Night Snookin'
Under the green glow, red eyes abound.
By Frank Sargeant

It’s five til midnight on a good night for murder.

Fog is rolling in off the Gulf, thick and cottony, muffling sounds, bending shapes, wetting the deck. Night birds scream.

A ship sounds its foghorn, AHOOOOOOOOOO. You feel it in your chest, in your soul.

In the blackness under the dock, red-eyed demons wait in ambush. They are there to kill.

Us too . . . .

Well, not kill, actually, but at least to scare the bejeesus out of them. I like to think of it as retribution for all the shrimp and glass minnows these fish assassinate here every night.

We are fly fishing the docks on Florida’s southwest coast for snook, along with their co-conspirators, redfish and seatrout.

Rick Grassett, who would do this for free but does it for a living as one of the better known fly-fishing captains on Florida’s southwest coast, rolls a #1 crystal flash Glass Minnow under the dock, just where the glow of the overhead light stops—and where the red eyes await.

He moves the fly about two inches before a fish inhales it.

Getting a snook to eat a fly under a dock at night is not difficult for a good caster. Rick, an Orvis instructor, definitely qualifies.

Getting the fish out is a different matter.

This one does the usual snook thing, taking a half-hitch on the front piling and then kicking in the afterburners for the middle of the canal. It jumps, lands flat on the water with a canoe-paddle smack, then tears off in the opposite direction.

Rick is free-lining for all he’s worth, but it’s not fast enough.

SPANNNG! says his big, fat 20-pound test leader as it breaks and comes shooting back at his head.

Toto, we’re not in 5X territory any more.

The snook jumps a couple of times down the canal in the dark, sort of a final “up yours” as it departs.

No matter, there are lots more targets and lots more hours before the sun comes up, when we will stumble home bleary-eyed and hungover from the intoxicating lure of fly fishing Florida’s docks after dark.

Fly fishing for coastal species by day often involves a lot more casting than catching, but that’s usually not the case at night. Fish that are usually as suspicious as IRS auditors by day become trusting souls after sundown. The action is steady, and enhanced hugely because you’re often throwing to visible targets.

It’s also made more pleasant by cooler temperatures and by the fact that you’ll rarely see another boat.

There’s also the element of seeing the true night-stalkers you’d never encounter by day, animals that you could not land with 200-pound-test handline. In Florida, snook to 40 pounds and tarpon to 100 occasionally make an appearance, adding to the excitement but rarely posing for photos.

Locating snook over dock lights in the dead of night is one of the most interesting ways to fish. It’s sometimes scary, always entertaining, and almost always productive.

Don’t Bring a Knife to a Gunfight

The flies that Rick and other aficionados use to fish the docks are actually exceedingly small for the size of the quarry. Some of the snook under these docks can gulp down a foot long mullet without batting an eye, yet they seem intrigued by sparkly white flies under two inches long.

As is so often the case, it’s a matter of matching the hatch, and the hatch here is primarily made up of tiny glass minnows sucked in like moths to flame by the bright lights shining into the water. There’s occasionally the spice of a fat shrimp drifting through, or a dollar-sized crab. But mostly when they’re here, they eat glass minnows, gulping them down a dozen at a time in mighty strikes that are a delight to the heart of any snooker.

Most night-fishers use 9-weight tackle because the occasional 10-pound snook or red or even a 30-pound tarpon crashes the mixed bag of 2-to 5-pounders that are standard fare. A WF-10 floating line helps in slightly overloading the rod for the short casts commonly needed.

Leader-building is simple compared to tying leaders for freshwater trout. Most anglers use 18 inches of 30-pound-test hard mono nail-knotted to the WF-9 or WF-10 line, then 7 feet of 20-pound-test hard mono to a foot of 30- to 40-pound test hard mono or fluorocarbon tippet, secured with blood knots drawn down with pliers and then nipped close—but not too close.

Mason and Scientific Anglers and RIO all make mono for this use. The hard mono is good protection against all the sharp edges on a snook, as well as the sandpaper jaws of tarpon. Hard mono is not only literally harder but also stiffer, so it lays out the relatively heavy saltwater patterns easier than conventional soft mono.

Flies that imitate glass minnows, shrimp and small crabs all score, in sizes 2 to 2/0 on X-strong hooks. No point in buying high-dollar imitations here—the fish are not all that selective if you don’t spook them and if you present the fly where the naturals are swarming. Flip it in, let it slowly sink and often that’s all it takes—but if not, a short, twitchy retrieve will get them.

As in most saltwater fly fishing, you’ll want to strip-set on a take—do it several times for tarpon—and then don’t dally about getting the fish away from the pilings. Reds and trout often take care of this for you, running to deep water as soon as they feel the hook, but snook are more likely to go sideways, or straight up, or go deep and then turn right around and run back under the dock, so far back that they scare the crabs off the seawall.

It makes for an interesting night.

Hot Spots

While just about any lighted dock might produce, some are consistently loaded.

Basically, look for docks that have relatively good current flow—those near passes are always productive. But docks that are at the open end of a long canal can be equally hot when the tide is right—basically the fish tend to gather wherever the flow brings food to them.

And of course, as in most saltwater fishing, the action will be best on the strong part of the tide flow, either incoming or outgoing. For this reason, the three days on either side of the new and full moons are prime times, but the best time to go fishing is always when you can.

In general, stronger lights mean more fish. The underwater lighting systems seem particularly attractive, and they have the plus of making it very easy to see the fish as they silhouette against the light.

Lighted bridges are also prime nighttime spots. Those over the Intra-Coastal Waterway are nearly always productive, and also those over coastal rivers close to the point they feed into open bays. The bridges, because they usually have deeper water, may also hold bigger fish—monster reds, whopper sea trout and tarpon in summer, and those 20-pound-plus snook.

Even baby tarpon (and sometimes their mamma’s) hang around docks and bridges throughout the summer in Florida waters. Photo by Rick Grassett.

Where to Go

There are countless fishy docks down both sides of Florida’s peninsula where night fishing is great from March through November. Basically it’s throw a dart—everywhere there are lighted docks, there are fish. (You can hook up with Captain Rick Grassett for a guide trip in the Sarasota Bay area here:

Florida’s peninsula is not the only place you can do this, of course.

In Texas’ Laguna Madre, trout and reds stack up under the residential docks at Port Mansfield. They also find their way into the residential canals on Mustang Island at Corpus Christi and at Rockport Beach off Aransas Bay.

In Louisiana, pretty much anywhere you find lights at night you’ll find reds and trout—Lake Pontchartrain has many, many good spots, as does the Rigolets Pass area.

In Mississippi, lower Bay St. Louis is loaded with lighted docks. The north side of Biloxi Bay offers lots of targets as well.

The residential docks on the north side of Alabama’s Dauphin Island are also prime, as are the hundreds of docks around Ono Island on the Flora-Bama line.

Navigation at Night

Just a few words of caution—while there are few recreational boats operating much after sundown, that doesn’t mean somebody in a go-fast boat is not headed your way after a few rounds at the waterfront pub, so you want to be absolutely sure the driver can see you. Have a bright anchor light mounted high on your boat, and never turn it off if you’re anywhere in a “fairway” or area where other boats might be running on plane. A spotlight at hand, ready to turn on instantly, is also a plus.

Also, you’ll want a GPS laying down a track for you on any waters you don’t know well—it’s amazingly easy to get turned around at night, and also easy to wander into areas where your boat can run hard aground.

Frank Sargeant
Frank Sargeant got his first fly rod when he was 10 years old, earned by selling Burpee seeds. It was a 3-piece bamboo built by South Bend. He promptly set it down, assembled, next to the kitchen stove, and forever after it was set in an arc as though he was eternally fighting a five-pound bass.
He has owned some much better rods since, though probably none that caught so many fish—a hundred bluegills a day was not impossible on the north Ohio farm ponds where he fished.
Since then he’s fished all over North and South America, New Zealand and a number of Pacific islands, and has written thousands of magazine articles for every publication from Field and Stream and Outdoor Life to The Readers Digest. He was a fishing guide at Homosassa before becoming long time outdoors editor of the Tampa Tribune. He’s also authored 10 books on fishing and boating. He’s a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers’ Association. He now lives with his wife, Darla, near Alabama’s Lake Guntersville, but regularly visits Colorado in fall for trout fishing and the Florida flats in spring for a bit of everything else.