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Nighttime Fishing - Part 1
Sleep or Catch Monster Bass?
By Larry Hemphill

November/December 1998

Imagine sitting in your boat during an August afternoon around 1:30, fishing your favorite spot on your favorite lake. Even the most avid bass angler might be less than excited - 20 boats already fished this spot, blistering heat, jet skiers, clear water, sunburn, and tough fishing. Not always. I just finished 2 guided trips this August at Clear Lake, California, where our 5 largest bass weighed thirty-one pounds two ounces, and thirty-four pounds five ounces.

Clear Lake is a major summer recreational center and was even hosting a 113 boat W.O.N. tournament during my second trip. None of this bothered us because we were fishing the other 1:30 -- A.M.! The temperature had dropped about 30 degrees to a pleasant 70 degrees. There were no boats in sight, and we were catching large bass, the type rarely caught during hot summer days, and none of us suffered any moonburn!

After 23 years of night fishing for bass, I feel I have put some of the pieces of the puzzle together. I would like to share this information with our Inside Line readers. Most of the 100 or so bass over 9 pounds that my clients and I have caught, were hooked during the first and last hour of light, and at night. I fish for bass at night every month of the year except January, when I have a heavy seminar schedule. My favorite months are March and April, as well as mid-September through December.

Seasonal Considerations

Most anglers who have sampled night fishing do it in the summer, and quit after the first cold night. Bundle up and stick with it. It just gets better! Fall night fishing is very steady, as is the weather. Spring fishing, with its unstable weather patterns, is usually feast or famine. If cold fronts can slow daytime fishing, they can totally kill night fishing. But, if the weather pattern is steady, or better yet, a warming trend is occurring, fall and spring fishing is the best time for trophy bass. Recent fall catches have included 5-fish limits of forty-three and 1/4 pounds (Oct. 20), thirty-eight pounds nine ounces (Dec. 3), and 10 bass for fifty-five and 1/4 pounds (Dec. 20). This spring I caught 3 bass within 2 hours that weighed twenty-five pounds two ounces. I have mentioned these catches to get you excited enough to continue reading!

Two Nighttime Advantages

There are two major reasons why I love to fish at night for bass, besides the obvious ones I mentioned in the opening paragraph. The first is easy enough to understand: I love to hunt for trophy bass year-round. Night fishing gives me the opportunity to do this. Seventy percent of my clients now want to book a night trip where the odds are much better to stick an 8-pound or better fish.

My second reason may be a new thought for some readers, but it is the fuel that drives my enthusiasm for night fishing. After the sun sets, I am firmly convinced that every cast has the possibility of making my clients, or me, a hero. Sure, there are slow periods some nights and an occasional night where the skunk will bite. Even on those nights I stare at my fluorescent line in the soft blue glow of my black lights (sounds funny, I know), watching for a slight twitch or a movement to one side.

How Darkness Helps

Line watching is easier at night because it is at least five times more visible under a black light. My clients say their lines look like ropes. I still get a thrill when people cast for the first time with a black light on. It's like I gave them a new toy! Daytime distractions are everywhere. We are always looking around at something and not paying enough attention to our line, which is often hard to see anyway. At night we can see our line perfectly, and there are few distractions.

Under the cover of darkness, every cast is an event because the biggest fish in the lake could be inches away, ready to suck in your bait! Other than first light, it is difficult to sustain that confidence and focus all day long, even in the spring. This is not a problem at night. Time flies when you're thinking big! I might add that a typical night trip would include the last hour of light. Since most weekend and tournament angling is early morning oriented, trophy bass that have lived in a lake for up to 12 years, sense that evening feeding is quieter and uninterrupted. Several of my bass over 11 pounds have been caught during the last hour of light. And, there were no other fishermen around.

The Best Hours

Experience has taught me that most nocturnal feeding seems to begin after midnight in hot summer months. Darkness doesn't set in until 9:00 or so and it takes a while for the surface temperature to cool a bit. As fall arrives and leads into winter, feeding gets progressively earlier. Also, the water temperature dynamic changes as fish are now trying to feed during the warmest water period (late afternoon, early evening), in a body of water that is rapidly cooling.

The last hour of light that I am so fond of is never better than mid-October through November. I once talked a client, who wanted to start at dark during a Thanksgiving weekend, into feasting earlier and starting an hour before dark. Good decision! The 7th cast of the trip he landed an 11-pound 8 1/2-ounce bass on a Rodstrainer jig with a #180 bluegill color grub trailer. Funny, he always agreed with everything I said after that.

This early evening feeding habit will continue right through the spawn. If the winter night is especially mild, bass can be caught all night long. As summer approaches, feeding becomes later and later as bass seek cooler water, and the cycle is complete. Today we make fun of the "comfort zone" theory of a few decades ago, which said bass needed 68 to 70-degree water to be "happy". We know bass can be caught in water ranging from 38-degrees to around 88-degrees. We must remember, however, that bass are the most efficient feeders in 55 to 75-degree water, and the closer we can zero in on that temperature range at night, the more successful we will be.

This means that in the hot months, one needs to fish into the AM hours for consistent success, while in the colder months, when darkness comes early, you may have had all the terrific action you can take by midnight.

Pressured Waters

Before we go any further, I would like to remind anglers that fishing pressure alters all basic rules of bass fishing. If you are committed to catching a trophy quality bass, it makes sense that you should fish during the hours of least fishing pressure. Large bass are opportunistic feeders, only feeding when conditions are favorable: low light and minimal fishing pressure. Other than the spawning months, most lunkers choose to live in deeper, open water areas away from shore. Sometimes they will approach shallow water during the darkest night, or a stormy, cloudy, windy day. This determines when and where I choose to night fish. If I guide during a full moon summer night on a weekend, I will select a large lake because fishing pressure will be very low. The bass may be a little shallower if the water is not over 80 degrees. I hope these are helpful reminders for summer fishing.

Moon Phase Mysteries

One of the questions I am asked most often is how does the moon affect night fishing - or does it? There are many theories espoused about the moon's influence on night fishing, but I have not found many of them to be consistent. I have caught monster bass during all phases of the moon. In fact, my personal best bass, 14 pounds 2 ounces, and best limit, forty-three and a half pounds (5 bass) were caught on an August and October night of the last quarter moon phase. This phase is considered to be the worst. I actually caught my 14-pounder on a bet. I'm serious. After a heavy discussion, a friend bet me I couldn't catch a trophy bass during the last quarter. I won - BIG!

My hundreds of nights on the water have shown me three strong relationships between moon phases and night fishing. Every month I fish, I believe more in these ideas. First of all, in summer months, I find when I fish around the first quarter, and the moon sets around 1:00 A.M., large bass start feeding heavily, both in shallow and deep, especially in clear water. I find good feeding activity early in the evening before the last quarter moon rises, around 11:30 P.M. As the moon gets higher, the fishing for larger bass slows down. These are my favorite times to fish. Not only because the water is darker, but also the low moon creates shadows everywhere, which leads me to the second situation I look for.

Whether the moon is partial or full, I look for shadows caused by bushes and trees, above and below water rock formations, bluffs, and docks. Even when the moon is full in the summer, it is lower on the horizon than it is in the winter. So a summer moon is able to create long shadows which attract, and therefore concentrate the bass. If I am standing in a dark closet and look out into a well-lit room, I am hidden and can see everything in the room. This is how most large bass approach feeding at night.

For example, a rock bluff will begin to have a big shadow as the moon passes overhead. The bass may suspend until the shadow forms. All it takes is a four to five-foot shadow for the bass to take up feeding positions. All the underwater mini-ledges, outcroppings, and boulders will create their own shadows, allowing the fish to feed at several depths. I would encourage you to learn which parts of your home lake have shadows at what time of night. These areas should have deep water access nearby. If you are fishing the dark of the moon, you don't need to worry about shadows, which brings up my third impression of moon influence.

Fishing the full moon period is the most popular with bass anglers for many good reasons. Night tournaments are held during full moon weekends. Bright moon nights are a beautiful outdoor experience. It is safer to navigate, and one can see the shoreline better.

Hemphill's Favorite

Though I love fishing all the phases of the moon, my personal favorite is the dark of the moon. The majority of the bass over nine pounds that my clients and I have landed have been caught in the dark of the moon. Though the fish may spread out more, they are usually more aggressive and shallow. Pitchin' and flippin' are good techniques since many bass may be less than five feet deep. Most monster bass will still be deeper than ten feet.

Rockpiles, humps, ledges and walls are my favorite structures to fish during the darkest nights. DO NOT, under any circumstances, venture out on a body of water in the dark of the moon that you do not know as well as your name. I have been blessed with a good sense of direction and outstanding night vision. Many people struggle in these areas and therefore should enjoy moonlit fishing trips. If you are not comfortable with total dark fishing, don't do it. Safety is paramount!

Part two of this essay on night fishing will appear in the next issue of the Inside Line. I will discuss popular techniques and lures to catch night bass, where to find them, and even why the full moon is the BEST time to fish in the winter. How could that be? Stay tuned!

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