THERE’S something else.
Night tarpon are so energized, so pumped by their gluttonous feeding, they respond to the hook with a jumping ferocity beyond what the same size fish might display by day. And then they run. Invariably, even if hooked far out in the bay, they head with the current toward the ocean, toward the bridges. Hook a tarpon 100 yards from a bridge in strong current, and it’s “Katy, bar the door.” Add the eeriness of dark being pierced by a beam of high-lumen light, directed by someone in the boat tracking the fish and the fly line; add the possibility of sharks holding in current breaks, just waiting for the right moment to attack; add the slalomlike hazards of bridge and power line support piers— and all bets are off. Bringing a fish boat-side and pinging out the hook without angler casualties requires a rehearsal of tactics, precise teamwork, instant reaction, and luck.
On calm nights, you make long, slow strips, gliding the black deer-hair ’poon fly on the surface, crosscurrent, and then back in. Tarpon can see the fly a long way off in calm water, but they can also see it with chop nearly coming over the bow. Their eyesight is incredible.
When you get the eat, you may yell because no one can see the fish, nobody knows what kind of hell you’ve whipped up. When the ’poon starts crashing, the motor is cranked, and away you go. The fish may rip line off the reel despite the drag knob having been cranked down using your shirt. Somehow, the boat follows, booming past the first bridge supports with the water licking high. Now the fish is running straight, not jumping, between both bridges, until it cracks a hard left past the next support piers and is in the ocean. It’s slowing. You might have it. . . .
Maybe the next fish goes nuts for 200 yards and your line and most of your backing are out, the high-beam light showing it wrapped around the barnacled bridge support. You get in the backing, your pal has the light on the line going down the concrete pier, and the guide is screaming, “Break it off!” It’s only 20-pound tippet, you recall, and should have cut by now. The current is absolutely tearing past the boat and the bridge like a surf break, before you see the line wrapped on the far side—you’ve tried to break the line, not the tippet! The guide sees this, scoots around, and everything comes free. Even the fly. Forget the fish.
IN the mid -’90s, most guides working the night shift used their daytime, technical poling skiffs, but they were tippy and scary as hell in the rips around bridges. And there were those sharks. One calm night near a bridge, one guide had two anglers in his little Dolphin skiff with one of them hooked to a tarpon that rushed the boat. A fabled giant hammerhead, locally known as Big Mo, heaved under the skiff, knocking it up. The guide grabbed the stumbling anglers, their eyes big as sunny-side eggs, while Mo blasted the tarpon into the air, catching it crosswise as it dropped. The guide gave up night fishing—at least in that little skiff.
Most often, with the high-lumen light following the fish and the line, you see the sharks come, fins slicing the surface, bulls or hammerheads, and you clamp down and break the tarpon free. Still, it’s always a crapshoot chasing any big game fish that jumps—especially at night, when “the man in the brown suit” is near.
“It’s jism,” I told him. “In nine weeks, you’re gonna have pups.”
Only once, back when he was a night guide, Chard had a hooked fish launch over his skiff, over the angler’s head. “We were very lucky that the fly line kind of took the good path over,” he said. “Amazingly, the angler actually cleared the line and fought the fish on the other side.”
In 2010, after his second hip transplant, Capt. Jake Jordan gave up poling, sold his skiff, and bought a 20-foot-long, high-sided Jones Brothers center console. Jordan is now the go-to night guy in the Middle Keys. The boat makes his anglers very happy.
Even in the big boat, Jake has had some excitement; tight drags that help stall wildly running fish also make those fresh tarpon charge right in. Happens so fast that keeping the rod off the gunwale doesn’t always work. Fish go under the boat, come out the other side trailing half a rod. It’s happened more than once.
“One time when I had my [flats] skiff, a hooked fish came quartering at us, and the angler was getting his line back,” Jordan said. “Then the fish rushed alongside the boat and the angler, trying to follow, slammed the rod into the poling platform. The rod broke, the fish jumped and hit the port aft, coming half in, squirting out milt, sliming the angler and the boat before thrashing over. The angler looked down at himself and the mess dripping off him. “‘What the hell is this?’ he said. ‘It’s jism,’ I told him.
‘In nine weeks, you’re gonna have pups.’”
Retired Outdoor Life fishing editor Jerry Gibbs lives on the mid-Maine coast, where night fishing for stripers is somewhat tamer than night fishing for tarpon—except for the lobster trap buoys.