TAMPA BAY — It’s well past midnight when we ease the boat under Gandy Bridge and kill the motor. I grab hold of a concrete pier to stop us from drifting into the glow from street lights and listen to waves slapping the hull and the whine of racing motorcycles.
One of my two cohorts, Greg Peterson, gingerly steps to the bow and peers into the narrow space where the lights shine, turning the inky black water brighter.
He grips a fly rod. A sideways flick of his wrist sends a small white fly into the lighted spot a few yards away. He coaxes the lure back and his rod doubles over. Then a thrashing silver fish of about 140 pounds rockets into the air, nearly bashing into the bottom of the bridge before crashing back into the water.
“Oh, yeah. Poon on,” Peterson hollers, line screaming off his reel as the fish races off and hangs an abrupt left turn. His rod slams into the concrete pier, exploding. He wails, eyeing the splintered rod. The line is slack, fish gone. “I just got schooled,” he says.
Welcome to night fly-fishing Tampa Bay bridges for tarpon.
‘It isn’t so much fly-fishing as it is getting a fix. It’s not for the faint-hearted.’
This isn’t an idyllic “A River Runs Through It” sort of fly-fishing trip. And my teacher isn’t the strict-but-loving father played by Tom Skerritt but local fishing guides Nick Angelo and Peterson.
It’s well known that this state is a fisherman’s paradise. People are less savvy to the great fly-fishing after dark. Rarer still are those who have heard about fly-fishing bridges at night for tarpon. “It isn’t so much fly-fishing as it is getting a fix,” Peterson jokes. “It’s not for the faint-hearted.”
A best-kept secret of locals, night fly-fishing isn’t just a great way to beat the heat; it’s an excellent chance to catch a boatload of fish. Indeed, prized game fish such as snook, redfish, and tarpon are primarily nocturnal feeders. “Nighttime is the right time,” Angelo says.
Those in search of fish other than tarpon will want to head for neighboring rivers and canals such as those of Culbreath Isles, a tony South Tampa community. Most of the multimillion-dollar homes there have docks, many with lights that attract bait fish and shrimp. For predator fish, these are brightly-lighted buffets.
Earlier this same fall night, as we wait for calmer winds and more favorable tides around Gandy Bridge, we fish nearby Culbreath’s lighted docks.
As with most anglers, my two guides have favorite spots. “That’s one of the money lights right there,” says Peterson, pointing to a dock over twin minivan-size circles of glowing green water. Arm-size snook and redfish swirl beneath, feasting. Our electric trolling motor brings us quietly into casting range.
Angelo’s second cast into the circle draws a charging fish. After a brief struggle, he lands and releases the first fish of the night — a plump redfish.
I’m less successful. My cast overshoots the target and I hook the dock. I’m later guiltily glad that the others have their share of snags, too.
Over the next hour, we land a dozen or so redfish and trout. At least one large snook is fought and lost. A baby tarpon is spotted, but spooked. My casting improves, as does my knowledge of night fishing’s peculiarities. Some docks, I learn, hold specific fish. “It’s strange, but it’ll be like this dock always has snook. This one has trout. This one redfish,” Angelo says.
And the fish don’t like just any light. “Green lights are always better than yellow ones,” Angelo says. As if on cue, the next dock we come upon with yellow lights is a fish ghost town.
As we pass one lighted dock teaming with fish, Peterson tells me not to cast. “It’s a cat party,” he says, meaning that the submerged diners are all saltwater catfish, whose toxin-loaded fin tips can cause nasty stings. “That’ll ruin your whole week,” he says.
From time to time, our flies will briefly flash with greenish light in the water — the effect, Peterson tells me, of bioluminescence, or light emitted by marine microorganisms. “Sometimes [bioluminescence] is so strong that your fly line looks like a laser beam in the water,” he says. Lovely, but less than ideal for night fishing, he adds.
Satisfied that winds have died down enough and that the tide is shifting in our favor, we head for the bridge just a few minutes away.
The Gandy is one of several bridges spanning Tampa Bay. Just to the north are the W. Howard Franklin Bridge and the Courtney Campbell Causeway. To the south is the Skyway Bridge. All are fine places for nighttime tarpon angling. But when the water is rougher, as it is tonight, the Gandy tends to be calmer — and safer — for boats.
I’m grateful for that as our boat bucks the waves beneath a bridge span about as big as a one-car garage. The motor is no match for the wind and waves, so we take turns grasping a garden shed-size concrete pier to hold the boat in place. Neither guide would bring a client here in these conditions, but tonight we’re out for off-duty fun.
Among the tricks to this kind of fishing is finding spans where the light from above is brightest. Tarpon park themselves facing oncoming current and light, or cruise along the shadow line parallel to the bridge. As small fish and shrimp borne by swift incoming currents are momentarily spotlighted by the light the opportunistic tarpon pounce.
It takes me an embarrassingly long time to learn how to spot the tarpon, eerie black shapes sliding in already-dark water. But every time I do, my heart jackhammers in my chest.
Casting to them is an ugly affair. No elegant long casts here. We’re talking a little sidearm flip maybe 10 or so feet, tops. Strikes come as close as under your chin and are as violent as a back-alley brawl. This is close-combat fishing. Indeed, during one bout with an 80-pounder, Angelo loses his balance and falls, crashing onto the deck before plunging headfirst into the water. A moment later he emerges, grinning and holding aloft the rod, with the fish still attached.
Hooking up with anything but a baby tarpon (under about 30 pounds) means gunning the engine and giving chase to prevent fish from tangling and breaking off in the pilings.
Gear takes a beating, which is why Angelo favors a 12-weight Shakespeare Ugly Stix rod, which feels like a telephone pole compared with snazzier setups. “It’s the heaviest, most awful casting rod,” he says. “But down here, when you hook up with a tarpon, it’s perfect for getting them in quick.”
After a dozen or so hookups and fights, Angelo lands a 60-pounder that he quickly releases. “Bye, girl. Thanks,” he says.
It’s 6 a.m. when we get back to the boat ramp. As I drive home, giddy and exhausted, I’m mentally checking my calendar to see when I can do it again.
Due to a reporting error, an earlier version named the incorrect actor in “A River Runs Through It.” Tom Skerritt plays the father.