We report a fluorescent probe for mRNA detection. It consists of a gold nanorod (GNR) functionalized with fluorophore-labeled hairpin oligonucleotides (hpDNA) that are complementary to the mRNA of a target gene. This nanoprobe was found to be sensitive to a complementary oligonucleotide, as indicated by significant changes in both fluorescence intensity and lifetime. The influence of the surface density of hpDNA on the performance of this nanoprobe was investigated, suggesting that high hybridization efficiency could be achieved at a relatively low surface loading density of hpDNA. However, steady-state fluorescence spectroscopy revealed better overall performance, in terms of sensitivity and detection range, for nanoprobes with higher hairpin coverage. Time-resolved fluorescence lifetime spectroscopy revealed significant lifetime changes of the fluorophore upon hybridization of hpDNA with targets, providing further insight on the hybridization kinetics of the probe as well as the quenching efficiency of GNRs.