Nothing ruins a bass bite faster than a personal watercraft ripping by at 50 mph. And nothing puts rising trout down quicker than a flotilla of tubers kicking and splashing their way down the river. There’s only one sure way to find tranquility on the water in summer, and it’s going to require a flashlight and some lost sleep.
But there’s a hidden advantage. Big fish that hunker down on hot days often go on the prowl after sundown, because that’s when bait species that have been lying low begin to move. Some guides specialize in chasing fish after dark, and we debriefed nine of them. Their tips and tricks are sure to help you become a master of the darkness.
Smallmouths: Black Light Special
According to veteran Tennessee guide Jim Duckworth, the biggest smallmouths in any lake head for the shoreline as soon as the sun sets. That’s because crayfish that have been hiding all day begin to stir now, and the bass know they can grab an easy meal. Duckworth quietly motors in on rocky banks and points, staying 70 to 90 feet away. Then he flicks on the black lights mounted on the sides of his boat. These purple bulbs illuminate only the first 30 to 50 feet of water, and they have nothing to do with attracting fish.
“I like to throw a 4-inch Berkley Chigger Craw ($4.30) in black or blue up against the bank on a Texas rig,” Duckworth says. “The retrieve is no different than during the day, but I use 14-pound fluorescent monofilament at night, and the black light illuminates it close to the boat. As soon as you see the line move, you set.”
Night fishing with a black light and fluorescent line will make any angler a better daytime soft-plastic fisherman, Duckworth believes, because the system makes the take so visual. “You can’t miss a strike in the light at night,” he says. He claims the glow doesn’t turn off the smallies, and thanks to LED technology, there are several inexpensive black lights for anglers that don’t require hard wiring to the boat. Check out Optronic’s Rechargeable Wide-Angle Fishing Light ($60).
Trout: The Nose Punch
Bushy streamers that splash and gurgle are the typical nighttime flies of choice for trout fishermen. For Delaware River guide Joe Demalderis, though, night floats on this New York-Pennsylvania border water are all about catching big browns and rainbows on dry flies when he has the best pools to himself.
“At night, color doesn’t mean anything. It’s all about silhouette,” Demalderis says. “I’ll tie on a slightly larger size than what I use during the day, with a white wing that I can see.” An Adams or Royal Wulff dry in size 12 or 14 works particularly well. “Anchor in a slow pool just before dark. Once your eyes adjust, you’ll be able to pick out rises.”
Unlike a daytime approach, don’t try to lead a trout at night, Demalderis says. When you see a dimple on the surface, cast right to that spot. To make it easier, he recommends targeting fish rising 30 feet away or less and fishing on nights with plenty of moonlight.
“You might not know exactly where your fly is, but the goal is to land as close to the rise as possible,” says Demalderis. In the dark, it’s difficult to determine whether you overshot or undershot the fish. “If you lay out and see the dimple again, just lift the rod instead of setting. Either the fish will be on or it won’t. If it’s not, you just lay out again to the same spot.”
Muskies: A Slow Burn
Of the 145 muskie trips Minnesota guide Steve Scepaniak runs on Lake Mille Lacs every year, 60 of them are night excursions. That’s because Scepaniak knows that in summer, when fishing pressure ramps up, your best shot at a 50-plus-inch ‘skie will come in the small hours of the morning. That’s when he breaks out the dual-blade Double Cowgirl bucktails ($25) and gives a lesson in speed control.
“During the day I’m usually telling clients to speed up the retrieve,” Scepaniak says. “At night I’m telling them to slow down. Muskies don’t react to visual cues in the dark. They use their lateral lines to feel vibration, and slow-turning blades give off more of a thump.”
Because you want the blades on these giant spinners to just barely turn, fishing with them at night is subsequently less strenuous than it is during the day, when a fast burn is in order. Scepaniak targets the edges of weedy flats, as muskies lying near the bottom in deeper water move shallow by night. Most strikes, he says, come at boatside, and the trick to sticking the fish here is forgetting the figure eight that daytime fishermen execute with a short line before picking up the lure to recast.
“A fast figure eight during the day makes the fish think the prey is getting away, so they’ll attack,” says Scepaniak. “At night they can’t see the lure as well, so you want to execute a long, slow L turn along the boat instead, just to keep the blades moving.”
Don’t expect a strong take. Most muskies strike and keep moving forward with the lure, thus putting slack in your line, so any subtle tap is worth a hard set. Scepaniak also notes that muskies often hunt in packs after dark. He has hooked as many as four fish on back-to-back casts, so don’t spend too much time taking photos of your first one.
Flatheads: Limb From Limb
6Hooking a 60-pound flathead in the dark on El Dorado Lake is the easy part, according to Kansas catfish guru Mike Cook. Working it out of the submerged tree where you likely found it, on the other hand, is quite the challenge. To win this tree-hopping night game, Cook relies on a specialized rig and brute force.
“I mostly fish live bluegills,” Cook says. “But I don’t want them to be able to swim all over and tangle in the trees. Instead of a single hook and leader, I rig the bait on a 1-ounce jighead, passing the hook through the bottom jaw and out one eye. The jighead is tied directly to my 30-pound mono main line.”
Using a 7-foot heavy-action conventional rod, Cook drops the bait straight down, working all around a submerged tree, starting on the deep side and moving to the shallow side. The heavy jighead provides better contact with and control of the bluegill in the sticky stuff. As the cats may be on the bottom or suspended among the limbs, it’s important to work the entire water column.
“Each drop only lasts about 20 seconds,” says Cook. “You give the bait a twitch or two, then move on. If the fish is there, it’ll bite pretty fast. You just have to keep that line tight and walk up and down the boat to get the fish away from the tree.”
Cook uses a brush anchor–a metal clamp with teeth tied to a nylon cord–to tether his boat directly to the above-surface branches of the trees that he’s fishing. If one tree doesn’t produce a fish or a strike, he’s quick to move on to the next, but he may return to a tree that was unproductive earlier, hoping a big cat moved in.
Snook: Shadow Games
“I always tell people a snook is like a mugger in an alley,” says Capt. Dave Pomerleau. “It will just hide in the shadows, waiting for prey to pass by. Then it bolts out and attacks.” Pomerleau spends up to 280 nights a year pulling these “muggers” out of the many aquatic “alleys” in Florida’s Sarasota Bay, and the biggest he’s landed was an unofficial state-record 44-pounder.
Snook are naturally nocturnal feeders, and Pomerleau bases a hunt around tidal flow. These fish prefer to let the tide bring a meal to them, and they’ll use any structure that breaks the current–particularly dock pilings and bulkheads–as ambush points. A high outgoing tide is best; a slack tide hardly ever produces fish. If you find a lighted dock that creates a strong shadow in the water, you’ve hit big-snook pay dirt, but fooling a fish hiding under the boards boils down to proper presentation.
“The worst thing is to pitch a bait directly to the spot the snook is likely holding in,” Pomerleau says. “You have to cast uptide and let the bait naturally move down into the light. If it doesn’t get attacked in three or four casts, either the fish isn’t there or it’s not going to eat.”
Pomerleau opts for a live pinfish or finger mullet pinned through the nose with a 4/0 circle hook and rigged weightless on a 30-inch length of 40-pound fluorocarbon. The heavy leader will withstand abrasion on pilings and on a snook’s sharp gill plate. When a snook does grab the bait, it’s critical to fight it with the rod first and the reel second, because low, severe rod angles are often necessary to get the fish away from the structure.
Largemouths: Adjust the Contrast
Tournament pro and guide John Sappington considers Table Rock Lake in Missouri his home water, where he leads clients to loads of 7-plus-pound largemouths. In the middle of summer, Sappington says, you have a “100 percent better chance” at a true hog after dark.
“When boats are running all over the lake, there’s a lot of noise in the water, and it’s harder for bass to pick up on the sound of natural bait,” he says. “I think they often strike lures during the day because they’re confused by all the engine noise. Problem is, once they make mistakes during the day a few times, they’ll just stop feeding when it’s light.”
Instead, wary bass go on the hunt when the water quiets down at night, and Sappington patrols flats with quick access to deeper water where he knows the fish will move in to feed. His weapon of choice is a 3⁄4-ounce short-arm spinnerbait with a single Colorado blade. The heavy lure sinks quickly, which is key because his pump-and-stop retrieve method is designed to mimic a crayfish hopping along the bottom.
“Contrast is more important at night than color,” Sappington says. “I like a black or purple spinnerbait with a white pork-chunk trailer. The white trailer creates a slight difference in contrast on the bottom. Big bass usually hit anything that’s moving the right way and stands out a little.”
Crappies: Mood Lighting
Once guide David Berry finds a good brushpile along a creek channel in Tennessee’s Cherokee Lake, on come the lanterns hung in the four corners of his pontoon boat. While the lights attract any baitfish in the area, Berry says they do not attract crappies the way many anglers think.
“The water in summer is hot, and the sun’s going down isn’t enough to cool the surface,” Berry says. “I often find the fish holding in 20 or 30 feet of water. Sometimes they rise in the lights, but sometimes they stay deep. The lights just get the baitfish active, so the crappies get more active.”
Berry sets up his clients with a double rig that has a jig with a fluorescent grub on the bottom and a live minnow on top. They lower it to the brush and slowly reel up until they connect with a crappie, counting handle turns to mark the depth of the bite. Some nights, however, the lights can actually make the crappies spooky. That’s why Berry only uses lanterns that let him dim the glow, drawing the edge of the light closer to the boat. This creates more dark area but still keeps the baitfish around. “What’s great about fishing in the lights is that you never know what you’ll catch,” he says. “Crappies are the target, but we catch catfish, largemouths, and bluegills all night, too.”
Walleyes: Cutting the Grass
The biggest problem tourney pro and Michigan guide Mark Martin has with nighttime walleye trips during summer is daytime water traffic. “The boats grind up the weeds and they’ll float to the surface,” he says. “Then at night it’s hard to get a clean trolling run.”
To combat the snot, Martin spools with 20-pound FireLine. He knows it’s overkill, but the thin superline will both cut through the surface weeds and allow him to free any weeds that do stick with a quick flick of the line. Clearing your line the same way when trolling stretchy mono is almost impossible. Clean runs are important, because your first pass on any spot is likely to produce the heaviest walleye, Martin says.
“Big walleyes are spooky,” he says. “At night I’m only trolling 10 feet of water on breaks near flats. If they feel the vibration from the boat, they’ll leave. You’ll still catch fish, just not the big ones.”
Martin’s first choice on the night troll is a size 13 Original Floating Rapala ($10). He’ll run four different colors to find out which produces best, and he strives to troll with the wind to reduce hull slap.
Striped Bass: The Swing Sting
For New Jersey surf guide Eric Kerber, summer success with nighttime stripers often means moving away from the main beach and targeting areas with current where nonmigratory bass stake claims during the hot months. Inlets–especially those with bridges–are his favorites, as a falling tide will draw forage from the bay to bass stationed near the inlet mouth or behind pilings. To fool them, Kerber casts out a black Bomber Long A ($9), but the retrieve of the shallow-diving hardbait comes later.
“If you can learn how to swing a plug, you’ll catch a lot more bass than you will just by reeling,” says Kerber. “I’ll cast upcurrent at a 45-degree angle, lock the reel, and never turn the handle. As the line comes tight in the current, the lure will dig and start swimming across the current on its own. To a bass, this looks like a dead, floating baitfish that suddenly came to life. It’s a real strike trigger.”
Even after his line completely straightens out, Kerber gives the lure at least 20 seconds of extra hangtime to entice any reluctant bass before retrieving for another cast. The trick after catching one fish is repeating the same swing again and again, as stripers will often congregate in a small area. If you swing short or wide of the mark, you won’t get a touch.
From the July 2012 issue of Field & Stream magazine.