you go, you have a chance to catch a fish that’s 100 pounds or bigger. Where can you consistently do that? I think that’s part of the mystique of tarpon fishing.”

Adding to the excitement, says Apte, is being able to see a big tarpon in just a few feet of water and present a lure or fly or bait to the fish and then see it eat.

Another attraction, says Capt. Grif Helwig of Key West, is “feeling the power of a fish that size for the first time. Then, once the guy has caught a few and goes from a spinning rod to a fly rod, learning how to feed them and learning how to fight them, it becomes this whole process.”

It’s a process that Apte, a Miami native who turns 88 next month, never tires of. You can hear the excitement in his voice when he talks about the 96-pound, 7-ounce tarpon he caught in 1947 by Big Marco Pass in Southwest Florida.

“I was using a baitcasting outfit, standing on the shoreline and casting a plug,” Apte says. “I think I’d caught a couple of smaller ones in a canal before that in Key Largo, but that was my first big one.”

That fish hooked Apte on tarpon for life. A Navy fighter pilot during the Korean War, Apte was a pilot for Pan Am for 34 years. In his spare time, and during layoffs from the airline, he was a flats guide in Little Torch Key.

He soon gained a reputation for catching big tarpon on a fly rod. The Stu Apte Tarpon Fly, which he designed in the late 1950s, is still used today and was immortalized on a U.S. postage stamp in 1991.

Apte, who has caught 40 tarpon over 150 pounds on fly — “those are the only ones I remember” — says going after a big tarpon with a fly rod is like going after an elephant with a BB gun. So he pioneered a fish-fighting technique called “Down and Dirty” that enables him to catch big tarpon in minutes instead of hours.

“That’s how you get them to give up. When you pull down and back toward their tail, it’s the only time in their life they’ve ever been restricted swimming,” says Apte, who several years ago, while fishing in the Lower Keys with Capt. Steve Thomas, caught and released a huge 8-foot tarpon on a 12-pound tippet in just over 26 minutes using a tiny Sand Devil fly that his daughter had tied for him.

That technique and stout spinning tackle are used to quickly land and release tarpon by guides such as Capt. Rick Stanczyk of Islamorada, who says the tarpon fishing has been really good since the start of April.

He uses live silver mullet, which have been plentiful, and sometimes live crabs for bait around bridges and channels and wherever you see tarpon rolling on the surface, which they do to get air. Although most guides fish four-hour morning and evening trips, Stanczyk prefers to fish eight-hour trips starting at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. because it gives him time to run to different areas, some of which might be 30-40 miles from Islamorada.

When he sees tarpon, Stanczyk anchors his boat in front of the fish and drifts back the live baits. He uses a heavy spinning outfit spooled with nearly 300 yards of 50-pound braided line. He ties 20 feet of 60-pound monofilament line to the braid and attaches a swivel, and ties a 6- to 8-foot leader of 100-pound monofilament with a foam float to the swivel. He’ll use a 60- or 80-pound fluorocarbon leader if the water is clear. He puts the mullet on a 5/0 to 8/0 J hook, using the bigger hooks on the bigger baits.

“In the spring we generally catch our larger fish on average. The migrating fish are showing up, which are a lot of the bigger females that are coming in to spawn, and they’re 80-120 pounds,” Stanczyk says. “You can still catch plenty of smaller ones, too. July through the fall we have resident fish that are 30-50 pounds.”

Clark also uses mullet and crabs, then switches to live pilchards later in the season, on medium-heavy spinning rods with 50-pound braid and circle hooks to catch tarpon around bridges, in creeks and canals and on oceanside flats.

“The big numbers of fish aren’t here yet, but there’s been a pretty good early morning and late afternoon bite,” says Clark, whose new TV show with Capt. Lain Goodwin, “The Fish Guyz,” airs Saturday mornings on Discovery Channel.

“June might be one of my favorite months to tarpon fish on the ocean. The fish are 50-100 pounds and plentiful enough that we can get plenty of shots. We’re fishing on the edge of the flats, in eight, nine, 10 feet of water, and those fish seem to eat a lot better than they do in two or three feet of water.”

Helwig, of Endless Summer Charters of Key West, does some live bait trips using crabs and pinfish in channels and deeper water, but he primarily uses lures and flies. He fishes from Key West to Big Pine Key, as well as in the Marquesas. His anglers catch tarpon 60-120 pounds, with fish 80-100 pounds common.

“The ultimate is getting them on the fly rod,” says Helwig, who has been using a palolo worm fly of late.

Helwig also uses medium-action spinning rods with 40-pound line with a 9-inch Hogy plastic worm on a circle hook, especially early in the morning, and a Bomber Wind Cheater with the plug’s lip cut off and the two treble hooks replaced with a single hook.

“Those things are so heavy you can reach the fish,” he says. “When they eat and jump, 90 percent of the time they throw the hook, so you get to do it again.”