Hitting striped bass at night, off dock lights, is sometimes otherworldly.
[By Zach Matthews]
THE EERIE GREEN GLOW WAS THE EXACT COLOR THAT HOLLYWOOD USES TO DEPICT SOMETHING AS RADIOACTIVE This light hung in the black depths of the lake, like a star in outer space. It was after midnight on a cloudy night with a new moon, so there was no horizon, making it nearly impossible to tell up from down. The effect was disorienting. Our trolling motor whirred softly, drawing us into casting range—into orbit.
Two of my closest friends stared intently, just like me, into the emerald halo. Jay Malyon worked the trolling motor’s remote control. He has meticulously rebuilt and customized a 1972 Robalo center-console skiff, slowly creating the perfect craft for this special game. The boat’s multicolored modern electronics lit up his face. Our approach was glacial; just barely moving. Andrew Wright half crouched on the front deck, his 10-weight fly line stacked in neat curls at his feet, which were temporarily bare for traction. Our breath steamed the air—temperatures would soon drop below freezing. Suddenly a shadow crossed the green light, like a partial eclipse, and we all sucked in breath at the same time.
“Good fish,” Jay said.
“Fifteen pounds, maybe twenty,” I agreed, snatching a pair of binoculars.
Andrew said nothing, but stretched and restacked his line, his mouth set.
Sixty feet out, Jay killed our momentum, and Andrew cast. Jay and I automatically popped our clear safety glasses down off our hat brims. Andrew’s fly—a Clouser Minnow–Deceiver hybrid, all black and tied to sink quickly—whistled through the air. It slipped into the water just on the backside of the light, darting across the underwater penumbra exactly like a wounded threadfin shad. Two striper-shaped streaks immediately slashed out of the darkness, rewarding our stealthy approach. One was the big striped bass we had spotted, with another, slightly smaller fish acting as wingman. The big fish surged right up to the fly, silhouetted against the green glow behind. He peeled off at the last second, sensing trouble. His smaller competitor seized the moment—and the fly—but quickly regretted it.
Twelve pounds of striped bass is still plenty of fish, in the dark, on a freezing, black lake. Jay hammered the trolling motor into high gear; spinning us off the light, giving Andrew room to work. The fish shook its head, taking line, and headed straight for the bottom. Andrew—a tarpon angler—was having none of that, and quickly turned it. Within minutes we were staring at its black and silver horizontal stripes in the bottom of our net. Lake stripers tend to be thicker for their length than river stripers; they have shoulders, giving them short-burst power but sapping their tenacity.
“You think that twenty-pounder’s still there?” Jay asked, halfhoping. “It better be,” I quipped. “It’s my turn.” Over the past few decades, a fishery has emerged on lakes throughout the Southeast and beyond. Originating in Florida’s saltwater boating communities, this style of fishing relies upon “dock lights”—more specifically, a special kind of decorative green light (sold under monikers such as the Green Monster or Green Glow Dock Light). These lights resemble underwater streetlamps; they are typically uncovered glass bulbs, about 250 watts or more, and are placed near private boat docks. Most dock owners purchase these lights as decorations. They do look pretty dramatic sitting on either side of the end of a dock, like indicators on an aircraft runway. Once a dock owner in a cove deploys these lights, his neighbors frequently follow.
Of course, anywhere there is significant light, baitfish congregate. Often they form the same whirling baitballs that bluewater anglers report seeing. Snook anglers in Florida were the first to realize the tremendous fishing potential these bait schools offer, and their methods soon spread northward. As a rule, pulling more than one fish off a light is difficult (thus our extreme emphasis on stealth), but the fishing itself is not hard. This is a great way to introduce an angler to striped bass fishing, provided they can cast safely in the dark. The by-catch often includes large crappies, largemouths, spotted or smallmouth bass, and even walleyes.
We started targeting these lights several years ago, eventually building up a routine. We meet at a certain gas station just after sundown, loading up on fuel and coffee. We fish from sundown until around midnight, unless the fishing is especially good, when we might stay out until dawn. In mid-winter, baitfish and stripers seek warmer water at the backs of coves, exactly where most of the lights are positioned. Conditions can be practically subarctic even in Georgia, so you have to get used to casting in heavy coats and sometimes handling line around thick, warm boots on icy decks. We mostly stick to 10-weight rods with intermediate or slow-sinking integrated shooting-head lines.
There is a still-developing ethic around this fishery. Dock light fishing necessarily concentrates angling pressure, forcing us all to respect other anglers. Dock lights often “calm down” after about 30 minutes or so, meaning the same light can be fished by multiple groups in a single night, but only if they give each other space and time between attempts.
I was generously introduced to dock light fishing by American Angler contributor and guide Henry Cowen, who showed me the ropes and took me to my first light. However, as a general rule, anglers do not share light locations with others. This creates a conundrum; on the one hand, everyone wants a good experience and these lights to themselves, but on the other, the most prominently located lights develop the most fishing pressure. Given enough pressure, many dock light owners decide they have had enough company, and turn them off.
About an hour after we released that 12-pounder, Andrew and I huddled inside our waders and duck hunting jackets, encased in thick layers of down, as Jay rocketed us across a black mirror. Jay wore motocross goggles, peering into the night from his post behind the console. A houseboat hosting a raging party chugged slowly down the opposite shoreline, its disco lights flashing onto the water. People get a little loose at night on a lake. Years ago, someone shot a pistol at Jay and me, presumably some coked-out landowner who had been blaring music from his million-dollar home’s outdoor stereo before he decided to take a little target practice. We didn’t bother calling it in.
Jay cut into a cove, then suddenly killed the motor, bringing us into a wet skid, then a stop. “New light!” he exclaimed. We deployed the trolling motor and slowly approached to find a double light—the very best kind. Many homeowners like the effect of two lights a few yards apart, one of which generally holds the bait. Stripers and other large predators prefer to stick to the shadows, but occasionally flash through in a quick blitz. As we drew near, I realized one of the lights held a true rarity: a “baitball” of stripers, rollicking around the light in a classic tornado. Most were schoolie sized, up to seven pounds, but you could hardly ask for a surer thing.
I hopped onto the deck and launched a cast across the outer edge of their whirl, immediately pulling three fish out of the pack. The greatest joy of dock light fishing is that it is almost all sight fishing, with the black silhouettes of the fish, and sometimes even their stripes, clearly visible. The trio raced to catch my fly, with the fastest pivoting towards open water as soon as he felt the hook. While I was fighting my fish, Jay quickly hooked another. As a rule, we fight only one fish at a time to avoid tangles, but schoolies in a blitz are an all-hands-on-deck situation. We both landed our fish, putting Andrew back on the deck just in time to watch the tornado melt into darkness. That’s how it goes; the fish will be there for a few minutes, then disappear, following bait to another light, maybe, or back to deep water.
Green-light fishing can be summed up into some pretty simple guidelines: move quietly; fish safely, because open water can be dangerous in the dark; and above all, resist the light. Those green lights draw you in—just like the fish. Like moths to a candle flame, if you aren’t careful, you will find yourself sitting right on top of the light, trying to fool wary predators with 25-foot-long casts. Stay back and work the outer edges of the halo instead, especially if you are searching for bigger fish. If you want to catch more than one fish off a light at a time, prioritize the quick getaway, and move any hooked fish away from the light as soon as possible.
As the green-light phenomenon spreads across the country, opportunities for this kind of fishing are increasing. This is a potential win–win for everyone. The landowner gets a cool statement piece (or two) for their lake house, and knows fish will always be around for their grandkids to catch. Anglers get to prospect and open up new fisheries. Dock light fishing is best when almost all other fisheries are shut down, extending our season. And as the number of lights increases, angling pressure can grow with the resource rather than overwhelming it. The only real threat to dock light fishing is the attitude of anglers; if we remain respectful of each other, respectful of the landowner, and curious enough to keep expanding our dock light options instead of visiting the same lights night after night, this type of fishery should thrive, no matter where you find it.
Zach Matthews is a frequent contributor to American Angler and the host of The Itinerant Angler podcast. He lives in Alpharetta, Georgia.