"Night Time's The Right Time!"
Part of the Fishing the Florida Keys Series
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Florida Keys Summer Night Fishing

 

Let's face it...those windless summer days in the Keys are not just hot...they're darn hot.  Traditional daytime reef fishing, though at times productive, can be downright excruciating due to the intense summer sun. And frustrating too, because those hungry swarming snappers of spring have been replaced by a more tentative crop that often will lay back 100 yards or better in a chumline and dare an angler make them bite.

It comes as no surprise then, that many knowledgeable local anglers shift over to night fishing at this time of year.  The advantages are many, with the most obvious one being comfort.  Just think of it...no grueling heat to contend with, no gooey sunscreens or fogged sunglasses...heck, you won't even need a hat (though few true anglers fish well without one).

Another advantage is that the fish are a lot more "angler friendly."  Those same fish that acted so tentative during the daylight hours become downright tenacious after the sun goes down.  The following material will expound on some of the tactics and target species involved with summer night fishing here in the Keys.

                                                  THE REEF AT NIGHT

No, reef fishing at night is not exactly a closely guarded secret.   For as long as anyone that I know can remember, fishermen have been targeting the late spring and summer spawning aggregations of yellowtail, mangrove and mutton snapper on the reef at night.  There are two basic techniques involved in catching these species at night, namely flatlining and bottom fishing.

Flatlining involves drifting an unweighted bait (a small strip of ballyhoo or small piece of fresh bonito meat are my favorites) back in the chumline.   The idea is to present your offering as if it's part of the chum itself.   Yellowtail snapper are the primary targets for the flatliner, but mutton and mangrove snapper will respond well to this method if you're not fishing in deep water.   There are two big advantages to flatlining at night.  First, the yellowtail are schooling in the chumline much closer to the boat than during the day.   Secondly, they can be caught on heavier line than during daylight hours (when they often will not hit a bait on anything heavier than 10 lb. test because of the visibility factor. Thus, at night you'll be able to get your "flag" yellowtail to the boat before those nasty, ever-present predators (sharks and barracuda) gobble them up.

Some of the tackle modifications I make for flatlining at night are as follows:


(1) I use a 15 lb. spinning outfit with 20 lb line instead of the 10-12 lb. outfit I use during the day.

(2) I move up in hook size from a #4 or #2 to a 1/0 in order to pressure the fish without ripping the hook out.  I tie the hook directly to the 20 lb. line, as tying on leaders is an unnecessary pain in the dark.

Bottom fishing is another productive method for producing good catches at night.  Mangroves and muttons are the principle targets here, though nearly any large predatory reef fish is susceptible to being caught in this manner.  I like about a 5 foot leader of 40 to 60 lb. mono, and a 4/0 or 5/0 short shank live bait hook.   Use an egg sinker of just enough weight to hold bottom.   If I had one bait to choose for bottom fishing, it would be a live pilchard hooked through the nose.  Live pinfish (especially small ones) are an excellent bait as well.  Hook these through the mouth in the soft spot between the eyes and the upper lip.  Hooked in this fashion, the pinny is less likely to tangle the rig on the way to the bottom.  For dead bait a long diagonal slice off a fresh ballyhoo fillet is hard to beat, though some prefer thread herring or mullet cut in the same manner.

Where you fish is even more important than how you fish.  The reef can be broken down into three components: The patches (coral ledges and coral growth in less than 40 feet), the mid range depth ledges (coral ledges in 40-60 ft.) and the deep ledges (beyond 60 ft).  Quite often, spawning aggregations of mangrove snapper can be found up on the 30 to 40 foot patches, making easy targets for the knowledgeable angler.   Large yellowtail are usually targeted in a little deeper water, though it may not be necessary to have to fish the 70 to 90 foot ledges that you'd normally fish in the daylight hours unless things just aren't working on the inside ledges.

Boat positioning is critical in reef fishing.   Always be sure that you anchor in such a way that the flow of your chumline will carry along the ledge, or at the very least into it.  If you screw up the anchor job and end up anchored down current from the ledge (so your chum flows into nothing but sand bottom) a long uneventful evening awaits you.

A good sonar is a must, not only to locate ledges and wrecks, but also to find upon which part of the wreck or ledge the fish are laying.  For example, if you are fishing a ledge that drops from 45 feet down to 70 feet, it would make little sense to fish the deeper portion of the ledge if the fish are packed solid on the top of the break.  Snapper, especially large ones will mark on your sonar as a series of inverted V's (often called Christmas trees).  Smaller yellowtail mark as more of a cloud, but there may be some decent ones in there too.   As a general rule I start as shallow as I can and then will move deeper if I don't reach fish on on the shallow patches or mid depth ledges.  This trend is reversed however, if I start my trip in the late afternoon.

Preparation is absolutely essential if you want to be effective with your night fishing.  Make your bottom rigs up in advance...wet slimy hands are not effective knot tying tools in the dark.  Do your bait prep in advance as well.   Investing a little time to castnet some pilchards or catching a few dozen pinfish before the trip will reap handsome dividends later in the evening.   And, don't skimp on the ice. Yellowtail go soft fast, due in part to their belly being full of the chum that drew them to the boat in the first place.  If you're into sand-balling, mix up all those secret ingredients before you leave the dock, rather than on a rolling boat in the dark.  Sandballing is an article unto itself and will be dealt with in a future issue.

                  FLORIDA BAY AT NIGHT

For years, the relatively protected waters of Florida Bay have provided countless Middle Keys anglers with bountiful catches of snapper, grouper, cobia, trout and mackerel.  Amazingly though, it has never occurred to most of these anglers to try those same productive waters at night.  Summertime night fishing in the Bay can be quite productive for decent-sized mangrove snapper (1 to 3 pounds) in spite of the fact that most snapper fishing activity is taking place on the reef now.

As a general rule, you'll be bottom fishing in water ranging from 6 to 12 feet deep.  Instead of bottom fishing directly under the boat as you would in reef fishing, you'll be fishing your bait on the bottom a boat length or two back in the chum line.  A 3 to 4 foot, 30 lb. leader with a 2/0 offset plain shank hook and a 1/4 to 1/2 oz. egg lead above the leader works well for terminal gear.   For bait, I prefer using steaks (1-2 inch length) from freshly caught ballyhoo.

It is important to try to time your night trip in the Bay so that the current and wind are flowing in the same general direction to help your chumline cover a larger area.  Don't panic if you have to wait up to 45 minutes before getting some decent bites; it may take that long before your chumline starts to effectively draw fish.   And, contrary to what many people think, you don't have to be on a "secret wreck" or even a coral ledge to find snapper in the Bay.  Find a large area of deep grass, chum it patiently, and the mangos will come.

                            TARPON AT NIGHT

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During "prime time" ( mid April through mid June), the major portion of my live-bait tarpon fishing at the bridges takes place during daylight hours.   One of the off-season adjustments that I make after about the second week of July is that I don't even wet a line until sunset.  Another change that I make for these summer resident tarpon is that I scale down my gear to 12-15 lb. spinning tackle, my leaders down to 50 lb., and my hooks down to a 3/0 or 4/0.   Remember, these post season fish are much smaller than the bruisers of spring, with the average fish weighing 15 to 30 pounds, (pure fun on a one-handed spinning rod).   I also downscale on bait size too, opting for medium-sized pilchards or pinfish.

Plugcasting on the calm nights works well on our local fish as well.   Take extreme care when unhooking a small frisky plug-caught tarpon, as it is very easy to end up hung on the same plug as your tarpon.   A small lip gaff and a long pistol-grip dehooker are must-have items for this type of fishing.

Another good tool for night tarpon fishing is a good combination spotlight/floodlight. I really like to light things up when my angler hooks up so he can enjoy seeing his fish leap and cavort (as small tarpon are prone to do).

                                                             OTHER SPECIES

Certainly snapper and tarpon are not the only species available to the night fisherman.  If you want to add a page to your "piscatorial playbook", try bonefishing by moonlight.  I've personally fought and caught tailing bones on a low incoming tide during a moonlit summer evening and found it to be a thrill.

Snook fishing at night is all but a religion with many of the locals here in the Keys. Just remember that in June through August they are catch and release targets only.

And the giant cubera snapper (often exceeding 50 pounds) found out beyond the reefs on the August and September full moons are....well these are all articles unto themselves for future issues.  Suffice it to say you won't lack for target species once you get hooked on night fishing.

                                                LIGHT AT NIGHT?

If you want to start a good argument (and who doesn't), just ask a night fisherman how much artificial light should be allowed out on the water from the boat.  Snook fishermen are the most dogmatic on this subject....none!  Reef fishermen are a little more split on the issue.  Though many feel that a light on the water will keep snapper farther back in the chumline, the light will draw in bait (pilchards and goggle eyes) which can be caught and put to use as live bait for bottom fish and sometimes kingfish.  If your only goal is to flatline for yellowtail, go with as little light shining into the water as possible.  If you are primarily bottom fishing on deep reefs, the light shouldn't hurt as much.

Moonlight is another factor.  I've yet to meet a night yellowtailer that likes a full moon; most prefer the dark phases of the moon for best results.  Bridge fishermen often split on the issue of tarpon fishing on the full moon.  As for me, we've had some fantastic action on the full moon over the years, and many of my clients book full moon evening tides for tarpon as much as a year in advance.

At times when a bright moon creates a shadowline on the uptide side of the bridge, tarpon and snook will use this shadowline as a lay-up point for ambushing bait swept toward them by the current. (Plugs are deadly at times like this).

                                  CAVEATS

If you are looking at night fishing from the perspective of an angler, your main concerns will no doubt focus on weighty issues like whether to bring one sandwich or two.  But, if you are a boat owner/operator, then you have a few additional items to consider.

First, let me restate Murphy's Law for those of you who have forgotten: "If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong at the worst possible moment."  With that definition freshly in mind, let me share a couple of thoughts with you that may keep you and Murphy from meeting.

1. Know your water!  It goes without saying that you need to be intimately familiar with any reefs, flats, or obstructions along the route to the fishing grounds.  Having nautical charts of the area is important, but being "chart smart" is just not as good as having personally run the intended route during daylight hours.  And watch the shoreline from which you came; familiarize yourself with the lights on shore so you'll have some idea how to get home should your Loran or GPS fail you (remember Murphy?)

2. Know your weather!  Don't even think about leaving that dock without a NOAA weather radio forecast and radar summary.  If a few squalls are present, be sure to know the general direction they are moving.   It's common to watch a thunderstorm in progress somewhere on the horizon while you are night fishing.  Just don't let it get between you and home port without having an alternate plan.  As for squalls, I don't recommend "riding them out" although I've done it in the past (and question my sanity each time I do).  Use a little common sense, remember that thing about discretion and valor and such, and you should be all right.

3. Know your watercraft!  I want you to reread Murphy's Law before going any further.  Nowhere does it have more meaning than in the bilge of a rocking boat at night.  The fact that your boat has a bilge pump is meaningless unless it works.  Have your engines been running well?  If not, then why are you even thinking about night fishing?  Running lights, spotlights, flashlights.....their mere existence on a boat does not ensure their reliability.   Make sure your gear is fully functional before you leave.  And by the way, running out of fuel at night is the pits....be sure you are carrying nearly double the fuel that you think you'll need.

One final note: Night fishing is not the time to be out partying on the boat.  You want to pound down a few brewskies?  Do it back on shore after you've tied up to the dock for the night.  If you think you've got problems now, try losing a drunken passenger overboard in the dark and see if your priorities don't change in a hurry.

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Night fishing is a lot like life.  Try to wing it with little regard for preparation and common sense and you'll come up short every time.  But great fishing and comfortable conditions await those willing to pay the price.  See you on the water

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