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5 Life Stages of the Incredible Tarpon

5 Life Stages of the Incredible Tarpon
Tarpon fishing charters in Tampa discuss the various life stages tarpon go through before growing into the “Silver King”

The Atlantic Tarpon is a staple of the Tampa fishery. Both visiting and local anglers alike long for a good fight with the “silver king.” Its massive size, impressive strength and mysterious nature make it one of the most prized of all gamefish.

The Tarpon’s incredible power has been a humbling experience for many anglers and fishing charters around Tampa – when a Tarpon strikes, this incredible power forces the angler to “bow” to the king.

Although fishing charters understand the prime seasons for catching Tarpon, the fish’s early life stages are not completely understood. Scientists and other interested groups are learning more all the time to help ensure healthy Tarpon populations are around for generations to come.

We invite you to continue reading about the various life stages of the incredible Tarpon that inhabit Tampa Bay and other areas along the Gulf coast.

1. Spawning stage - This is considered the most unknown variable, but is also the most important since this stage is responsible for replenishing Tarpon populations. What is known is the fact that adult Tarpon will travel 100-200 miles offshore to spawn. This generally occurs in the late spring and early summer.

Many believe spawning occurs during the full and new moon phase. Scientific evidence is scant, but many fishing charters report seeing Tarpon leaving in schools off Tampa in the days before the full and new moon. Scientists believe spawning occurs during this time because of pressure differences that help with the release of sperm and eggs.

Both males and females will “broadcast” their sperm and eggs into the water. Female Tarpon can release up to 12 million eggs during a single spawn!

Once the eggs are fertilized, they drift in the open ocean until they hatch.

2. Leptocephalus stage - Not long after the eggs are fertilized, the Tarpon begin the larval stage. In the first month, Tarpon are transparent like a jellyfish but look like an eel, which is known as a leptocephalus. Tarpon is one of only a few fish (Bonefish, Ladyfish, true eels) who go through this stage.

The Tarpon’s clear body during this stage and lack of a yok sack give it a distinct advantage from predators. The Tarpon larvae absorb nutrients from the ocean water. Small otoliths, or ear bones, grow by the day, making it easy to determine when a leptocephalus hatched.

Somehow, these small larvae find their way from 100+ miles offshore to the Tampa Bay estuary. They migrate through the predator filled grass beds and oyster reefs to the backwater areas where they become juvenile Tarpon.

Transluscent Leptocephalus
Transluscent Leptocephalus

Image courtesy of Univ of Southern Mississippi

3. Juvenile stage - This is where the Tarpon begin to resemble the large silver kings fishing charters are always looking for. The time they remain in this stage depends on their gender. Some are only juveniles for a few months while others will remain in this stage for up to 2 years. The juvenile Tarpon tend to stay in backwater areas that are stagnant and safe from many predators. Their swim bladder allows them to breathe air from above the water’s surface.

During this time, the Tarpon’s diet begins expanding as they start feeding on small crustaceans, worms and fish around the mangroves and wetland habitats along the water’s edge.

Also during this stage, Tarpon will grow very fast from around 1.5 inches long in the beginning to 24 inches by the end of this stage.

4. Sub-adult stage - From around 2 years until full maturity, Tarpon are in what we may call their “teenage” years, meaning they take on the characteristics of adults but still act like kids. One thing that makes them similar to human teenagers is their diet – they are voracious eaters during this time and expand their diet to include crabs, shrimp and fish.

It’s also during this stage when Tarpon move more into the open estuary or even offshore, but not very far.

It can take several years for a Tarpon to reach full maturity. Females for example are not fully mature until age 10.

5. Adult stage - Once the Tarpon reaches 30 to 49 inches in length, they are considered sexually mature adults. This is when fishing charters and anglers start pacing back and forth with anticipation. Once Tarpon reach this stage, the rate of growth slows dramatically.

Adult Tarpon also move between fresh- and saltwater pretty freely and move offshore to spawn. Although they have the ability to move hundreds of miles from where they spent their juvenile stage, most Tarpon don’t go farther than 100 miles or so offshore of Tampa.

The adult stage is also the longest since Tarpon have been known to live up to 80 years.

The Tarpon’s long life cycle is one reason its numbers suffered before catch & release became widely accepted. The fish has no food value – it’s mainly sought for its impressive strength, vigorous fight and incredible acrobatics when it hits your bait.

Capt. Jim Lemke of Light Tackle Adventures offers guided fishing charters for Tarpon in Tampa Bay. He has decades of experience observing the Tarpon’s migration patterns and life stages, and only seeks mature Tarpon. Well aware of the pressures Tarpon face, Capt. Lemke goes to great lengths to ensure his customers observe all relevant regulations and handle the Tarpon with care.

To learn about Tarpon fishing charters in Tampa, visit for more information or to schedule a charter today!

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