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23
Jul

Summer Nights in Big Carlos Pass

Written by Ryan S.

Much has been said of the magic of summer nights outdoors around the country, but in SWFL most people tend to run for cover as night descends on our piece of paradise. The night time in Southwest Florida's summer can be uncomfortably sticky and humid. Even the sun ducks and hides when the bugs start coming out. However, in a lot of areas, if you're looking for fishing the way it used to be, or at least as I imagined it to be, the night time is your best bet. 

In any dockside dive bar from Everglades City to Boca Grande, the walls are likely to be covered with impossible fishing feats. Fifteen 40+ inch snook strung up at the dock like clothes drying in the noon day sun. Gator trout that could easily swallow your first born. And the tarpon... trophy sized tarpon as far as the eye can see. However, it isn't the phenomenal fishing that catch your attention first--it's that they are all black and white, or at best, with deeply faded colors. The sad reality is that these types of angling accomplishments are relics of a day gone by. We have simply out-fished, out-populated, out-polluted, and outpaced the populations of staggering game fish in our part of the world, and regardless of regulation, we will probably never replicate those seemingly ludicrous fish tales which would be clearly false if not for photographic evidence. 

For me, fishing at night is a window into the way things used to be. As night descends on the Estero Bay, especially on a weekday during summer, the hoards of locals and visitors typically head back to the comfort of their condos to get ready for work or another lazy day on the beach. An empty Estero Bay is truly a rare sight, but as the moon climbs in the sky, the chances of seeing anybody else drops proportionally. Almost immediately, the ecosystem responds. In the absence of boat traffic, ambient noise, and heavy pressure, the fish comes alive with sound. In the darkness, the sound is your best weapon, and it's helpful to know the difference between a belly-flopping mullet, a snook popping bait on the surface, a tarpon rolling, and a frenzied school of ladyfish. 

All of these noises were abundant on the July summer night we last went searching for snook and tarpon in Big Carlos Pass. I found myself wondering if that was the way things were all the time 50 years ago. If you could wander out into Estero Bay nearly any time of day or night and become part of an incredibly active ecosystem. By contrast, there have been days in the bay where I have rode around all day and seen scarcely a sign of marine life. However, that never seems to be the case at night. If you wait, and if you listen, and if you go towards the noise, you are almost always rewarded by more noise, more action, and the reward you were searching for in the first place, some nice fish.

I was out with a friend, David, the proud owner of a beautiful 22ft Skeeter bay boat. We started up in Mullock Creek before sunset with the intention of trying to find some ladyfish or other bait to attract tarpon in the passes. On the way out we saw some signs of life, but they proved fleeting. The ride down to the pass seemed impossibly fast, thanks in part to 250 horses behind us and in part to me staring off like a fool into the setting sun over the island of Ft. Myers Beach. We went straight for the bridge to see what was happening, and the sounder was looking pretty muddled so a throw of the net seemed a good plan. As we got in position, a few 30lb tarpon rolls on the surface in between the fenders in the middle of the bridge immediately cranked our hopes to high. The first cast netted a few hundred bioluminescent jellies, which spoiled the fun temporarily. The next throw landed an Atlantic spadefish, two keeper sized mangrove snapper (we didn't keep them), and a random assortment of other aquatic life--no real bait though. 

I had brought some frozen ladyfish halves from a recent trip to try, not really sure if the tarpon or snook would be interested in month old frozen bait (they weren't). David honed in on the Hogy paddle tail on a 2oz jighead which was the more productive of the two, although not by much. We stuck to the middle of the bridge where the land-based fisherman were not, but that didn't stop a disgruntled bridge troll from seeking us out and throwing lead in our direction. I guess it's his bridge? Eventually, David felt a thump on the Hogy, and managed to pull a 5lb juvenile Goliath grouper to the boat. Shortly thereafter, a tarpon took a failed swipe at the Hogy at boatside. We tried for a while longer to entice some bigger fish, but signs of life ground to stop so we followed the tide in. 

On the inside of the pass, we found some good action. David hooked up first (again) with a Yo-Zuri, but what looked like a 15" snook shook free as it got near the boat. Finally, I felt the heavy thump I'd been looking for. Clearly a bigger fish started taking out line as I tried to pry it away from the structure with light tackle. Hopeful that it was the big snook we came looking for, I fought it boatside only to be disappointed when a respectable 22" jack crevalle came over the gunwale. It was a fun fight regardless so the disappointment faded quickly, especially because shortly thereafter we got into the snook. A healthy school of snook surrounded us and was popping bait everywhere, and over the next hour we caught close to a dozen snook from 16" to 27" using a Yo-Zuri and new penny Gulp shrimp on a red jig head. The Yo Zuri caught more fish, but big fish honors went to the Gulp with a barely sub-slot, skinny twenty seven incher. We could have stayed there all night catching snook, but the dolphins soon caught on to our ploy. Within minutes, they came in, cleaned house, sent snook flying through the air, and shut down the bite. We moved farther inside to some islands where there was an abundance of finger mullet in 8" of water and larger fish crashing them, but we couldn't secure a bite. 

We moved back to the snook spot which was still shut down, then back the the bridge where a school of ladyfish were smashing everything in sight. We caught a few of those, tried unsuccessfully for a few tarpon, but managed to load up on a bunch of bait at the bridge, including a surprising number of small squid which were helping themselves to the small greenbacks. Using the new bait, we tried one last time to fire up the snook at our snook spot, but the dolphin had thoroughly traumatized them. Even some heavy chumming wouldn't draw them close enough to us. It was beyond getting late at this point--it was just late, so we decided to leave the fish popping on the surface 50 yards away and head back in. 

As I see it, there are lots of things to love about the night time bite in the dead of summer. Even if you're not likely to bring in a dozen 40 inch snook, summer night fishing has it's definite benefits. First, summer days are so bloody hot that both you and the fish are ready to call it quits by 10:00 AM. Nights can still be humid, but a gentle breeze and rapidly cooling water definitely helps cool things down to a pleasant temperature. The bugs can be an issue, but after the sun sets they aren't so bad, and bug spray, long sleeves, and a buff works wonders. Finally, and best of all, with all of the other boats quietly docked or trailered miles away, it's just you and the fish, just like it used to be. And both parties can appreciate that. 

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