April 24, 2017
By Steve Quinn
With planning and persistence, night fishing largemouth can yield the biggest bass of the season.
In some regions, night-fishing has become an almost standard summertime procedure, an escape from the heat of the day as well as heavy boat traffic. Bass, particularly big bass, also find this time inviting, feeding more predictably after dark during much of the year.
Many anglers view night bass fishing solely as a summertime option, but it can start during the Prespawn Period, when bass first move toward shallow water. Mitch Looper, an avid angler from Barling, Arkansas, notes that fairly clear water is a prerequisite for successful night-fishing.
"If the water is clear and weather tolerable, I start night-fishing in January," he says. Looper is a contrarian and focuses his fishing efforts when few anglers are out, feeling that other anglers put big bass on their guard. "I night-fish until May, when most other anglers start showing up," he states.
"If spring rains muddy your waters, stick to daytime fishing. But if it's reasonably clear, get on the lake at midnight and fish 'til dawn. Don't miss the time when the moon is rising or setting, the minor solunar periods.
"In spring, most or all big bass are moving shallow under warming conditions and feeding heavily on crawfish and sunfish. Their movements are more synchronized than at any other time of year.
"The best strategy is to define a small area of the lake that you think has an excellent chance of having big bass. Fish that area slowly and methodically with big baits. After dark, the big ones are moving and searching. You can stay in one spot for a good while without any action, but then a giant comes along and the game is on.
"Summertime, in contrast, sees some big bass shadowing shad schools, holding off structure. I've never had success fishing offshore structure at night in our reservoirs that lack submergent vegetation.
"Some big bass move inshore and feed along edges during summer, the pattern that John Hope described in detail in his tracking work with big bass. These are the big fish that you can catch at night in summer. When you're after big bass, you need to minimize the number of small ones you catch, since that commotion spooks big fish in the vicinity. Fish big, bulky jigs and soft plastics. And when the wind is blowing, a big spinnerbait is a great choice."
Guide Richie White has fished famed Lake Fork in Texas after dark for 15 years. His schedule calls for daytime fishing during spring, targeting bass in cover or around spawning beds, then turning to nocturnal action in June.
"I divide summer nightfishing into three phases," White says. "During the early summer, from late May through June, bass are recovering from the spawn and feeding heavily in shallow water. During the midsummer phase, the thermocline has developed and bass roam deeper. During the late summer phase in August and September, they relate heavily to grass.
"In midsummer, you can catch schooling bass up until dark. After dark, I fish offshore humps, roadbeds, and points, structures that provide shallow water far out into the reservoir. If there's grass on top, all the better. In other lakes, rock is also prime cover, but there's not much of it at Fork."
Fishing lore surrounds the moon and this celestial body seems to have extra effects after dark, lighting the scene for anglers and even casting shadows that position bass. Many avid night anglers have preferred phases. The full moon has fans who feel that bass activity is heightened when the fish can see better. But half-moons also have adherents. And particularly where waters are ultraclear, some anglers prefer dark moons.
A bright moon allows bass to see more clearly, and thus allows them to venture deeper to feed. Perhaps more importantly, it makes it easier for anglers to fish effectively. This phase may draw more fishing pressure. But when White reviewed moon phases of Texas' 50 biggest largemouth catches and his own top 50, he found that summertime full moons never produced a giant bass on those lists.
"One reason, of course, is that bass weigh less in summer than in fall, winter, and early spring," he notes. "There are far fewer 10-pounders in Lake Fork in July than in February, and that 8 1/2-pounder you catch in August might go 10 by March. But the records show that a few of the biggest largemouths were taken during summer at other moon phases, but not one during a full moon."
Fishery scientist and longtime In-Fisherman contributor, Ralph Manns, notes that moon phase can affect lure choice. "When light is relatively bright after dark, such as around full moons, bass can see about half as well as they can during twilight. Any lure type and color that works during dawn or dusk can be successful under those bright conditions.
"On darker nights, lure speed, depth, color contrast, and sound become increasingly important in helping bass locate prey. Baits must seem both natural and catchable to attract bass. At times, irregular action is best, as it imitates an injured fish. But at other times a constant noise or vibration pattern is needed to help bass home in on a lure.
"Many anglers rely on rattles at night," he says. "They work—sometimes. Bass can feel and hear subtle movements of lures without rattles. A semi-quiet presentation often works better than loud artificial noises, particularly when fishing for pressured, experienced bass in clear, calm waters."
Twilight is a period of peak activity for bass and other predators. Fish move to the edge of woodcover or weeds to attack passing baitfish, and they form aggregations that move along cover edges to flush prey. During summer, active largemouth bass prowl areas after dark they rarely visit in daylight. They're less cover-oriented and often roam sparsely weeded flats in the 4- to 8-foot range. Less active bass remain in cover. Lighted docks simulate daylight by creating shade where bass may lurk all night, feeding when an opportunity arises. At dawn, bass return to edges to feed, shifting into thick cover as the sun rises.[/caption]
The Anchoring advantage
White believes that anchoring often is the best approach. "One key is recognizing productive structure," he says. "When you find a good offshore hump or an underwater point or bar, you can be confident that feeding bass will use it after dark. It's generally best to anchor on a key spot and wait for the fish to come to you, rather than to chase them here and there.
"By setting two anchors, one off the front and one off the back, I keep the boat set precisely so that we have optimal casting angles. Say I've found a point that gradually extends out into the reservoir with deep water on either side. I anchor on top of the high spot of the point, in 10 to 15 feet of water. If I have two anglers with me, each can cast parallel to the outside edge of the grassline, which at Fork runs about 8 feet deep.
"To double-anchor, I first place the rear anchor at least 20 feet behind where I want the stern to set. I troll forward about 20 feet beyond where I want the bow to set and drop the bow anchor. Then I pull the boat backward with the rear anchor rope, while releasing line at the bow. When the boat is in position, tie both anchors off. The deeper the water, the more rope you need to hold the boat. As a rule, you need five feet of line for every foot of depth.
"Big bass prowl edges looking for easy prey, so your baits should be there when they come to eat. At other times, though, bass may be holding on a spot when you arrive, and they're spooked by the noises of the boat. When you anchor and wait, they resume feeding. But it may take 10 or 15 minutes for them to settle down. If you were fishing along with the trolling motor, you'd be long gone.
"For this reason," says White, "we try to create as natural an environment as possible—turn off sonars and lights and sit quietly. I favor softbaits like craw worms and 10-inch plastic worms for this situation. They come through cover cleanly. Once you're double-anchored, you don't want to move the boat to free a snagged bait. Once I'm anchored, we fish for at least 20 minutes without a bite before moving. Each night, I try to spend time exploring and looking for new spots. But the best action generally occurs when we're anchored."
Manns concurs, noting that bass movement patterns at night bring fish out of thick cover where anglers hunt them during daylight. "Bass hold inside cover during the day, and anglers do well flipping baits into shallow brush and grass," he says. "Tracking studies have shown what experience has suggested: At night, bass move into more open areas where they can flush and corner prey against edges.
"While bass in vegetation often hold tight while a boat sits nearly on top of them, at night they move away from the bow wave of an approaching boat. They're actively hunting but cautious nonetheless. When you make a cast parallel to a weededge or tree line, use the same soft-entry techniques you employ to pitch baits into tight spots during the day."
To See or Not to See
When I night-fished in Georgia, lighted boat docks were high-percentage areas. Threadfin shad seemed attracted to the light, perhaps because it first drew plankton into the area, or else made it easier for the shad to feed.
At the top of the food chain, largemouths, hybrid stripers, and white bass frequented the lit manmade structures. Lighted bridges on creeks also were excellent producers of big bass, including my biggest night bass of just over 8 pounds. Constant illumination attracts prey and predators, while making it easier for anglers to navigate, cast, tie knots, change lures, and other things we take for granted during the day that become challenging after dark.
Many avid night anglers use blacklights, which illuminate the area surrounding the boat with a pale moonlike glow. Casting accuracy is greatly improved. When fluorescent monofilament lines are used, they glow beautifully, so line watchers can detect the slightest bumps. Without illumination, bites must be detected by feel.
But White and Looper avoid illumination, feeling that anything unnatural alerts bass to their presence. "I don't use a blacklight at night, or any other light, except when netting a huge bass," Looper says. "If I have to retie, I get a penlight and work in the bottom of the boat to minimize escaping light. I'm convinced unnatural light spooks the monsters, so I fish a jig strictly by feel."
It should be noted, however, that many blacklight aficionados typically work deeper structure in the hill-land and highland reservoirs of the Midsouth, where the subtle illumination of a blacklight has little effect on bass holding on deeper structure. In most jurisdictions you must display a white stern light when fishing or at anchor, for safety.
Baits for the Night Bite
Spinnerbaits: With pronounced vibration, spinnerbaits offer extrasensory appeal to bass. They also create a confidence-building thump that tells the angler they're working. Moreover, interruption of the thump, whether by contacting cover or when rushed by a bass, also keeps the angler in touch.
Spinnerbaits also come through cover cleanly, so casts parallel to a submerged treeline or weededge are effective. They're also good hookers. If bass seem to be short-striking the blade, a trailer hook usually nabs them. And for working edges of cover, rather than through it, few additional hang-ups occur with the trailer.
Looper has used spinnerbaits widely but pretty much switches to jig fishing when he's after trophy-size bass. "It seemed that spinnerbaits limited the top end size of bass, since I never caught one over 9 1/2 pounds on a spinnerbait and I knew 10-pounders were present."
Jigs: According to Looper, working a bulky jig outside bays and along creek channels during the Prespawn Period is the best way to catch the largest bass in the lake. That's when he caught his biggest bass, just under 14 1/2 pounds. To fish outside lily-pad beds, or along shallow flats and bars, 1/4-ounce models work well. Another option is swimming a jig through the edges of lily-pad beds or stands of bulrushes or stumpfields in river backwaters.
Across the Midsouth, night-fishing is popular on clearer reservoirs and night tournaments are common. There, the fly-n-rind has been a traditional favorite. Anglers match a 3/16- to 1/2-ounce jig with a pork or plastic chunk, working it along the bottom back to the boat.
Softbaits: White and other night-fishing experts rely heavily on softbaits for night-fishing. "In early summer, bass seem to feed more on crawfish after dark, and craw worms work better than anything," White says. "I rig them for casting parallel to weedlines, with 3/16- or 1/4-ounce slipweights. Later in summer, big curlytail worms like Berkley's PowerBait 10-inch worms and magnum ringworms come into their own."
Large grubs rigged on ballhead jigs also work well at night, as the steady flapping of the tail creates vibration that helps bass find the bait. Paddletail worms like Zetabait's Ding-A-Ling or Zoom's new Speed Worm also can be steadily cranked along shallow breaks or on the surface, providing substantial vibrations as the tail kicks back and forth.
Topwaters: Black topwater lures including Arbogast's Jitterbug and Musky Jitterbug have accounted for more than their share of big largemouths. The sound of a surface explosion is magnified after dark, making this the most exciting form of bass fishing bar none.
Looper has caught lunkers on the Cotton Cordell C10 Redfin, a big jointed floating minnowbait that weaves back and forth across the surface, creating a wake. Baits that produce best have a steady cadence that bass can home in on with their lateral lines and inner ears. Slow retrieves are best for the same reason.
Looper has a caution concerning topwaters, however: "I no longer fish topwaters at night due to the danger factor. I used to fish with a guy who loved to fish a Spook at night. One night a monster bass blew up on his lure.
"He set the hook and missed and I could hear the bait flying toward us but couldn't see it. I turned my back and the lure embedded into my jacket. I told him if he wanted to throw a treble-hooked topwater, he'd be doing it from the bank. I know that big topwaters can catch huge bass at night, but I can't justify losing an eye for a big bass.
"On the other hand, buzzbaits work well when big bass move into thick shallow weedbeds that are too thick for a jig to be effective. In those conditions, though, a large weightless soft plastic bait works, too."
Since bass lose color vision after dark with the receding of their cone cells, many anglers conclude that color matters little at night. Experts believe, however, that color can make a difference. Looper says, "Most folks fish a black spinnerbait at night, but on Arkansas lakes I've found that a white spinnerbait, especially a big one, outfishes black 99 percent of the time, especially for lunkers.
"Once I committed to seeking huge bass with a jig, I experimented with color and discovered that a brown jig with a few strands of muted orange in the skirt is deadly." He notes that two anglers should fish different colors to check for preferences.
According to Manns, nocturnal success with contrasting colors is no surprise. "Vision researchers have found that in clear freshwater, most underwater light is greenish at twilight," he says. "Under starlight or moonlight, most underwater light is yellow-green. If water has only fair clarity, faint nighttime light tends to be blue-green to yellow-green, depending on plankton in the water.
"A fish looking up sees more yellow, while one looking down sees more blue. A yellow-green to white belly above a bass likely blends against the lighter sky, yielding a poor silhouette. Similarly, a black lure seen against a dark bottom produces little contrast.
"But a black belly against the lighter sky shows well. A patch of yellow-green or light blue against a dark background increases the chance of a bass detecting a lure when it's looking down or outward. Details of lures are hidden at night, so bass focus their visual efforts on detecting contrasting colors and movements rather than on color details or specific shapes."
The toughest part of night-fishing is taking the plunge and reversing your schedule. If it were easy, everyone would be scoring big night-time bass. Pick a clear lake with a lunker reputation. Clear your schedule to allow a couple full nights of fishing, putting off sleep for the intervening days. But be careful out there—the experience can be addicting.