The Midnight Special

Let the midnight special, shine her light on me.
Let the midnight special, shine her ever-lovin’ light on me.

August 30, 2000

I’ve finally caught the fish that originally inspired me to take up fly fishing and here is how it happened.

A few days ago I came down with a case of that childhood scourge, the chicken-pox. Apparently I’d never contracted it as a child so here I am, twenty-five years of age, and covered in blisters like the plague. They seemed to cluster especially about my head and face. Naturally this put any social life on hold, but unlike the old days where those with the pox had to sweat it out in solitude for a week or so, they have pretty effective drugs for it now. I secured some from my doctor and, after a couple requisite days of misery, I was feeling back to my old self, but still too contagious for general society. My company was limited to those who’d already had the disease (and possessed a stern enough constitution to stand the sight of my disfigured face).

Such was my old friend, Ally, and seeing my despondency he invited me down to try my luck on the young tarpon that gathered around the dock light of his parents house. On my first or second cast I caught one of the little blighters, barely eighteen inches long, but big enough to provide several entertaining jumps. I hooked a few more, but the action swiftly died and we wondered where to go next. Ally had let me fish rather than risk tangling our lines, but neither of us was finished fishing for the night.

I decided to try a hunch of mine. I’d seen snook lurking under a dock not far from his place, so I suggested we give it a shot. Ten minutes later we stood on the dock in a light southeast breeze, searching both side of the structure for snook with our flashlights. We only spotted three—one of which was quite large—but I was more interested in the young tarpon that were also in abundance here. They were harder to spot, preferring to hang in the darker water at the edge of the dock-light, but their eyes glowed orange in the beams of our lights. At least I was fairly certain they would bite my silly fly, while I’d never even turned a snook before.

Years ago—I was twenty-one, I think—I’d discovered snook for the first time. I was standing on this same dock with my Grandfather as we watched a school of large, silver fish corral a pod of bait fish. The water was shallow, clear, and the fish could be clearly seen as they patrolled the edges of the bait-ball. I had never seen anything like them before. Even the Old Man—veteran of decades dragging a living from the water with hooks, lines, nets, spears, and who knows what all else—needed a few moments quiet consideration before pronouncing them “snooky-fish… snook, I t’ink de call em.”

Snook. De good ta eat?”

“Yeh, supposed ta be wery good… fight ha’d too.”

Wow, a fish that grew large, were good to eat, fought hard, and we near enough to shore that I could fish them on my own without a boat! This was too good to be true.

It was. For the next few weeks I tried every way I could think of to catch those fish: cut bait, jigs, crank-baits, spoons, feather-jigs, and even live bait. Nothing produced even a follow or a glance, much less a strike. It turns out that being able to clearly see fish didn’t mean you were going to catch them. Quite the opposite, it seemed. So, it was understandable that tonight, standing as I was on the same spot of my previous failures, I didn’t have much hope in my little flies to move these snook.

However, the sheer size of the biggest snook left me no choice; I had to try. Once again, nothing seemed to interest it. My tarpon fly didn’t even draw a glance. I switched to a popper, having read about old Floridians casting them against the mangroves for snook there. Again, not a glance. I realized too that I wasn’t fishing particularly well, especially since I could occasionally hear tarpon busting bait out in the darkness. There’s nothing like feeding fish to distract a fisherman from a goal, while casting over fish with zero response can get old fast. So before long I reattached my tarpon fly —which I later dubbed the Midnight Special—and began casting for tarpon. Within a few casts I was tight to one, which, after a few good jumps, I summarily landed and released.

Now this whole time Ally (God bless him) was stalking up and down the dock with his high-powered flashlight trained on the snook. It was one of those old-fashioned, high-powered models. (You know, the ones with the giant 6-volt batteries that you carried from a handle like you would a small cooler or a six-pack, because they weighed like 5 pounds.) His heavy steps were occasionally punctuated by: “Cast over here, man. See the big one here.” “Come on, just one more shot, he’ll bite it this time for sure.”

Finally I flipped an exasperated backhand cast along the length of the dock and began stripping the fly. Again, nothing, but as I began to pick up for another cast I remembered something I’d once read about snook: snook are lazy fish; they don’t want to chase your baitslow and low, that’s the key. I decided to make one more cast but this time changed my retrieve all together. All of a sudden I was actually fishing. Instead of the quick, foot-long pulls for tarpon, I began an erratic retrieve: short, quick, hesitant strips—moving the fly more, but slowing down its actual progress through the water. My pauses were pronounced.

Wham! A fish was immediately in the air, a half-guess shape tearing holes in the calm water. Miraculously the first run was away from the dock. I cleared my line, cinched the hook and for the first time in my life heard my reel sing.

All of a sudden we were yelling—Ally with his flashlight and me with my rod, both trying to follow the progress of the leaping fish. I had just enough sense to run down the dock and jump onto the beach, where I ran at the fish as it ate line from my reel. This proved lucky since the next run was straight back towards the barnacle-crusted pilings of the dock and certain freedom. Leaning back on the rod I palmed the reel as much as I dared and managed to slow the run. Another head-rattling jump followed, barely a few yards shy of the dock, but it was almost over now. I began retrieving line in earnest, pumping the fish away from the pier. All that remained were a few more short runs. Finally, I saw the junction of my fly line and leader inscribing a taut line from rod-tip to surf. I handed my rod to Ally, (with strict instructions not to touch the reel) and worked my way down the leader to the shock tippet—a twelve-inch section of thirty-pound fishing line attached to the fly. I got hold of the heavier line and began walking backwards up the beach. As I pulled more and more snook kept emerging from the water.

We began yelling again. This was beyond belief; how big was it? I’d never dreamed anything so perfectly huge could be caught on a fly rod, certainly not by me. I lay down next to my fish to measure how long it was compared to my leg. It stretched to my upper thigh (roughly twenty-eight to thirty inches).

I knew what I had to do next. Ally wouldn’t like it, but I felt I had no choice. Reaching down I hefted the fish (which seemed at least ten pounds [1]) and headed for the water. I carefully washed the sand off its face, holding it gently as I watched the gills work. After a minute it glided off, finning easily into the dark water.

There was no more fishing that night. Nothing could top that performance. Snook are why I took up fly-fishing in the first place. I don’t know if it’s good to have one’s dreams come true so soon, or so easily, but I’m not too worried about becoming complacent. I hear there’s a forty-pounder that’s been seen a few times around a dock up on the north coast.

For tonight I’ll just head home and tie up a few more Midnight Specials.
1 I’ve since learned that this fish was likely just shy of ten pounds, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. I ran across a survey published online by the Tampa Tribune that gave average weights for twenty-eight inch snook as taken by a guide there. Depending on where they were caught the average was between six and seven pounds, though the heaviest was over eleven. Thirty-two inch fish were around ten or eleven pounds on average. Given that my fish was somewhere between 28 and 30 inches, we’ll just call it nine pounds and be happy. [back]

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