November 14, 2012
By Russell Browder
Johnny Procell has seen the light. So has Ken Beach. And Jerry Taylor. Illuminated and enlightened.
In the hours of darkness, when lesser souls have given in and gone to bed, these hardy souls seek and find angling salvation in a pool of electromagnetic radiation. In other words, night fishing around lights.
And they're not alone in getting a charge from luminous landmarks. Striped bass, white bass, and the hybrid progeny of the two figured it out first.
Lighted areas, particularly those offering cover—boat docks, piers, and bridges—are like a watering hole during a drought. All life gravitates to them. Predators and prey share close quarters, creating a smorgasbord of dining opportunities for those at the top of the food chain.
Noted bass researcher Doug Hannon, host of cable television's The Bass Professor and Sportsman's Challenge, agrees with the light-loving trio of Procell, Beach, and Taylor. "Lighted docks present a super opportunity for anglers."
The Main Attraction
Hannon says the primary reason lighted docks and similar structures draw fish is that, "Docks are fundamentally attractive to fish. When such a structure is illuminated, its features become obvious. It stands out.
"Roving schools of baitfish that would normally swim past an unlit dock become aware of it and pause, creating a logjam in the flow of life," Hannon says. "It's like a car wreck on an interstate. If traffic is heavy, it can back up for 10 miles for no reason other than people slowing down to look.
"Predatory fish such as stripers, whites, and hybrids see the light and the structure it reveals. They instinctively sense the potential feeding opportunities it presents. "Predatory fish are primarily daylight feeders, and light attracts them and shadows conceal them. Their basic feeding strategy is to see to catch prey," Hannon says.
"By nature, light decreases exponentially from the source, Hannon explains. "So, around docks and other lighted structures, light fades quickly, creating a strong edge effect. Predators like bass hide in the darkness, see their prey, and catch it without much effort since the prey's unaware of the predator's presence. Also, when predators chase their prey into a different environment, such as darkness, the prey must deal with other factors besides a predator on its tail. Lights on structures definitely create a predator exploitation situation."
Docks That Rock
While virtually any dock, pier, bridge, pump station, or other light-related structure will hold at least a few gamefish most nights of the year, certain structures outshine others in attracting bass. And the most productive may vary from night to night. Always among the best, however, are those illuminated consistently all night, every night. Large main-lake docks and those over or near deep water usually rate higher than backwater landings. Both floating and stationary docks are enticing to bait and predators. "Floating docks, however, often run out farther and span over deeper water," Hannon notes.
The number, intensity, positioning, and type of light fixtures also determine the likely fish-holding ability of a dock. "The more light, the more fish," says Dallas-based veteran guide Johnny Procell (972/264-1352). Landings with lights low to the water or aimed at the surface indicate dock owners with fishing on their minds. These residents often sink brushpiles next to their docks in hopes of creating backyard fish habitat.
Also, at times, different types of lights attract the most fish. Hannon suspects that the yellowish glow of sodium bulbs penetrates water more effectively and creates greater visual contrast than white lights such as mercury vapor or halogen. This is why fog lights are yellow. Procell and Jerry Taylor (817/549-0072), long-time guide on north Texas' Possum Kingdom Reservoir, concur, each saying they generally find more fish around sodium lights. All experts agree, however, that no significant source of illumination should go ignored, because, at times, white lights produce larger catches than yellow.
Anglers lucky enough to locate submerged swimming pool lights, reveals Taylor, have found the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. "The surface glows, like a giant aquarium. Shad, white bass, and stripers swim in big circles. When we had them here on Possum Kingdom, we'd catch 100 stripers a night. It was unreal. We caught them first on shallow-running baits and livebait, switching to jigging spoons and slabs for deeper fish," Taylor says.
Like fish and fishermen, insects love lights. And these swarming pests present a further attraction and stimulant for baitfish. Procell, Beach, and Taylor have observed increased baitfish and bass activity around lights abuzz with bugs. "I wear dark clothing because insects are less attracted to it. If my partner is wearing a white shirt and all of a sudden starts jumping and swatting, I know we're on the right dock," Procell says.
Right Time + Right Place
"Surface temperature," says Hannon, "delimits the times striped, white,and hybrid bass can dine around shallow structure. Water temperature largely determines where they can live and feed. In general, lighted docks are best for stripers when water is in the 50°F to 60°F range. Their preferred temperature is 54°F, and they're temperature sensitive. Hybrids and white bass, being more temperature tolerant, are more common feeders around docks. A good indicator of when stripers and other species will feed near lighted docks is times of year they school on top."
Virginia Beach, Virginia, striper expert Ken Beach, who fishes at least 150 times a year, has spent many a night angling for big striped bass under the lights of the U.S. 13 causeway at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. He finds that saltwater stripers begin to move upward as the surface temperature falls toward 70°F. "Best times in the bay are from November through March, when the water is below 70°F. When it drops into the 60s, I can almost walk across the top of the water on them," he says.
Spawning runs and other traditional seasonal movements also provide obvious clues to when docks in certain areas will hold concentrations of fish. Taylor says fish gravitate to certain docks most of the year on Possum Kingdom, a relatively deep, clear lake. "They usually aren't off the docks for more than a week or two at a time," he says. In fact, Taylor finds that fish key on main-lake deep-water docks all year. During winter and spring, most well-lighted wharfs including those in confined shallow areas, such as the backs of sloughs, can offer considerable big-fish action. "In colder months, especially early spring, I catch more big stripers around docks than during the rest of the year," Taylor says.
Procell, who fishes several Texas lakes noted for outstanding striper, hybrid, and white bass angling, including Ray Hubbard, Tawakoni, and Texoma, says he starts hitting the docks and other lighted areas late in the year. "My favorite time is from September until it gets too cold to fish at night. In the dead of winter, we catch stripers ranging up to 18 pounds by fishing around docks in water 16 to 20 feet deep."
The fall-through-spring period presents the window in which tolerable waters surround most lighted structures and therefore presents the optimum chance for anglers to find feeding stripers, whites, and hybrids on docks at night. During warmer months, a lighted structure over deep water still provides action as deep as 25 feet or deeper.
Moon phase also plays a role in the light-fishing equation. The blacker the night the better. Moonlight tends to dilute the effect of artificial light, scattering baitfish and making docks less obvious. Cloud cover nullifies this effect, however. Clear or slightly stained water also produces a better night feed. And a modest wind that creates a slight chop on the surface aids in hiding the presence of anglers from shallow, easily-spooked fish.
Proceed With Caution
Approach a lighted dock with patience, stealth, and caution. The largestfish generally lurk on the shadowy fringes. "Most feeding stripers will work the outer edge of the light line, usually in constant motion, trying to flush and force schools of bait into the light," Hannon says. "Predators often hunt from below, driving prey to the surface, where they get caught in the light. Direct light is detrimental to the defensive system of minnows, especially at night, when they really flash."
The softly glowing line that appears on the surface to mark the edge of a light's reach may actually be several feet closer to the fixture than the subsurface edge. Usually the light travels at a downward angle from the source and penetrates and spreads through the water like a transducer cone. "Light illuminates the water beyond the dark surface edge, and that's where the fish position," Hannon says.
Procell starts fishing around lighted docks shortly before dark. "Most marinas have some sort of channel cut or creek the fish use as a highway. That's the first and last place they bite. I get there before dark and work the bottom in an area about 20 feet deep with slabs, spoons, and Sassy Shads. Then I move shallower and use surface plugs and both hard and soft jerkbaits as night approaches," he says. Even if fish are feeding on top directly under the light, Procell prefers to thoroughly fish the darker water first. When casting a topwater such as the Zara Spook, he keeps a hard or soft jerkbait handy as a follow-up lure to throw at short strikers.
Taylor also begins casting well away from the source of light. "I start easingup on the docks from about 200 yards out and sometimes pick up several fish before getting under the lights. On occasion, I've caught more fish outside the lights. I may be 100 yards from the light and be on the bigger fish," he says.
As Taylor approaches the light-to-dark transition zone, he first casts parallel to the fixture rather than throwing directly toward it. "I normally start with a shallow runner like the Bomber 16A or a Long A. I cast across the arc of light if I can, dropping my bait in the dark that encircles the light. I then reel my lure into the light and stop it. Often I can see it float up. Then I twitch it, and that's when they usually hit."
After catching all he can on shallow-running plugs and soft jerkbaits, Taylor switches to leadhead lures, probing deeper along the light-to-shadow threshold. "Soft-plastic shad and bucktail jigs often attract additional fish from the same spot," he says.
Though bass are chasing schools of baitfish toward the surface, sinking lures such as jigs, grubs, and large lipless crankbaits fished well below the surface or even on the bottom can be quite effective. And nearby timber, brushpiles, and rocks also should be worked.
After thoroughly fishing the outer limits of light, a move closer in can yield more strikes, provided the fish don't become spooked. Stealthy anglers, careful not to get too close or make too much boat noise, observe fish using the dock as an ambush point. "I look for the fish to see what they're doing. Some may use the dock as cover and charge out when bait swims by," Taylor says.
Beach says he also regularly observes stripers hiding in shadows. "Fish literally line up in a 2-foot-wide shadow cast by a railing on one of the bridges up the river system that feeds the Chesapeake." And on quiet nights at the U.S. 13 bridge, Beach says, stripers hover in shadows just under the surface, mouthing floating rock lice as they sweep past bridge pilings. Boat activity, however, keeps fish from staying up. "I welcome heavy boat traffic because it seems to position the fish on bottom behind the columns. Sometimes just enough boats keep the fish from surfacing, but not enough to put them on the bottom."
Beach fishes the bridge by tying to a piling and casting upcurrent. If the fish are on top, his downcurrent, stationary position enables him to work the fish without alarming them. Normally, however, the fish suspend or hover near bottom. At such times, Beach makes a cast just long enough to bottom-out at the depth of the fish as the lure swings back to the boat.
Tackle and Bait
Rod, reel, and line selection depend on lure weight, amount of cover, and size of the targeted quarry. For big stripers and hard-fighting hybrids or around submerged timber or rock, 6 1/2- to 7-foot heavy-action rods, baitcasting reels, and line testing 20 pounds or stronger are recommended.
Scaling down to 6- to 6 1/2-foot rods and line in the 15-pound range enhances castability and action with medium-size lures. For white bass and small stripers and hybrids, spinning tackle and line in the 8- to 12-pound range offers tremendous sport.
A variety of lures will catch stripers and hybrids around lighted structures. Procell matches lure size to dominant baitfish in the area, but he prefers a fairly heavy lure. Large baits allow longer casts and therefore less chance of spooking fish. The old adage about catching more big bass on big lures also holds true, especially later in the year when many baitfish have grown to full size.
Most successful anglers use both hard and soft jerkbaits in white, chartreuse, baitfish, or reflective patterns for surface-oriented fish. Similarly colored crankbaits and lipless rattling crankbaits also work well. In fact, a crankbait intentionally tuned to run to the side will track under a floating dock when cast beyond it. Topwaters draw strikes, but seem less effective than other baits, Taylor says.
For suspended or bottom-oriented fish, leadhead lures such as Sassy Shads and bucktail jigs with grub trailers are the weapons of choice. White, chartreuse, or a combination thereof are always high-confidence colors. Beach notes that on misty nights on the bay, black or black-metalflake plastics draw the most strikes.
Taylor and Beach regularly use available livebait. "I used to fish off my dock in the morning before sunup," Taylor recalls. "I'd take a large bluegill, rig it without weight, and cast it as far as I could. One morning, I caught 17 stripers between 8 and 12 pounds."
Taylor usually fishes bluegill or shad. Beach casts a variety of livebaits including alewives; gizzard shad; menhaden; and eels, which work especially well on the largest stripers.
While white bass hit relatively large artificials, they usually prefer smaller baits. Small grubs, crankbaits, lipless crankbaits, in-line spinners, soft jerkbaits, or crappie jigs fished around and directly under the lights often produce limit-busting catches, Taylor and Procell say.
If night bassing is your game, don't just sit there in the dark. Follow Procell, Taylor, and Beach's lead. Lighten up. You'll find more fish, more action, and more fun, no matter your skill level. If you get your bait in the water around a well-lit dock, chances are you'll catch fish."
Fishing Lights: Pick Your Prey
Lighted docks, piers, bridges, and other structures hold some species of fish all year. Everyone from trophy hunters to eager youngsters can find what they seek by knowing when to fish around such illuminated architecture. The most consistently productive structures have bright lights with deep water directly below or nearby. Brush, rocks, or other cover add to the attractiveness.
In cooler months, temperature-sensitive fish, such as stripers, white bass, and hybrids, often dominate. On many lakes, black bass take over as the chief predatory species the rest of the year.
Davey Hite, a top Bassmaster tournament fisherman from Prosperity, South Carolina, has long known that lighted structures offer all kinds of angling opportunities for black bass enthusiasts. "I fish docks at night with the same baits I use in daylight—Texas rigs, jigs, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, and lipless crankbaits," Hite says. On Lake Murray, Hite's home water, lighted docks are relatively scarce, so he waits until early morning, after most other anglers have left.
As with stripers and hybrids, the biggest black bass in the area often position where artificial light begins to fade. Hite says, "I catch most of my best bass on cover on the edge of the light. I fish all the pilings and poles, plus any brush or rocks in the area. I usually throw a Texas-rigged black 11-inch V & M worm first. Then I cast crankbaits such as the Norman ZZ Top and spinnerbaits as I work my way toward the lights."
Jerry Taylor, a veteran guide on Possum Kingdom Reservoir in north Texas, finds excellent catfish and crappie angling around lighted landings. One of his favorite times to catch cats is after a major insect hatch. "The catfish come up in 2 or 3 feet of water. They're easily spooked, but I can actually see them swimming around eating insects." Taylor fishes either weightless crickets or grasshoppers on small hooks with light spinning tackle, targeting his casts to the biggest fish he sees. "A coffee can full of soured grain dumped near lighted docks can also turn on shallow cats," Taylor says.
Some crappies call deeper lighted docks home all year. Taylor generally fishes close to the light, dropping his minnow or jig to the bottom, slowly working it back up until he determines the depth where the fish are holding. Brushpiles and dock posts should be fished thoroughly, he says.
Young anglers wanting to feel a tug on their line drop just about anything with a tiny hook around a lighted dock for bluegills. Earthworms and crickets are always reliable bluegill baits.