Purists may despise night fishing for Florida Keys tarpon, but nobody says it ain’t high-adrenaline sport.
[by Jerry Gibbs]
They call it out as something for those who lack needed day skills—the demand for precision casting in myriad conditions, an ability to see fish at distance. And, they ask, how can you abandon the rush of the visual hunt, seeing a big tarpon close the distance, snap open its jaws, and suck in the fly? And yet . . .
During the past couple of decades, a small but steady cadre of Florida Keys guides has refined the black-watch game into a teaching force, a game where runaway numbers of bites and hookups seem obscene in plenitude, where the demands during a variety of critical situations are no less the adrenaline shot than their daytime counterparts. This we know: You get no downtime in the night.
Bruce Chard, a kid who simply knew his fish back in the mid-’90s, now a poster boy in the fly fishing industry, is credited with refining night fishing in the Keys. When Chard was getting his start, the primary late-day fishing consisted of soaking mullet at the bridges. When the sun sank, the bite seemed to stop and most figured fishing was done; tarpon couldn’t see to eat, people guessed. Wrong. That fish’s eyes, alone, should have clued them to the tarpon’s nocturnal bent.
“Traditionalists, the experienced and the intransigent, scorn it as the redheaded stepchild of tarpon fly fishing. Night fishing, that is.”
Chard realized that a just-turning and outgoing tide offered the ideal current speed to ribbon forage near the bridges—easy pickings for the big fish. When the tide starts kicking, though, it shoots dinner—the baitfish, shrimps, and crabs—through the channels leading to the bridges, and then past the bridges themselves. This makes things harder for the ’poons. So they move. That’s when Chard says, Screw the bridges. He’ll tell you the fish move out, into Gulf waters—Florida Bay, more precisely—feeding where bait concentrates, which is over grass and along the edges of the channels in the flats. The fish move quickly, first maybe a hundred yards into the bay. The drill is to motor even farther uptide, shut down the engine, start drifting while blind-casting. You could get four or five eats during that 15-minute ride, when things are good. Eat your liver, day anglers. Next run, you likely motor another hundred yards farther upcurrent. In four hours, the fish can be two-plus miles into the bay. Middle of nowhere.
GET A LATE START, say three hours into the falling tide, and your guide might take you into what seems like never-never land, causing you to think, What the hell are we doing here? But if it’s calm, the darkness humid and heavy, as soon as you shut down, you’ll hear a ploosh followed by a pow. And if the tarpon truly get on the feed, the sound is the staccato of a popcorn machine. They’ll be popping and pounding, sucking the bait, sometimes within a rod’s length of the boat, often with such power, it can be, well, frightening. In the Keys, such Wagnerian performances are found at virtually every bridge from Key Largo to Key West, with the bigger, deeper channels concentrating piles of large fish.
Key West has its own night game, including the harbor option, with specialists like Capts. Greg Rahe and Nick LaBadie getting in on the act. Up in Biscayne Bay, Capts. Dave Hunt and Eric Herstedt lure the adventurous from Miami’s South Beach party scene to cast for night tarpon under lights. And on Florida’s west coast, Tampa native Capt. Jim Lemke developed nocturnal techniques that feature close-range fly pitching to illuminated, barrel-rolling tarpon where currents are not so strong as what you see in the Keys.
Unquestionably, night fishing for actively feeding tarpon and coaxing them to eat by day are two different things. That’s especially true for the big, 40- to 50-year-old fish that have seen it all before and are under increasing angler, rec-boating, and environmental pressures. But the greater number of bites at night ratchets up an angler’s fish-fighting skill and builds confidence. In the dark, you’re also forced to feel the rod load while casting. By day, less experienced anglers often err by taking their eyes from a target to admire their loops.