Man vs. Tarpon on Biscayne Bay
By Bill Kearney
As the sun sets behind the Miami skyline, Greg Shaughnessy prepares to cast live shrimp to migrating tarpon, some of which may weigh as much as 200 pounds
"We’re in business,” whispers Captain Russell Kleppinger as we round the corner of a waterfront estate in the darkness. A television flickers in the house, but outside, a real and predatory drama is about to unfold: One of his favorite dock lights is turned on, attracting bait and maybe, in the shadows, a tarpon. When his client, Internet marketing entrepreneur Greg Shaughnessy, lobs his live shrimp upcurrent and lets the tide sweep it toward the light, a long, ominous shape emerges from under the dock. “Now!” says Kleppinger. Shaughnessy sets the hook and is suddenly attached to 70 pounds of furious kinetic energy, a fish that’s been swimming the oceans since prehistoric times. The tussle doesn’t last long. The tarpon rushes, jumps, cracks violently against the top of the dock, and throws the hook. “Wow,” Shaughnessy says, stunned. “The fish is really in charge. It happens so fast.”
“My girlfriend could have done better than that,” chides the captain.
That kind of explosive confrontation is what the night fishing game is all about. Though it seems implausible when you look at the Miami skyline and the cacophonous humanity stuck on the MacArthur Causeway, there is a hidden wilderness under the surface of Biscayne Bay that comes alive when the sun goes down. Night anglers pierce the barrier between the two worlds, choosing to do so in darkness because the Jet Skis are gone, yachts are docked, and tarpon and snook—the coveted prizes of Miami night fishing—are more aggressive and ready to feed. Tarpon can grow to eight feet long and well over 200 pounds, though anything over 100 pounds is considered big. Snook are smaller by comparison (two to four feet long). They’re also delicious.
You can’t just toss a line in the water and be successful at night fishing. Kleppinger relies on a deep knowledge of marine biology to predict where fish will be and what they’ll eat; water temperature, wind and tide direction, bait migrations, and knowledge of the fish’s spawning habits all play into the equation. Time on the water getting to know the intricacies of the bay—a rock pile behind a certain bridge piling, a drop-off in Government Cut, a shadow line with good current—also makes a huge difference. Though a small group of discreet locals practice night fishing, professional guides like Kleppinger give adventurous clients an opportunity to connect to a Miami very different than the sparkling condos and throbbing nightclubs on the shore. “When I’m out here, the last thing I’m worried about is who the doorman is at a club,” says Shaughnessy. “It’s all right there,” he motions to the South Beach skyline. “But we’re completely removed.”
Kleppinger speeds across the bay in his 21-foot Egret skiff to check on another light that’s likely to hold fish on an incoming tide. As we approach he kills the engine so as to drift into range silently. Soon, two yard-long objects form out of the darkness; another cuts a stunningly graceful arc through the light. They’re resident (younger) tarpon waiting for shrimp and baitfish to be swept by on the current. This is a scenario where flyfishing with hand-tied flies shaped to emulate shrimp and baitfish might work. Another option would be lures made of soft plastic that either dart or paddle when pulled through the water. Shaughnessy opts for a live shrimp, which Kleppinger carefully rigs so as to keep the bait active and swimming naturally. Immediately one of the tarpon surges to the bait and is hooked up: an explosion of water, the fish airborne, cavorting, then back in the water, and streaking out to sea. This time, the hook holds and the reel is strong enough to stop the fish. A stalemate ensues, in which the fish seems to search for ideas. After more runs and leaps in the darkness, it tires and comes to hand. Kleppinger handles it with great care, and before releasing it, wipes a small sponge across its outer jaw for DNA sampling in a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) tracking study. (If the fish is caught later by an angler who sends in a cheek sample, FWC research scientists can see where it has traveled and when.)
There are two populations of tarpon in Miami: resident fish under 60 pounds and big breeders, some of which swim laps around the Gulf of Mexico or sojourn to the Carolinas. In the winter, they gather around inlets such as Government Cut for pre-spawn feeding and socializing, and then, in early to late spring (March to May, maybe June), they migrate to the Keys to spawn. (Tarpon reach sexual maturity at around age 10, when they’re four feet long.) “I call them physiological tanks,” says FWC assistant research scientist and tarpon expert Kathy Guindon. “They’re gentle giants—so peaceful compared to what they are capable of.” Steven Spielberg would have been historically accurate if he had tarpon swimming in the lagoons of Jurassic Park—the species took shape some 100 million years ago in the Cretaceous period, when Tyrannosaurus rex still roamed the Earth.
Shaughnessy lands three more resident tarpon from that light before the fish disappear, then Kleppinger starts the engine and we head north in the bay. He wants to put Shaughnessy on a snook, a fish that often takes on a quasi-mystical status to those who pursue it. “Once you get hooked on fishing snook, you kinda have to get divorced,” says FWC fisheries biologist and snook expert Ronald Taylor. “I know guys who never stay at home at night [in order to fish], one guy for a whole month.” Often hidden, cat-like, in the shadows or tucked behind a rock in tidal current, snook are a seductive riddle, the answer to which Nature doles out fish by fish, but rarely generously. So adapted to nocturnal hunting are they that they have a phosphorylated layer of eye cells that amplify ambient light, allowing them to find food in near-total darkness—not a lot of light 40 feet down in Government Cut at 3 am, but they have no problem finding a three-inch jig.
Kleppinger uses his trolling motor to quietly hover next to an eddy behind a bridge fender somewhere in Biscayne Bay. Traffic moves overhead as he rigs a live shrimp on a 3/8-ounce lead jig head, a method that keeps the shrimp near bottom—the realm of the snook. Shaughnessy pops the jig repeatedly, allowing it to waft in the tidal flow, a puppet about to be eaten. His rod jerks down as a fish lunges for the bridge pilings. After an intense but short fight, Kleppinger lands the fish, a small snook, and releases it quickly. It was likely a male—snook are hermaphrodites, in that they’re born male, and many, but not all, transform into females when they’re between five and seven years old. From April or May through September or October, as water temperatures hit 75 degrees, most of Miami’s snook will move from canals and backwaters to the bay and position near passes such as Government Cut and Haulover Inlet to spawn. This concentration makes the summer months by far the best time to find and catch big breeder snook, but it’s also catch-and-release fishing, so as to allow productive spawning. We fish the bridge for another 20 minutes, catch a few mangrove snappers, and decide to move on.
There’s a salty subculture in Miami, and Kleppinger’s certainly a product of it. If his father drank too much and ran the family boat aground, he’d catch bonefish out of the boat’s portholes. As a kid, he’d climb down bridge pilings and spend nights watching snook and tarpon feed in the current. Some of the best snook fishermen in the state took him under their wings in the ’80s. It was the days of the Cocaine Cowboys, and even fishing had a nefarious underbelly. “These guys went out and caught snook, and they sold them to sushi bars, illegally, and they bought weed and went to bed. That’s all they did. I never got into poaching or the drug stuff, but I learned how to snook fish.” The poaching all came to an end when two legendary fishermen associated with Kleppinger’s mentors received an order for $1,000 worth of fillets from a restaurant that didn’t exist. “They figured it was a trap, the heat was on ’em. So they quit. These days, they run yachts.” And these days, Kleppinger is a conservationist. “No snook dies on my boat.” Now 38 years old, he’s not married and isn’t planning on having kids. “The guys who do this and are married, it’s not a good relationship,” he says. “You’re not there to raise your kids. I love fishing, and it’s not fair.”
It’s 1 am, and we are headed to the ocean. Black roils of water plume beneath us as we leave the confines of the Cut. “This is where we find the big boys,” says Kleppinger as he rapidly and meticulously rigs four rods with live shrimp and crab, drifting them at different depths. Tarpon out here meander along sargassum and turtlegrass weedlines, hunting for anything small hiding there. Kleppinger tells us to listen to the water. “You want to hear slurping and popping.” We do hear a few fish, but after half an hour without action, we decide to head in, drifting the baits naturally on the tide as we ease into the mouth of Government Cut. One of the reels shrieks loudly. Shaughnessy dives to grab it. “That’s a big fish,” says Kleppinger. “This is the one we’ve been looking for.” While Shaughnessy braces himself, the fish erupts from the water 60 yards out. It’s about six feet long. Kleppinger estimates it at over 100 pounds. The fish makes two heavy fast runs, taking out line easily. Before Shaughnessy can gain any line, there’s a sudden, panicked series of very short bursts to and fro. Shaughnessy senses something is amiss. Then, something very strange: two odd heavy thumps, and the line goes slack. The fish is gone. They reel in the line and check it; the leader is chaffed in a foot-long section. It may have been the tarpon dragging the line over the peak of two rocks, but also may have been a shark killing the fish. (Kleppinger had lost a 150-pound fish last week to a bull shark in the same area.) Shaughnessy is visibly distraught. “I feel sick,” he says, not only about losing the fish, but about the possibility of its demise.
The two men speed past the sleeping tropical estates of Indian Creek on their way to the Haulover Park ramps, where they trailer the boat. “It is difficult to not keep rethinking everything,” Shaughnessy says about losing the fish, but there’s nothing he could have done differently—a 100-pound tarpon is uncontrollable. Therein lies the joy of this; water at night is not our world, but we can touch it, be attached to something wild. Just as the moon will round the Earth and tide will ebb, snook in the ensuing months will gather in darkened passes as they have for millions of years, and tarpon will migrate and return. And another night fishing trip will offer both Shaughnessy and Kleppinger a chance at redemption. Book a trip: Contact Captain Russell Kleppinger at 786-290-3474; email@example.com
photography by Pete barrett; bill kearney (blue crab); russell kleppinger (kleppinger)
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.