Yakin’ Up Late Night Tarpon
By Mike Stevens
Fishing for the prehistoric high-fly acts known as tarpon is challenging enough when the angler just has to pick the right bait, present it naturally and not lose a finger as a hooked "poon" heads for the moon and turns his line into a miniature buzz saw. Add a kayak and the cover of darkness to the mix, and it instantly evolves from challenging to extreme.
Despite the obvious challenges, Captain Ross Gallagher of The Intrepid Angler not only mixes in late-night tarpon hunting into his south Florida-based kayak fishing charter service, but in many cases, he actually prefers it.
"Believe it or not, I find fishing at night more relaxing and often more successful than daytime fishing," said Gallagher. "I also only fish weeknights, which limits the amount of anglers able to get on the water. There's less boat traffic, which generally means less frustration from casual anglers. The biggest challenge is sleep deprivation and waiting out a good tide into the early morning hours."
Gallagher originally was hooking night tarpon as bycatch while targeting trophy snook, but now he targets them specifically. Naturally, he has to be on top of safety precautions, and while some of it is no different than that in daytime kayak fishing, he definitely has a few added measures for fishing at night.
"I ALWAYS wear a PFD while fishing on the kayak, and it's essential to plan ahead for wind and tide direction," he said. "A big tide and opposing winds can get nasty where I fish. I also carry several headlamps and handhelds for illumination. When I can, I fish with a partner."
Gallagher guides Hobie pro Christina Weber into a ripping tarpon bite
When it comes to the actual fishing, Captain Gallagher has settled on a fast-action, 8-foot heavy spinning rod for throwing swim baits on 50-pound braid. He's also fallen in love with Shimano's Sustain FG series of spinning reels due to their smooth drag systems and lightweight components.
"My rod, reel and line all weigh less than two pounds. Having such a light setup allows me to fish hard for hours on end without becoming fatigued."
On the lure front, Gallagher likes to mix it up — despite the fact that the water he is fishing fills with crabs, shrimp and small baitfish at night — by reaching for larger profile soft baits in the 10-to 14-inch range that are more noticeable under pitch black conditions.
"My first choice in lures are several of the large eel-tail baits from Hogy Lures. They are great at imitating ladyfish, needlefish and ballyhoo, and they have been proven to be a favorite for big tarpon," he said. "I also keep my color selection pretty limited for night fishing. Generally, black is the top producing color because it offers the best silhouette against the surface, while chartreuse and bone white-colored baits also produce well."
When chucking these lures for night-bite tarpon, there are really only two presentations to choose from according to Gallagher. If fish are visibly holding or rolling along current breaks, a weightless plastic retrieved on top can draw some impressive surface strikes. If tarpon are not visible near the surface, he will reach for big swim baits or Hogy Jiggin' Eel tails on 1-to 2-inch jigheads and probe the entire water column.
"Both presentations rely on a quick twitch-twitch-pause style retrieve. I use short, sharp rod snaps to make the lure dart side to side, and 9-times-out-of-10, tarpon eat the lure on the pause," he added.
Gallagher will sometimes bring snook, gag grouper and cobia to the boat while targeting midnight tarpon, but after years of fishing this way and countless trophies under his belt, he really digs getting others out on the water after bedtime and get them involved in the action.
"I think the best part about bringing someone along on a tarpon trip is watching their excitement when they hook up. I’ve caught so many, so watching someone else's excitement is even better than catching my own."