American Fly Fishing

By Mark B. Hatter

Captain Ladd Stevens cut the engine 100 yards from the target, jumped to the poling platform, and pushed into the current, telling Jon Robertson, “Grab the 7-weight with the shrimp fly.” To me he whispered, “There are only two patterns I find work here in Sarasota, minnows or shrimps . . . and I’m counting on shrimp tonight.”
   Robertson stripped line from the reel as Stevens pushed toward a pair of green orbs glowing underwater by the dock at a multimillion-dollar mansion. In Florida, such submerged lighting appears to be a Gulf coast trend, not yet common on the Atlantic coast.
   Sharp pops on the surface at the periphery of the glow confirmed what Stevens already knew: the falling tide was sweeping something edible into the shadows at the edge of the lights, and it was being quickly consumed by a feeding snook. Robertson unfurled a 50-foot cast up-current from the illuminated circle of water and stripped twice. Just as the current brought his faux shrimp to the edge of the luminance, a 27-inch snook smashed it. We admired and released the fish, expecting more to follow.
   I’ve lived in Florida almost my entire life and still don’t understand why the state’s nearly 3 million anglers rarely fish under the cover of darkness. Yet there we were, utterly alone amid Florida’s west-coast wealth and opulence, stealing shots at one of the most prized saltwater game fish.
   Stevens is a specialist in guiding on Florida’s southwest coast, and nighttime snook are among his favorites. “It’s hard to believe we have this all to ourselves,” he told me, “especially during tarpon season, when vying for a place to post up is a competitive daytime sport . . . [but] relaxing when the sun goes down.”
   We pulled another fish from the lights. To be sure, plenty of traditionally lit docks produced, and a few bridges as well. In fact, through the course of the tide we never hit the same location twice. Some lights had snook stacked up like cordwood; others drew blanks.
   “As you can see, almost every dock along this waterway is lit in some form or fashion.” Stevens remarked. “What I want in a dock [is] deep water nearby and a well-formed shadow line on the water. The dock lights that produce the best shadow lines are those that are underwater or those that hang from the dock very low to the surface.”
   The topography of the Sarasota region is ideally suited for snook. The estuarine rivers and lagoons behind the developed barrier islands that house the Sarasota metro area are open to the Gulf of Mexico at two major passes, so current is always flowing. That’s critical for snook, especially after dark. It doesn’t matter if the current is moving in or out, as long as the water flows and a food source gathers under nighttime lights around structure.
   The lights also attract spotted sea trout, redfish, small jacks, and the occasional tarpon. But, the main attraction is snook. You can’t mistake the distinctive popping noise a snook generates when it plucks a morsel from the surface. The typical fish are 24 to 27 inches, though much larger snook offer the occasional surprise. 
   “Our nighttime snook fishing is related to water temperature, meaning that, from March to late November, the dock lights and bridges will produce fish,” Stevens said. The snook season allows only catch-and-release from June through August, the snook’s breeding season. According to Stevens, “This is a great time to come fish, since conventional-tackle, meat fisherman have little interest in catch-and-release.” 
   Stevens’s charters are near South Orlando’s Disney scene, so after the family visits Walt Disney World you can feed your fly-fishing addiction. If you’re in the region to fish for tarpon, a night or two with Stevens will enrich your trip. Contact Stevens at (941) 356-2069,


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