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Docklight Slackers

Give some slack to nighttime trout.

“Don't come home without any fish!”

My wife gave me her curious brand of encouragement as I closed the door.

Sometimes she says it with affection, other times with just a touch of menace. If it's time for you to ante up, and you could use a little peace and quiet, then maybe some night fishing for speckled trout is in order. All along Florida's coastline, intracoastal waterways offer a matrix of public boat ramps from which you can launch your adventure. You don't need an expensive boat to be successful, either—I got my start using a small dinghy with flimsy plastic paddles!

I've fished for speckled trout (spotted seatrout) on the Atlantic coast from Palm Coast south to Vero Beach for the last decade, learning some things through trial-and-error. With my wife's friendly threat in the back of my mind, I knew I had to crack the night-fishing code eventually. When I finally learned to use slack line to nab finicky trout at night (thus becoming a “dock light slacker”), I at last found the key to consistent success under the dock lights—and brought home fish for dinner.

The Bait

The bait you'll need to procure is live shrimp … very lively shrimp. Once a shrimp is dead, I'm convinced that it becomes useless for dock trout. I've seen the proof many times, including a recent trip to New Smyrna Beach to fish with my friend Floyd, a lifelong Florida native.

Trout were actively chasing down shrimp under a favorite dock light. Telltale splashes brought us in to investigate, and we started fishing. Suddenly, I got a hard strike. The fish was quickly gone, and I reeled in to find that the he'd killed my shrimp just for the hell of it.

“Mr. Trout welcomes you to his dock,” Floyd quipped.

Despite the death blow, the whole shrimp remained on the hook. It was tempting to keep fishing with it. I tried more casts before tossing the lifeless crustacean overboard as a sacrifice. Meanwhile, my friend released two trout using live baits. I sighed, reluctantly reassured that dock trout simply aren't interested in shrimp that are already dead—not when live bait continuously passes in front of them with the tide. A worthy adversary is the speckled trout; live shrimp will be crucial to your nighttime trout success.

The Slacker Way

To catch docklight trout, using slack line without any terminal tackle, floats or weights has been the answer for me. However, if the tide is really ripping then a single splitshot (the smallest available) about eight inches above the hook can do wonders. If that's still not enough to get down into the strike zone, try adding one more.

Normally, just pierce a live shrimp in the head under the “horn” and ahead of its “black dot” and you're ready. Position yourself directly across from the light and cast against the tide so that your bait drifts with the current through the lighted area. That's what trout waiting in ambush expect from shrimp. It's my belief that this natural, freelined presentation is the only way to consistently catch schooled-up trout. I've found that you might catch one or two on a lure before they get wise and shut down. With a natural drift, I've caught fish literally until I ran out of shrimp.

Try to get your bait close to the structure itself—most shrimp that land near a piling get inhaled immediately. Don't be surprised if a little critter suddenly starts dancing on water after you cast. That will be your shrimp, running for his life. A heart-stopping strike often follows. If you are unable to cast close to the dock, then move in closer. These fish are not going to travel very far to get your offering.

Leaving your bail open after the cast, watch your slack line keenly on the water's surface. You'll see the line “jump” forward when a trout hits. On that first bite, I've learned that the trout is merely killing its prey. Trying to set the hook immediately almost always results in missing the fish. Time has taught me that if you close the bail at any point during that initial run, the fish feels it, feels pressure and spits out the now-lifeless shrimp. After the hit, I think the fish takes his meal down to the river bottom to eat it. Watch for the line to slowly tighten up as he finds a suitable dining area away from his peers. It's also helpful to keep a finger on the line to feel what's going on.

It wasn't easy for me to let go the old ingrained belief to “never allow slack in the line.” It's even tougher to shake that when the trout are smacking the surface all around you (oh, it'll happen sometimes when you find them!) and your adrenaline is pumping. But you need to let the fish run a bit before you close the bail. Normally, he'll make a quick run then stop. When he stops, you should reel slowly until you feel weight on the other end (I sometimes count to 10 after the first strike), then set the hook (unless you're using a circle hook), being mindful that your drag is not set too tight.

If your bait drifts away from the light without being harassed, reel it in and cast again. The whole process of a cast and drift takes only a couple of minutes, and the action usually occurs very soon after a shrimp hits the water. Truly, this is exciting fishing in the quiet calm of night.

The Gear

A light to medium action spinning rod around 6 or 7 feet in length is good for the task, preferably spooled with 20-pound braid, since you'll be fishing around barnacle-encrusted structure. To me, it seems the braid is easier to see on the water's surface at night. That said, I used mono for a long time and caught fish.

Three feet of fluorocarbon leader tied to the main line, using a uni-to-uni knot, seems to be the ticket. I tend to replace my whole leader after abrasion against the pilings wears it thin. Simply cutting off the rough end by the hook shortens the leader. I've learned that the shorter the leader, the fewer the strikes!

A small, thin-wire hook works best, for two reasons: First, trout do not have strong mouths, and stout hooks often tear free. Second, the hook should have minimal effect on the shrimp's natural buoyancy as it drifts into the strike zone.

Over the years, I've settled on small J-hooks (most often size 6), but kahle style hooks have worked well, too. A third option is light circle hooks.

Since trout are the main quarry, I go up in hook size only when continually missing big fish (such as a dock's resident snook).

Location and Tidal Effects

I've found that having a Q-beam or other spotlight on board boosts my comfort level—simply train the light on the channel markers, briefly, for an easy ride back.

Speaking of channel markers, in my experience the best dock lights are always close to deeper water. Target those docks instead of structures on shallow, flat plains far from any real depth. Even if the shallow docks have fantastic lighting, your chances at trout may be slim.

As you get nearer your target, observe which way the tide is moving. If the tide isn't moving, expect a lull in the action until the current picks up. To me, it doesn't make a difference to the trout whether the tide is incoming or outgoing. I've caught plenty of them during both stages.

Interestingly enough, at low tide you may catch a redfish, flounder or black drum. Not a bad tradeoff, when you can find it. You never know what the night will bring you out there.

Night Rules

When approaching a dock in the Intracoastal Waterway, I believe stealth is important. I've seen trout return to a spot and feed after being spooked—but I had to wait a while. Having learned this, I now turn off the outboard motor a hundred yards away from the target and use the trolling motor to ease in quietly. This also tends to disturb the dock owner a bit less.

As a rule, if I catch two “trash fish” consecutively, I move. I've noticed a pattern: If the less desirable fish have time to strike, then trout aren't in the vicinity. When the trout are there, they get to it first.

If a dock I want to try has anybody on it (or another boat is fishing it), I pass. It's advisable to be courteous and quiet out there. If you upset a dock owner, the light won't be on long—and there goes your honeyhole. Getting tense or upsetting others is not what the game is about. Exploring is half the fun. The more docks you scout, the better your chances of success. FS

Originally Published Florida Sportsman March 2011

By Peter Slis

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