We often hear it said that the best time to fish is when the fish are biting. True, but summertime in southern coastal waters adds another layer of consideration. Try this: The best time to fish (during summer's swelter) is when the fish are biting AND you are not baking in the intolerable heat.
Indeed, dawn-til-dusk trips are the recipe for heat stroke. A better plan is dusk-til-dawn – or some period within those hours. Air temperatures decline, boat traffic diminishes, the shallow game becomes more viable and you get a lot of cool ambient elements like brilliant orange cloud colorations, muted lightning flashes from distant thunderheads, rainbows and shooting stars (after nightfall).
I recently joined Tampa Bay guides, Capt. Tyler Kapela and Capt. Jason Stock, for just such an evening. Launching from Tierra Verde, Kapela warmed up with a keeper gag grouper that chomped a hand-sized pinfish drifted along a concrete pier. After that, we ran to a tranquil cove where leaping mullet, frequent surface pops and a lot of those distinct V wakes indicated the evening feed had commenced.
“Mullet are always the key,” Kapela said in reference to the vegetarians’ knack for attracting gamefish in search of baitfish and crustaceans displaced by the rumbling herds. “There’s always a period when these fish get really active right before sundown.”
Check out the Night Fishing photo gallery
Easing in on the trolling motor, Kapela armed himself with a MirrOlure Top Dog. Jr., while Stock worked a Zara Spook. About a half dozen casts into the operation, an auburn torpedo surged behind the MirrOlure and nearly knocked out those red plastic eyes. Thirty seconds later, Stock came tight on a high slot redfish, while his partner strained against 30 inches of irate red. A few trout would wrap up this phase of the trip and then it was off to the now-illuminated bridges.
Highlight of the night was definitely the tarpon crashing herds of ladyfish off the fenders of a bridge that shall remain nameless. Watching poons that go a buck-fifty air it out during the daytime is an “Oh, cool!” kinda moment. When that happens at night – outside the bridge lights, 10 yards from the boat, when you’re not expecting it; well, let’s just call it “interesting.”
Pulling our attention away from the tarpon, we spotted a pile of big snook ravaging fry baits in the light of a bridge fender. The linesiders wouldn’t eat, but when Kapela spotted a couple of poons, he instantly recognized feeding behavior. As he noted, tarpon will often assume odd angles – inverted, vertical – to best utilize the shadow lines for prey ambush. When a particular poon turned head-down, a well-placed pinfish met with a violent response and a dramatic under-the-boat dash into the darkness gave us 10 exciting seconds with a serious fish.
“You only have a small window of opportunity with tarpon in this situation,” Kapela said. “When they turn their head down to feed in the light, your bait has to fall just at the right moment or they’ll miss it. You just have to get lucky and put it right in his wheel house.”
Following the bridge deal, we concluded our after-hours mission with a milk run of dock lights, where ladyfish, silver trout and speckled trout provided plenty of entertainment on jigs, TriggerX Shrimp and topwaters. As Kapela observed, these dock light fish get wise in a hurry. Keeping your distance and minimizing noise is a must, but repetition is a real killer. Stock said the first cast is key, as the fish quickly dial in what’s real and what’s fake. However, he has a secret weapon – the Maverick Golden Eye.
“The way that lure is designed (with an offset lip), it comes through the water all squirrely,” he said. “It never looks the same so the fish don’t get used to it.”
My hosts had a few more tips for dock light success:
Tides: Kapela wants enough water movement to stimulate the fish and make them decide to grab a passing meal, but not so fast that he can’t make effective presentations. Also, he said the incoming tide is much better, as it pushes baitfish closer to the lights where predators lurk.
Addressing the lingering effects of summer dog days, Stock added: “On low tides, the water gets stagnant, so unless you have some movement, you won’t catch anything.”
Moons: Tidal movement runs the strongest on new and full moons, but Kapela favors the former.
“It seems that on the new moon, the fish get more concentrated around the dock lights,” he said. “The full moon scatters them out because it’s like a big dock light in the sky.”
Flats boats and trolling motors work well for light hopping during non-daylight hours, but for optimal stealth, rig a couple of rods, pare down your tackle to one small bag and take the kayak approach. You'll need a safety light for non-daylight use and the PFD, of course, and an anchor stake for holding your position next to a sweet spot.
You'll give up some casting mobility and the angles can get a little tough when tides and wind swing you more than a heavier boat. However, you'll be able to sneak a lot closer to the fish and stay on a hot bite longer than you would in an elevated position. For a hands-free kayak mission, Hobie's pedal-powered Mirage Pro Angler (Best In Show at ICAST 2012) offers a spacious cockpit, ample dry storage and a wide beam that makes it stable enough to stand up and fish.
Lastly, don't overlook the option of fishing on foot. When the sun goes down, the surf comes alive with activity, so put on your wading shoes and walk to the water's edge. You'll find your best opportunities near the passes, particularly on strong tides. Incoming and outgoing cycles will produce – just picture where the snook, trout, redfish and flounder will position to intercept tide-borne meals. Remember, your comfort certainly matters, but so does that of the fish. Make your casts in the times and places most suitable for summer fish and watch your catches increase.
For nighttime fishing trips, contact Capt. Tyler Kapela at (727) 421-1051 or Jason Stock at (727) 459-5899.