When it comes to shallow-water success, your odds rise with the moon
There’s a sliver of moon barely peeking through the low lying clouds, lending scant light to the scene. You stand on the deck of a skiff gliding placidly through a residential canal, inching toward a dock light as the trolling motor at your feet hums. It’s the third light you’ve tried – the first two were holding no fish that you could see or raise. You’ve already stripped out enough line for the cast, but you lay another coil on the deck, just in case. Hanging from your rod tip is a small, white, nondescript fly, tied to a long section of 20 lb. leader. As you near the light, you catch your breath. Are those dark shapes just beneath the surface, on the edge of the circle of light? Yes, they are. Several nice fish, lying like stacked cordwood, their noses into the slight current. Why this light, and not another? No matter. They’re here, and so are you.
You false cast twice, your first attempt landing right across their noses. In an instant the shadows are gone, the light deserted. You wait a minute, maybe two, a few choice words betraying your mood. But then, just under a dock piling, you see a long shadow reappear, and then another. A moment later a small shrimp skips across the surface, only to disappear in a silver boil. You launch a quick sidearm cast, and the fly flicks under the dock, into complete darkness. You begin a quick, pulsing retrieve, seeing the fly emerge into the light, dance into its center-point, and move back toward the boat. You prepare for the pickup, scanning the water for your next cast, when a dark shadow flares on the fly and disappears in the direction of the dock. You struggle to untangle the line around your bare feet, fumbling the crimped coils and grabbing the disappearing line next to the reel, pinning it to the rod as you lean sideways and strip-strike. By the time you feel the weight, your line points directly under the dock, and with a single, heavy headshake, you feel the fish burst around a piling. Your line rubs, and you apply desperate pressure. Under the dock you hear the fish emerge, its big head shaking a white froth that sends shock waves across the surface. In an instant your leader line snaps, and you’re left holding a limp rod and a bruised ego. Welcome to fly fishing after dark.
More and more shallow-water anglers are learning about the pleasures of throwing fur and feathers in the dark. In the warm months, it can offer a chance to escape the incessant heat. In Florida during the cooler months, it can offer shelter from the wind – every fly-caster’s nemesis – as most night-caught fish are taken from secluded residential canals. Regardless of the season, fly fishing after dark offers the angler a chance to find fish in considerable numbers within a concentrated area – and often in the mood to eat.
Where to fish
As mentioned, residential canals are the first choice of most night anglers, as they feature a combination of factors conducive to good fishing. First, residential canals are a favorite hangout of gamefish like snook, redfish, sea trout and even tarpon both day and night, simply because structure appeals to ambush predators. Secondly, canals generally hold heat better than open water in the cooler months, primarily due to their greater depths and the fact that they’re usually sheltered from the heavy winds that drive temperatures down. Third – and most compelling – canals feature homes, and many homes feature anglers who hang bright, hooded lights on their docks to create a hotspot in their own backyard. Why do the lights attract gamefish? Simple: because they attract the crabs, shrimp, baitfish and other menu. That said, practically any light hovering over saltwater in Florida – including bridges, piers, and even streetlights – can hold fish. And contrary to popular belief, the light source doesn’t have to be extremely bright. Gamefish are accustomed to feeding in utter darkness – even a mild, ambient light can draw them within casting range.
I’ve seen fly casters use everything from a 4-weight to a 12-weight on lights, the former being very light, the latter simply overkill. A 7 to 9-weight outfit is ideal, loaded with matching floating line – or overloaded slightly with heavier line. Very long leaders aren’t essential, but they can lead to more hookups on nights when fish are spooky. Again, floating lines are the norm, though some anglers swear by larger flies and sinking lines that allow them to dredge the deeper water where bigger fish often lie. I believe them – I’ve just never tried it myself. Most of the casts required when fishing lights aren’t long, so I’m told sinking lines are relatively easy to use in this situation. However, I prefer floating line for other reasons: first, because most of the fish around lights seem to be higher in the water column looking to shoot after a meal near or on the surface, so a high presentation results in a lot of hookups. Secondly, I love to see fish track and hit the fly, something you can’t see with a sub-surface line. A little experimentation will help you establish a preference.
When I first started fishing lights, I made the mistake of using flies that were far too large, including some bulky streamers that I used on shorelines or on flats in broad daylight. Over time (and with the advice of friends who took pity on me) I’ve learned that smaller, lighter-colored flies are the best bet. If you sit and look under a fish light for a while, you’ll notice that most of the baits you see are very small and lightly colored – including glass minnows, small pilchards, grass shrimp, and the like. Smaller flies are simply a way of “matching the hatch.” If you have a fly in your box that perfectly matches the bait you see, you’re in business. But any small, relatively nondescript white streamer or epoxy fly will do the trick. Small shrimp imitations (such as those used by bonefish anglers) are also very effective.
When fishing residential lights, keep in mind that they are the property of the homeowner. No, the residents don’t own the waterway, but they do own the lights, and they can dictate who fishes them or not with the flick of a switch. If they’re nice enough to leave them on, do them the courtesy of treating their dock—and their privacy—with respect. Keep your voice down, especially if it’s late, and try to avoid snagging the dock, boat lines, etc with your fly. If you do get snagged, move in slowly, get your fly back and push off the dock quickly. If a fly gets caught far up on a dock, cut the line and tie on a new fly. We’re talking about legal issues here, and walking on a private dock at night is not only illegal—it’s also potentially dangerous. As for other anglers, common sense and courtesy still apply. If you come up on another boat fishing a light—or even a dock with several lights—move on to another spot. I’ve seen light “poaching” lead to some ugly confrontations, and justifiably so. There’s a lot of water to fish out there, so find your own spots.
How to Fish Lights
In a word: quietly. Fish around lights in backwater canals can be very skittish, especially in areas where angling pressure is intense. If you have a trolling motor, use it on the lowest speed possible to creep up on a light, and cut the power in time to glide into casting range. Poling also works well, though few folks climb up on poling platforms in the dark of night. If you’re fishing a light located in a current, use a trolling motor to hold you o a fellow angler in place as you cast. If the current is too strong—or if you don’t have a trolling motor—drop your anchor so that the boat is positioned at an angle for easy, repeated casts at your target. If you happen upon a “hot” light, you can literally hook one fish after another using this method. (Note that I said “hook” and not “catch”: hooking fish—especially snook on a light flyrod and/or in a strong current—is going to result in some frayed leaders). Lights above strong current often hold lots of fish, and the running water forces them to react quickly to anything that flashes by, often resulting in more aggressive fish and numerous hookups.
Where and When to Go
The best time to fish lights? When you can go, of course. But if you’re among the fortunate few who can choose times and dates at will, I’ll share a few preferences. I prefer moonless nights, as fish seem to be more concentrated around lit docks without the ambient light provided by a full moon. That’s not to say that full moon nights are bad – they can be very productive, as well. As for tides, they are critical to your success. If you’re fishing far back in inland canals, try to time your trips to be in position at the period of strongest tidal flow. Even in backwater canals where little or no tidal movement is visible, tides have a dramatic affect on the flow of bait and the eating habits of fish. Moving water is key. Incoming and outgoing tides both produce, but I like outgoing tides. Can I point to strong evidence for this preference? No. I can just tell you that I seem to see and catch more fish when the water’s flowing out. Finally, I recommend that you fish as late at night (or, rather, as early in the morning) as you can. It’s a fact that fish get more active in the wee hours, as they’re accustomed to feeding with little or no pressure while most folks sleep. You’ll catch more fish—and bigger fish—if you defy the alarm clock.
Good luck on the water.
Effective flies for fishing lights
There are hundreds of shrimp fly patterns out there, and they can be very effective at night under lights. They should be fished with a quick, gliding retrieve that mimics a shrimp’s unique motion. Though lighter flies tend to be more effective under lights, fish sometimes respond to shrimp flies in darker colors.
When picking streamers for fish under lights, try smaller patterns – patterns between 2-3″ long are ideal. If fish seem to be aggressively keying on larger baits – or if your smaller flies aren’t doing the trick – move up in size. But in general, small, light-colored streamers such as this one are your best bet.
Flies featuring epoxy heads or bodies are excellent under lights for two reasons. First, the weight of the epoxy drags them down more quickly, so you can fish deeper than you can with normal streamers – an advantage when casting to spooky fish that are reluctant to rise. Secondly, epoxy flies are durable , so you can get several fish on a single fly before it goes to Fly Heaven.
Though “light and little” is a good rule of thumb, there are nights when fish get turned on by a flashy, colorful offering. Keep a few bright flies in your box, just in case. Brighter flies can also be effective when fishing areas where lighting is indirect, as they create a better profile than bland colored patterns.
Yeah, I know – I’ve spent this entire article preaching about using smaller flies, then I throw big flies into the mix. I have my reasons. There are times when larger baitfish come flying through a light, setting off a feeding spree in which your wee little offering is ignored. Keep a big streamer handy, just in case. An old axiom states that big fish like big baits. Can apply to flies, too. If you’re the patient type who can log many casts for every fish, stick with a large fly and fish it on the dark edges of lights. A big fish will eventually eat it.