My friend and fellow fish-head, Kirk, has a place and a boat down in Florida now. He invited Noah and I out but promised nothing spectacular. Between Kirk and I, I'm the optimist. I felt confident we'd find something cool with three very fishy people on the same boat. The plan was to head up into the wild waters and see if we could find some rolling tarpon before the sun set, then head into the intracoastal to fish lighted docks for snook and lookdowns after dark.
As we headed into the mangrove lined dark waters that I'd spent hours looking at maps of and trying to decipher spots within, I couldn't help but feel a sense of excitement. Something I'd planned to do and though about for a while was coming to fruition.
We wandered our way around the bends and oxbows, looking for a non-windy corner and rolling fish. Eventually, we did find it. The head of an adult tarpon, looking like a carved piece of chrome, broke the surface, audibly indicated by a sucking sound and followed by the shape of its incredible forked tail. Tarpon are air breathers. They routinely surface to breath, especially in water with low oxygen content. They weren't rolling that frequently here, but enough to give us hope. I watched for rolls and the bubbles that followed as the fish expelled air behind its operculums to get some idea of what direction and speed the fish was traveling so as to cast to it. We were each using different methods, Noah a paddletail soft plastic, Kirk a jerkbait, and I a Gartside Gurgler. This is always a good idea until a pattern is established. We almost didn't catch anything up there in the back country though. I managed a single snook, my first of the trip and my first in more than a year, and that was reason enough for celebration. But we were soon heading back out of the river tarponless, which is about what you can reasonably expect anyway.
Switching modes and surrounding, we prepared to hop docks late into the night, searching for those with the most active fish. We actually found fish breaking on a dock light very quickly but they weren't obliging. It took a little while to find some fish that were in a good mood and weren't actually just big mullet. Noah struck first.
I didn't lag that far behind though. My Popovics Jiggy variation (bead instead of cone) got slammed as I pulled it into the darkness outside the dock light and I strip set into a pissed off, high flying snook. It pains me to say it, striped bass are my fish. I could never say a bad thing about stripers. But snook just fight harder. Their initial run is much faster than you can rightfully expect to get out of a striped bass and they will nearly always jump. Less so in deeper water, but a small to mid-sized snook is almost always going to go airborne at least once. Then, once you're done with a heck of a fight, you get to look at quite a unique and lovely looking fish.
The next dock produced a small crevalle jack, and a short time later another snook, again it took away from the light well into the darkness. We weren't seeing any spectacular numbers but the fish were more than abundant enough to keep the energy level up on the boat, and we all hoped that we'd happen upon a dock loaded up with lookdowns, a very unique jack neither Noah nor I had ever caught.
A few docks later, I got a take that wasn't at all snook like, and an extremely odd feeling fight. I could tell it was a very broad sided fish, as it would turn against me and I'd feel the vibrations of its tail pulses transmitting through my fly line. I was pretty sure I had a lookdown, and indeed I did. This was on of the strangest fish I'd ever caught, without question. It was so strikingly alien looking that it didn't matter that I'd seen many photos of them, holding one in my hands was a bit of a shock. Just look at this freak of nature:
|Lookdown/moonfish, Selene vomer. Life List Fish #149. Rank: Species|
We bounced docks for about an hour before we found another that was loaded up with fish. From a distance we could see the activity; fish breaking and bait spraying. On closer inspection it became clear we'd not catch any fish on this particular dock. There was far too much bait and probably only a few snook or lookdowns feeding. For here in the northeast Noah and I had come up with the "Triple P" or "Peanut to Predator Proportion" to describe the all too common scenario brought about by the presence of far too many peanut bunker and not nearly enough predator fish. Such a high proportion of baitfish makes for a visually spectacular blitz but often very poor catching. This, I guess we could say, was an undesirable "SSP" or "Silverside to Snook Proportion". We moved on and found the motherload.
Two docks, not 30 yards apart, held more snook between the two of them then we'd seen all night. They popped and boiled on bait and sat like ominous shadows in the green light of the docks. Kirk had been playing the dock light game a while now but he'd not seen anything like this. It was pretty stunning, and the action wasn't slow.
We each hooked fish off of one or both of those two docks, and the fish never seemed to get completely tired of our intrusion. We actually had to leave them chewing there as it was no longer that same day we'd started fishing on, and we couldn't really ask for much more anyway. Right before we left, I snagged one of the docks and we had to go in to retrieve my fly. I learned two important things from this: first, and Kirk had already talked about this, use an anti-shock tippet above your heavy fluoro so you can break off when you inevitably snag (we typically use 30lb fluoro on snook because their rasp and sharp gill plate make quick work of lighter less abrasion resistant leader material). And second, though the fish looked like they were milling around within two feet of the surface the whole time, they were actually substantially deeper. I suspect, had I not switched to smaller but unweighted flies and simply trimmed down a Clouser or Jiggy that I could have actually caught even more fish. That's definitely an optical illusion to take into consideration if you fish lighted docks for any fish species. All told, it was a pretty spectacular experience. I thank Kirk for his time and sharing his new home waters with us, and it was really an exciting learning experience. Noah and I both left the boat launch that night feeling we'd learned a lot, and that our fishing resumes had been added to in a not insubstantial way. To me, that's what it is all about.
Until next time,
Fish for the love of fish.
Fish for the love of places fish live.
Fish for you.
And stay safe and healthy.
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