By Gene Bourque
Some of my best fishing experiences – many of them in fact – happened under the cover of darkness. That’s not necessarily because I caught more or bigger fish but because of the intimacy. When you can’t see very far or very well, everything that’s close by comes into focus and that’s what makes fishing at night so special. After dark all our senses come into play. They have to, not just because we cannot hope to locate the fish without using every tool at our disposal, but also because the darkness is a little intimidating. Dangerous, even, depending on where and how you fish. And I like that!
I can easily flash back to some big stripers caught at night along the Elizabeth Islands and inside my favorite estuary and in many other places but it’s the smaller things that have really left an impression. Wading into the water at Chatham inlet and having thousands of sand eels scatter, bait that I had no clue was there but would guarantee the big stripers would be nearby that night. Drifting along the backside of Cuttyhunk two weeks after the awful events of September 11 when no planes were flying and the darkness enveloped us. It was quiet and soothing and far away in the distance on that crystal clear night we could just make out the lights on top of the Newport Bridge. To be honest, I don’t even remember if we caught any fish but I know that evening made me feel better than I had since the tragic day two weeks before.
I have plenty of genuinely satisfying night fishing memories too. There was the night in the fall of 2004 when we caught big, healthy schoolie bass on every cast, then headed over to a local pizza joint for some excellent food and the pleasure of watching our beloved Red Sox put the finishing touches on their improbable comeback against the Yankees.
Some places are not so welcoming in the darkness and I just can’t figure out why. One is a short stretch of an outflow from a salt pond. The woods that border it are just plain spooky – I half expect the Blair Witch to come out and ask me about the fishing! I think I spend as much time looking back over my shoulder as watching my casts. I was fishing another estuary one pitch-black night and I swear I heard some critter squawk out my name – loud! Reel in, grab the tackle bag, beat feet down the beach. Yeah, I know, irrational and silly, right? Just wait until some night creature calls you out and you’ll know what I’m talking about! If the fishing wasn’t so damned good in both of these places I wouldn’t go back but it is. I just don’t go by myself much anymore.
I’ve also noticed that fishermen don’t talk much when they’re fishing after dark, even friends who are in the same boat or fishing right next to each other along a beach. The ones who do talk loudly in the darkness are usually looked on with a certain amount of disdain by other anglers. On the other hand, the sound of a good fish crashing on the end of a line is a source of pride for the one who’s connected to the fish and a little envy from anyone who hears it. Of course, if that fish crashing is accompanied by hooting and hollering from the fisherman, whatever envy the other anglers nearby may have felt immediately turns to disgust. Somehow it’s OK to demonstrate how psyched you are in the daylight, but it’s just not cool after dark. Nothing wrong with letting that fish slap the surface an extra time or two before you land it, though – just to be sure everyone notices!
Some anglers are just freaked by the concept of fishing at night, not because they are afraid of “spirits in the night” or anything so supernatural but from a safety factor. That is a legitimate concern and even after decades of fishing in certain places I still take safety very seriously. Here are my Ten Commandments of night fishing and I do my best to always keep them in mind.
- Always scout out the area you’re going to fish during the daylight before fishing it after dark. This goes for both shore and boat locations.
- Know the limits of acceptability in terms of how far and deep you’re able to wade, how many rocks you can expect to negotiate safely, or how close in you can get with the boat. Factor in tide, wind, waves – and be acutely aware of any changes as you’re fishing.
- Carry a good light (and a back-up) but never, ever shine it on the water you’ll be fishing. Those using headlamps should be especially aware of inadvertently sweeping the water with the beam of their light, which will put the fish down – possibly for the rest of the night in shallow water.
- Travel light and carefully consider how many plugs and other gear you really need. This is a big, big decision because most fishermen are packrats by nature. Things like a self-inflating PFD, drinking water and insect repellent are necessities for the serious night fisherman who plans to be out for a while and will cover a fair amount of water. The insect juice is not something most boat fishermen think of but believe me, you should always have it on board. There are some areas we fish where man-eating mosquitoes miraculously appear well off shore as soon as the sun goes down. They are amazing beasts and they have the incredible ability to glom onto the boat as we try to escape them full-open, only to jump back up when we come to a stop. And what goes hand in hand with the gear question is…
- Clothing. Go on the Internet a few hours before your outing and check local radar, wind and tide information. Dress as lightly as possible (or in layers at colder times of the year). If it’s one of those “tweener” times like the Spring or Fall when it could be warm as darkness falls but get chilly soon after, I’ll wear a small backpack to carry a sweatshirt or jacket. This has saved more than one fishing trip when the fish were biting and friends who were under-dressed headed home.
- Stealth is the name of the game. Approach the water carefully, slowly and silently – some very large fish feed in very shallow water when they feel safe under the cover of darkness. The same goes for boaters – drift whenever possible; don’t keep that motor running.
- Be sure your gear is in top working condition. Nothing is more aggravating than a balky reel or backlashed line when fish are feeding heavily and you have to exit the water to deal with the problem.
- Use all your senses but especially your hearing. Stripers and other gamefish make distinctive sounds when they’re feeding, some of them quite subtle. If you hear a feeding fish on one of those dead-calm nights, resist the temptation to hit the fish in the head with your offering. Once in a while a fish will hit something that lands virtually on top of it but you’re much more likely to spook it. Try to land your cast a little distance away, and if possible, lop your cast so the lure lands as quietly as possible.
- Know what bait is in the area and adjust your offerings accordingly. That may sound obvious, but after dark certain baits become more or less active.
- Finally, be patient! More than you would during the day, in fact. I know of many places that appear lifeless in the light of day but absolutely come alive when darkness falls. It may take an hour or so, or even a change of the tide for this to happen but if a spot looks fishy during the day but may have mitigating factors like heavy boat traffic, you can make a reasonable bet that predators will come calling when they feel safe.
If you’ve never considered fishing after dark, at this point you may be asking why you need to go through such effort. Well, that’s easy: Because in many places, the trophy fish only feed at night in the height of the summer. This goes for everything from cow striped bass to lunker largemouth, cannibalistic huge brown trout to bragging-size weakfish. But of equal value, at least to me, is that in a certain way you’re entering a different world where the familiar becomes strange and new.