Ethan Kiburz has the tiger by the tail, and he knows it.
As he piloted two visiting trout bums across Tampa Bay on a recent sultry night, the young man -- just 23 years old -- explained that he’d been guiding on the bay for about a year and that he worked in a local fly shop part time, efforts to pad the bank account of a single fly fisherman with a passion for salty critters on the business end of an 8-weight.
“Married?” he responded to a poorly timed query, with an exasperated gas. “No. No way.”
And who could blame him? After a day on the bay spent slumming with a couple of clients and chasing tarpon and snook with bait, this fly-rod loving captain had the chance to tote a couple of rabid long-rodders round the uppercrust water-side neighborhoods of Tampa in search of snook, trout and redfish under the cover of darkness. Two trips in a day. By anyone’s measure, that’s a healthy chunk of change for a young man with a boat, a pickup and nothing but his own schedule to answer to.
The trip across the bay lasted about 30 minutes and included a gorgeous view of downtown St. Petersburg and the Gandy Causeway. At 9 o’clock at night, the urban waterscape was slipping into slumber just as we were getting our fly rods strung up. The hot and humid day had faded into a sticky night, but the respite from the oppressive July sun while casting in the surf for snook off of Clearwater Beach was welcome.
I’ve never been a huge fan of fishing under lights. I always considered it to be somewhat artificial, possibly a bit like cheating. Bayside homeowners in Tampa, though, clearly consider the dock lights a necessity. Very few of them went to bed and turned the dock lights out when they did, leaving dozens of lights shining down on the water -- or shining up from it -- each night, all attracting baitfish by the thousands. And, of course, as the bait is drawn to the lights, the predators follow.
Like the speckled trout, the redfish and the occasional snook, we also were drawn to the lights in search of prey. Ethan, expertly manning a trolling motor on his skiff’s casting platform, put us within casting range of the orbs of light bouncing off the bay within sight of some of the most impressive homes in western Florida. And it was easy to tell which lights would bear fruit, and which wouldn’t. Dark, fishy shapes would ghost in and out of the night lights that rested over water spun by the tides and wind, hunting the bait schools that circled the lights, mesmerized like deer caught in a pair of headlights.
Casting from the platform at night was a bit deceptive. Ethan prefers longer leaders -- 10 feet or more -- which threw me off immediately. After catching my third dock, I finally got the feel for both the distance in the dark, and the longer stretch of 20-pound tippet that Ethan said was skinny enough to fool the snook and the reds but strong enough to fight them away from the lights once they were hooked. As for flies, it was a simple proposition. Sparsely tied baitfish patterns and the utilitarian Schminnow in a size 2 seemed to be about all Ethan recommended.
And Ethan, the thoughtful guide he is, started us off with easier quarry. The first few lights we drifted by were loaded with ladyfish and speckled trout, some quite respectable. We generally had our way with the fish, switching every few minutes and getting a feel for the dark, the longer leaders and the extra heft saltwater fish possess as opposed to the trout we’re more accustomed to chasing.
After a couple of hours spent fishing, Ethan motored us into a well-heeled waterfront subdivision, and the first set of lights we visited proved to hold a handful of big snook. Seeing the fish was one thing. Catching them would prove another, and when we left Ethan early the next morning, we were less convinced that fishing at night was truly the guaranteed way to hook a snook in Tampa Bay.
Indeed, neither my fishing buddy Joel Johnson, nor I managed to convince a snook to take a fly, despite several opportunities. We did land a handful of hard-pulling redfish among the ritz of Tampa’s elite neighborhoods, and we felt good doing it, as they, too, proved to be pickier than we expected.
And, I’ll admit, the lights added to the sight-casting experience -- it was truly fun to watch a redfish charge out from under a dock to grab a Schminnow cast tight to the pilings, and it was exhilarating when a sizeable ladyfish or a stout speck would explode on a fly in the green water illuminated by the dock lights.
As we handed Ethan fistfuls of cash at 3 o’clock the next morning, it was with a bit of envy. We drove back to our Clearwater Beach hotel, memories of ghostly fish charging from the dark into the light to nail flies pulled hopefully through the salt. The kid with the tiger by the tail pocketed the money and loaded his boat on his trailer and drove off to bed, another day on the bay awaiting him. The next day, he said, he’d be after tarpon in the bay, and more reds and snook after a half day schlepping flies from behind a fly shop counter.
Another day immersed in his passion, a passion he’s fortunate enough to have discovered so young. Joel and I were fortunate visitors this night, and we’ll be back, for sure, to fish with young Ethan who proved himself a worthy captain, indeed.