Miami Beach After Dark

Miami Beach After Dark

by Farrow Allen

Capt. Doug Lillard cut the interior lights, shut down the engine, and let the boat coast under the bridge. A solitary heron began to pace nervously as we closed in on its perch. When we got too close, the bird gave a raucous shriek and flew into the night. Quietly Doug stepped to the bow deck and grabbed the now vacated, slimy concrete buttress to steady the boat. Above us, the whine of car tires on the bridge and the drone of a low- flying 747 marred the otherwise quiet night.
Cushioned in the darkness, surrounded by the shimmering lights of the Miami skyline, we felt isolated from the strident, mostly wide-awake city full of on-the-go tourists. I squinted at the faintly illuminated dial of my wristwatch and smiled at the notion of fly fishing in the shadow of downtown Miami after midnight.

Joining Doug on the wet deck, I crept to the edge of the gunwale and steadied myself. I began to strip line from the reel and search the water for the dark shapes of tarpon near the surface. Behind me, my exhausted companion, offered encouragement, zipped up the neck of his windbreaker, and slumped on a seat cushion behind the transom. Only minutes earlier, he’d lost a three-figure tarpon when his shock tippet wore through after more than an hour of struggle. We’d been on the water for about four hours and jumped six tarpon that were all above the 20 to 40 pound average these bridges generally product. We’d broken a 9 and a 10-weight rod and still hadn’t brought up a fish on boards. Except for the size of the fish we were hooking, it had been what Doug call ‘a fairly typical evening.’ With only an hour of good tide left, I was eager to take my turn on deck.

The outgoing tide pushed water at the bow fast enough to create a wake and a gurgling eddy around the engine. Small clusters of tarpon patrolled inside the bridge’s shadow line, ambushing shrimp drifting in the current. Before too long, Doug spotted three fish cruising near the surface, barely 25 feet from the bow. While holding us close to the bridge, he used his free hand to track their movement to the right while I tried to direct a cast ahead of them. Another fish lunged from the shadows, turned on its side, and sucked down a shrimp less than five feet from the end of my rod. I made a quick roll-cast pickup, aimed above the boil and began to retrieve my weighted rabbit-strip streamer the instant it touched the water. As the bulky line-to-leader connection bounced through the tip-top of my rod, the tarpon drifted lazily to the surface and inhaled my fly. I set the hook with two hard strips and waited for the water to erupt. For a heartbeat or two, the big fish just hung there. I glanced down to clear my line, and when I looked up the fish was coiled in the air, suspended in the lights of the bridge. It smacked the surface barely a boat-length away, throwing a bucket’s-worth of spray across the bow, and then raced to open water.

The tarpon’s first two runs against the light drag carried it safely away from any obstructions around the bridge. Doug pushed us into the open, hustled around Tony, and got the motor started. I shouted the general direction I thought the fish was taking and we followed it out to the bay. As I began to increase the pressure, Doug pointed out some shoals and warned me of several nearby navigation buoys. This was the smallest fish so far, only about 30 pounds, and I was able to quickly get my fly line back on the reel and fight it from a mostly-drifting boat. Within 15 minutes, I brought it to the side for a quick picture and safe release.

It seemed like a good time to end the evening on a high note and head for the dock. Tony and I would have the next two days, Friday and Saturday, to relax on the beach and soak up some of South Beach’s eclectic night life. Monday we’d be back on the water with Doug for two more nights of fishing.

Working the Night Shift

Fishing at night in upper Biscayne Bay, between Miami and Miami Beach, is not entirely uncommon, though flats boats and fly fishermen are pretty rare. A small cadre of bait fishermen gather after dark to drop their heavy lines and sinkers directly from the bridges, but they’re easy to avoid. One night, we saw three or four shrimp boats working several sections of a bridge we’d planned to fish, so we went elsewhere; when we came back the shrimpers were gone. Many bridges and causeways span the bay, and so far, it appears that there’s enough water to go around.

January through April is the heart of the commercial shrimp season, and because these bay-dwelling tarpon feed exclusively on shrimp, this is often the most productive time to fly fish. When the fishing is good, some boats ill stay out until daylight, each boat filling its hold with as much as a thousand pounds of shrimp. During my visit last winter, most boats pulled their nets and got off the water shortly after midnight. Except for one or two other boats, we had the bay pretty much to ourselves.
There are lots of adult tarpon around in March and April, so it’s a good idea to keep an 11- or 12-weight rod set up. In May and June, most of the large fish head south, and from July to the end of September you can fish these bridges at night with an 8- or 9-weight outfit and have fun playing with 10 to 15 pound babies. Near the end of autumn, usually beginning in November, schools of 25 to 50 pound fish begin to show up. The northward migration of larger fish progresses through February, and by March it’s time to bring out the heavy gear again.

All of which means that there’s pretty reliable tarpon fishing in upper Biscayne Bay throughout the year. But if you don’t know your way around, you’ll need a guide like Captain Lillard (954-894-9865) who’s familiar with the bridges and shoals, and who’s willing through the productive tides no matter how late at night they occur. On our last night, Tony and I fished until 5 a.m., and the action never let up.
Thanks to a public boat ramp just around the corner from the hotel where we stayed, we were on the bay and fishing less than half an hour after leaving our rooms. At the end of the night, worn out and arm-weary, we were back at the door of hour hotel five minutes after getting off the boat. Sometimes, after a busy night of fishing, it was hard to go straight to bed. Once I was tempted to bid Tony goodnight and wander out to look for somewhere interesting to eat. But a two in the morning, you may find the South Beach streets a bit intimidating. Although I honestly never felt threatened, night or day, it was much simpler to buy a sandwich at Wolfie’s Delicatessen on 20th Street and Collins Avenue, store it in the fridge, and eat in the room. After a fat deli sandwich and a bottle or two of beer, falling asleep was not a problem.

Nocturnal Necessities

For leaders, I’d suggest 15 to 20 pound-test class tippets and 40-pound shock tippets. I had a bunch of snook leaders tied with 40-pound Ande shock tippets. They worked fine most of the time, though I kept an 11-weight rod rigged with a conventional double-Bi mini class tippet and an 80-pound shock tippet for when we ran into large fish. Pack your reels with weight-forward floating lines–old ones if you’ve got them. Leave your slow sinking, monocore tarpon tapers at home: they sink too fast when casting upcurrent, and I’m sure they spook fish at night. Plan to overline your rods. Most of the tarpon you see will be les than 25 feet from the boat, and you’ll need the extra line weight to adequately load your rod on a short cast.
Bring lots of extra gear, too. On the first night out, I lost a line when a freshly hooked tarpon made a U-turn around some barnacle-encrusted pilings; then shattered three sections of my four-piece 0-weight when I tried to turn over a fish that looked to be about 90 pounds. Fortunately, the multi talented Captain Lillard spends one day a week at the Fort Lauderdale Fly Shop (954-894-9865). He brought my rod in for repair, rigged a new line on my reel, and brought the outfit back for our next night. How’s that for service? I had all my success at night with a simple rabbit-strip fly given to me by Captain Lillard. Considering how quickly you can go through flies at night, it doesn’t make sense to devote a lot of time to tying fancy patterns.
Remember that South Beach is a hotbed of fun-in-the-sun topless swim wear, great dining, and nonstop nightlife. Besides all the action on the water, there’s plenty in town as well. Doug had recommended a modestly priced hotel on Collins Avenue in the characteristically high-dollar South Beach art-deco district. Although a bit worn around the edges, at 75 bucks a night, which included a refrigerator, morning coffee, maid service every day but Sunday, and Bingo–so we heard–on Wednesday, the Claremont Hotel (305-538-9631) was just fine. Since the Claremont is on a corner, Doug could pull the boat close to the side-street curb and load the gear without holding up traffic.
While sitting on the hotel’s porch waiting for our ride to pull around the corner, we had front-row seats at one of the best shows in town. All by itself, the nightly spectacle in South Beach almost makes the trip worthwhile. As a prelude to each night’s fishing, Tony and I would hurry downstairs to lounge on the Claremont’s expansive front porch, gossip with other guests, and brace ourselves with strong Cuban coffee while we gawked at the flow of scantily dressed, weird, and beautiful people along Collins Avenue. Then Doug would arrive and take us out to the real action.I specialize in protected water light tackle fishing in the waters of Flamingo (Everglades National Park), Biscayne Bay and the Florida Keys.