Tallahassee, FL - September 17, 2012
September “Gone Coastal” column
By: Alan Peirce
Florida’s artificial reefs are a whole new world when the lights go out.
Get anchored over your favorite artificial reef in 70-plus feet of water and turn off everything in the boat that makes noise. You will hear a deafening chorus of clicks, snaps and pops being produced by millions of organisms that inhabit the reef.
Turn off all the lights, and any movement in the water will cause an explosion of tiny lights produced by billions of tiny bioluminescent organisms. Drop a floating light over the side to bring the squid in so close that you can see them pulse with colors and patterns. Or just kick back and watch the curious sea turtles surface to investigate.
Even if the fish don’t bite, you’re going to have an experience that you can’t get sitting on the couch, and you won’t be feeding the bugs or baking in the hot sun either.
Fish that feed primarily at night have excellent vision, and they’re a lot smarter than those daytime feeders, so you don’t want to show them much. The key is to “go stealthy,” which is a phrase coined by my favorite yellow-perch catcher, Brian “Fishhead” Bristow of Estherville, Iowa. “Going stealthy” means to scale back all your tackle to the minimum. I mean the rod, reel, line, lead, circle hook and bait. I like to fish 20- to 30-pound tackle with a longer than normal, fluorocarbon leader to keep a good separation between the lead and bait. Small live baits (pinfish, grunts, pig fish, bull minnows, mullet, etc.) are excellent, but cut cigar minnows, sardines, herring or menhaden also work very well. Bristow will tell you that frozen squid is all you need, but he’s from Iowa, so you definitely shouldn’t listen to him.
So what are you going to catch? Well, that depends on the water depth and what part of the state you’re in.
In the Florida Panhandle, you’ll catch what the locals refer to as black snapper. Now if you’re not familiar with that species, don’t try to look it up in the state regulations booklet, because it’s not in there. Black snapper is the same fish that people in central and south Florida call a mangrove snapper. The actual common name is gray snapper.
These fish have a 10-inch minimum size limit, but that shouldn’t be a problem if you’re fishing at night in depths that exceed 70 feet. Most of the snapper you catch will be significantly over the minimum size limit and average between 4 and 6 pounds. Some will exceed 10 pounds, and when they get that big they begin to look like a Cubera. Gray snapper are open for harvest year round, and the daily recreational bag limit is five fish per person in state waters.
Snapper are not the only game in town when fishing the reefs at night. Catch a live squid and put him out on a flat line just outside the reach of your anchor lights. Big king mackerel and wahoo feed all night long. They also like to eat while traveling at about 30 miles per hour, so set the drag light and keep the rod in a holder. This may not be repeatable, but on one August night off Franklin County in 70 feet of water, Ol’ Fishhead and I ran into a nest of cobia that was absolutely beyond belief. I’m not sure if it was a spawning aggregate or what, but we caught and released enough 25- to 50-pound cobia in a seven-hour period to sink the boat. When daylight came, the amberjacks took over. When the sharks started eating the jacks whole, we blew the whistle and headed for the hill.
Safety is always a consideration, especially when night fishing, so make sure you pick a night with perfect weather and calm seas, especially if you fish from a small boat like we do. I like to hear the words “high pressure, light and variable winds, and seas of less than two feet” multiple times before I make a decision on a night trip. Also, make sure that your flares are current and your lights, electronics, marine radio, bilge pump, etc. are all working properly.