September 05, 2012
Intracoastal waters come alive after sundown. Getting in on the action may be easier than you think.
Originally published in July 2010 print edition
Captain Dave Kostyo's Knot Nancy on the way out for an evening of tarpon action in Miami.
Miami is famous for its nightlife, but the aspect we like best is far from the throb of club music, tinkle of martini glasses, and rumble of luxury sportscars.
Out on Biscayne Bay, your ear picks up finer things: the click as line slides off a reel. The intermittent pop as tarpon and snook tee-off on shrimp. The shouts of buddies as a rod doubles over and a big silver fish flies into black air.
Around the state, different scenes play to the same audio track as fishermen daydream through hot summer days and hit the water after dark. Migratory tarpon, resident seatrout, snappers--living in Florida, it's awesome knowing you can put great fish in the air, close to home, without foregoing work or family obligations.
Recently we visited Miami during the tail end of the spring shrimp run for some of the most spectacular night fishing imaginable. And, we hit it just right. Best of all, the techniques we used are adaptable for all manner of fishing boats, from skiffs equipped with trolling motors, to larger vessels whose skippers are more at home on open water.
Captain Dave Kostyo berths his 28-foot Knot Nancy at TNT Marina in North Miami Beach. Maybe six long casts from his slip is Baker's Haulover, a manmade, jettied inlet that connects the rich grassflats of Biscayne Bay to the productive offshore waters. Here, sailfish and wahoo can be caught less than two miles from seatrout and snook.
But Kostyo's playing field is bigger than that, and he frequently runs the 10 miles south to Government Cut, hitting strategic points along the way. It's a route I'm personally familiar with, having spent countless nights zooming around the waters of Greater Miami. Those days I fished on a miniature-version of the ubiquitous center console, a 17-footer. Like many anglers, over the years I've developed an affinity for bayboats and electric trolling motors. With the push of a button, you can easily position low-freeboard vessels to make repeated casts at structure. That kind of close-quarters maneuverability is basically out of the question for a 28-foot center console. Kostyo's solution—same as I used on my own little boat--is either a controlled drift or pinpoint anchoring.
Captain Dave Kostyo and writer Weakley with proverbial deer-in-the-headlights look, typical of midnight mayhem.
The controlled drift is best in open water, or in areas where current is unlikely to steer you toward trouble. Many nights, Kostyo and other Miami-area fishermen watch the sun set over downtown Miami from oceanside water adjacent to Government Cut; Haulover, too, some nights.
“We'll see tarpon rolling out here,” Kostyo promised, as we rounded the corner of the cut into a steep easterly chop. “The water's real clear and it's hard to get a bite, but wait till full-dark—they'll turn on. Then later, when the tide turns, these fish will move inside the bay.”
Wind can be a tarpon fisherman's ally, but if the boat's drifting faster than a knot or so, baits and lures lose their effectiveness. Well upwind of the expected tarpon schools, Kostyo pointed the bow shoreward and instructed Sam Hudson and I to pull off 38 and 40 arm's lengths of 20-pound-test monofilament as we freespooled live crabs in our wake. That put a good distance between the boat and the baits. Then, turning the bow 90 degrees to the wind, Kostyo deployed a 4-foot collapsible sea anchor off the bow cleat. The 4-footer is just big enough to hold a boat this size beam-to the drift, and slow its progress to keep baits kicking naturally just under the surface.
Outside navigable channels, you can shut off the engines for a stealthy drift, but as you're technically underway, remember to keep your navigation and all-round white lights on.
It took us a few drifts—“working the lines,” Kostyo said—before we intercepted a pod of fish.
“Fish on the bow!” the captain hollered, “reel up!”
A tarpon comes boatside with a circle hook pinned to its upper jaw.
With the circle hooks tarpon fishermen use these days, there's no need for a jerk on the rod to set the hook. The reels are fished with the drag engaged. Just come tight and apply steady pressure until the hook slides home. My fellow editor Sam ably demonstrated that he was not in fact a jerk, but nonetheless the fish shook off after a few jumps.
By then fish were popping shrimp around the boat, splashy patches of foam against the grain of whitecaps rolling in off the ocean. Perpendicular to our line of drift, I began casting a purple rabbit strip Seaducer on a 12-weight fly rod. Our second fish of the night paid us a visit by rolling on the little fly 20 feet behind the boat. I failed to hook up, but it got my blood going. One of the enjoyable aspects of drifting aboard large vessels is the ability to mix things up, with live bait, lures and flies.
A live crab did the trick on the next drift, and this time Sam stayed connected long enough to bring what looked like a 60-pounder boatside. It was a beautiful fish whose silver scales reflected the captain's spotlight through stunning blue water. Setting aside my fly rod for a drift, I caught a fish about the same size, again on a live crab, a versatile year-round tarpon bait (jumbo shrimp are popular in the Miami area January through April, mullet in the fall).
“The tide should be outgoing now,” said Kostyo, checking the time. “We could make another drift here, or hit the bridges inside.”
We voted for the bridges.
A fishing log is a useful tool for timing the feeding patterns of tarpon and other fish known to lurk around lighted bridges at night. Kostyo has a knack for judging the best tides, but even so he devotes some time to scrutinizing the water for fish or signs of fish. Tarpon often roll and flash in the shadows, or you may see a long black form cruising along the shadowline. Snook, I've found, usually hold still, pointed upcurrent straight as an arrow.
At the first bridge we stopped at, Kostyo saw little action but was confident enough to set the anchor for a few tries. He doesn't skimp on anchor gear, either—with a swift tide and a large vessel, coming loose is an unsettling prospect. Eighty feet upcurrent of the bridge, the captain eased over a big Danforth anchor and out rattled 15 or 20 feet of chain, followed by the rode. In the event he needs to power up to follow a fish, Kostyo rigs his anchor breakaway-style, which comes in equally handy on the deepwater wrecks offshore: He shackles the chain to the bottom of the anchor and connects a link to the shank with two wire ties. In an emergency, goosing the engines up- or across-current pops those ties and a captain or crewmember can easily haul anchor as the boat follows a fish downtide. I've seen guys who fish strictly shallow water do it differently, adding a loop in the anchor rode to attach a buoy float; rather than worry about retrieving the anchor, you just dump the whole anchor line and come back later (works best if your anchor rode is in short sections so you don't have to drop hundreds of feet).
Kostyo slid back within 30 feet or so of the shadow line, where he deployed live shrimp astern. Taking advantage of the open gunwales and favorable breeze, I cast a fly parallel to the shadowline, well upcurrent, giving the intermediate line time to sink and carry the pulsating fly down a few feet in the water column. When I began stripping the fly, I came tight on a fish that charged downcurrent and rattled into the air, dangerously close to a piling. Bowing to the tarpon was an afterthought—I'd made the split second decision to yield nothing. The fly pulled. Then things got quiet.
“If it doesn't happen in the first 15 or 20 minutes here, it's not going to happen,” Kostyo said. I thought something had happened, but agreed the ensuing silence was discouraging.
We moved to another bridge that for Kostyo is an on-again, off-again kind of spot; tonight it was full-on. As soon as we approached the shadowline on the upcurrent side of the channel, we saw 4-foot tarpon cruising along. A big explosion down the line signaled feeding activity.
Again we set the anchor on the 28-foot boat and drifted back in the quickening tide. Live shrimp under a balloon float were instantly devoured, and Sam had a repeat of the evening's opening sequence—one missed, one landed.
Spellbound by the rapidfire action, I grabbed a lighter fly rod than I'd usually use in a place like this, a 9-weight, with a 2-inch white Deceiver fly. After four or five casts I had a fish solidly hooked and running amok. Kostyo got the anchor up and we followed the fish through the pilings.
It was a wild ride, the big boat careening in the dark, a fish running back and forth toward barnacle-encrusted concrete. The skipper kept his cool, I kept my pressure, and the adventure ended as we always hope they will: a gloved thumb on a thick sandpaper lip, a twist of the pliers, a bedraggled fly returned to its box, a recovering fish returned to its feeding.
Our own muscles had grown weary with the approach of midnight. We stowed our gear and throttled up for home, rushing through the kaleidoscopic lights of the Miami cityscape.
Miami Tarpon Rigs
For beach tarpon fishing, Capt. Dave Kostyo sets his drifts depending on the wind direction and speed. Depths usually range from 15 to 20 feet, and Kostyo is keen to look for ledges where tarpon may travel. Often, he'll add a sea anchor to slow boat speed between .6 to 1.2 knots. Reel drags are set at 2 to 3 pounds on strike, and then tightened to a max of 8 pounds during the end game.
Crabs and shrimp are the top baits, and mullet are effective in the fall. For crabs, he uses an ice pick to first bore a hole through the corner of the carapace before attaching the circle hook; shrimp are hooked through the top off the head, above the black dot. The bow rod's deployed at least 40 feet from the boat to stay clear of the sea anchor; stern rod's deployed 36 feet. Sometimes, a third middle rod is set about 32 feet from the boat.
Rod: Penn TG 2040C7
Reel: Penn GT Lever Drag 320
Line: 20-pound Ande mono
Wind-on Leader: 16 to 17 feet of 50-pound mono
Leader: 3 to 4 feet of 50-pound Stren Gunsmoke fluorocarbon
Hook: 8/0 Eagle Claw red circle
Along the bridge shadowlines it's all about the bait. Prevalent shrimp or baitfish usually equals tarpon. Kostyo will scope out bridges, looking for tarpon signals before setting the anchor as close as ten feet from the shadowline. He anchors upcurrent and is careful not to run over the area he intends to fish. An anchor ball is a good idea in this situation because tarpon often take off through the bridge pilings and need to be chased.
Shrimp are the top bait around the bridges, especially during their runs mostly January through April. A balloon about 6 feet from the hook is used as a giant marker to show when the bait's directly at the shadowline. Kostyo prefers high speed reels with tight drags and gel-spun polyethylene line (braid) to pull tarpon out into open water. He routinely lands tarpon more than 100 pounds from Biscayne Bay bridges.
Rod: Penn TG 2040C7
Reel: Penn International Torque Star Drag
Line: 30-pound Stren Braid
Wind-on Leader: 16 to 17 feet of 50-pound mono
Leader: 3 to 4 feet of 50-pound Stren Gunsmoke fluorocarbon plus balloon
Hook: 8/0 Eagle Claw red circle
Bait: jumbo shrimp