“Twitch click, twitch click, twitch click… pow”! Heart beat increases. “Twitch click, twitch click”…silence. “Twitch click, twitch click, POW… zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!” These are the sounds describing a top-water bite from a large fish. No words can describe the sounds and adrenaline associated with this event, especially at night. During the day you can see the environment, see the top-water, and see the blow-up. At night, you see nothing. All you hear is the “twitch click, twitch click” and when Jupiter aligns with Mars…”POW”; like a small shot gun going off from beneath a black shimmering surface reflecting the stars. Upon hearing the initial blow-up and the drag screaming off my reel I immediately know what disrupted the night. With blackness from above and blackness from below, a large fish emerges. I grab the fish and hold it against the moon light. Silver, spotted and heavy, I gently release a 28 inch speckled trout back into the black to live another day. That was the first fish.
While I was in college I found therapy in fishing. The long hours of reading, writing and memorizing were mystically subdued by fishing. At this time in my life fishing took place during the only time that I could fish, late at night. Initially my excursions began with fishing under the lights. Standing under those lights and catching fish was therapeutic and rewarding. There was always something just beyond the bright lights that invited curiosity and a sense of the unknown. The black of the night and the silent waters of the bay beckoned me to explore.
Late one night, with a full moon, bright stars and mind full of equations, scientific names and stress, I ventured into the darkness beyond the lights. I tied on the largest top-water lure in my box. I had no expectations, I had no pressure, I had no fears; I only needed to free my mind and break the monotony. It was black, it was quiet, and it was exhilarating when not catching anything. “Twitch click, twitch click, twitch click”, darkness and silent water was all that existed. No more equations, scientific names or stress. I was finally relaxed when suddenly “POW! “ It was the first fish that I spoke of earlier. With only a blue heron standing next to me as witness, I continued fishing and caught/released 7 trout over 24 inches long within the hour.
Over the next few weeks I paid less attention to my college education and gave more attention to my “after hours education.” Initially this was supposed to help me forget, relax and then focus on school. What I found was that it diverted my attention away from school and made me focus on something far more exciting (whoops…backfire). Yes, my grades probably suffered a little, but in the long run I make my living as a fishing guide now not as a biologist. Maybe subconsciously I was helping myself.
With thoughts of marine biology (my major) and the scientific method lingering from my studies, I began my own study. My study was uncontrolled (unlike scientific studies); it was simple experimentation with various lures, times, tides, moon phases and wind at night in the same fishing spot. Whenever the opportunity presented itself I would expand my knowledge of this new-found love. For several years, as a part of my after hours education, I made thousands of casts into the same half mile stretch of shoreline that so generously rewarded me on that first night. As a future “scientist” my hypothesis was simple: large trout eat at night. Yes, I had already discovered that this was true, and I did not need a hypothesis. It was simply entertaining to think that I was doing something productive rather than studying.
As it turned out, I became a master of fishing that particular stretch of shoreline for big trout using top-water lures. I found many “trends” (nothing proven, just overwhelming patterns). Some of these trends and patterns were obscured by severe anomalies. For example, fish are thought to feed most aggressively under a full moon at night. However, I found some of the best forecasted nights under a full moon to be a bust. Another example, fish are thought to be lethargic and hard to catch with no moon and cold conditions. One of my best nights ever was under no moon, zero wind, and night time temperatures in the upper 40’s. I discovered that predicting opportunistic conditions when fishing at night with top waters for large trout was difficult. The variables where endless and the chances of success depended on my motivation to get out try in the dead of night. Over the course of my college years my after hours education did teach me a few things….
I found that the key to picking the right time and the right night revolved around a particular time of year. December through early March was undoubtedly the most productive time for large trout on my stretch of shoreline. This surprised me because the bay floor consisted of hard sand and grass with land retained by a bulkhead. Sandbars and guts ran parallel to the bulkhead, with average depth of 1 to 4 feet. Typical winter structure for trout is soft bottom consisting of mud and shell; yet the trout on my stretch of shoreline seemed to thrive on a spring/summer structure (hard sand and grass) during the winter. I believe that the heat retained from the bulkhead during the day could possibly have raised the water temperature during the night.
In the winter, water temperatures in extreme situations can drop to near freezing. During extreme drops in water temperature fish go into “fight or flight” mode. The vast majorities of fish choose flight and head for the warmest safest water and even bury themselves in mud to stay alive. Once the sun comes out and temperatures begin to warm the land and shallows, fish will leave their safe houses and head to the nearest warm water to feed and store nutrients for the next extreme weather condition. Any structure that absorbs warmth during the day can attract fish. Land, concrete, dark surfaces and shallow mud will retain heat well into the cooler hours of the night. These are the places to look during the cold spells in winter months.
My experimentation eventually focused only on the winter months - mostly because of my initial success during this time but also because mosquitos are not a problem. The next variable seemed to be wind speed and direction. The harder the wind was blowing in a leeward (off shore) direction the more productive the fishing. Some nights the wind would blow so hard that I could cast almost all my line off the reel (although I didn’t need to because the fish seemed to be in shallow water close to the bulkhead). Fish could get closer to their prey with minimal effort because of the sound produced by the slight turbulence of wind and waves against the bulkhead.
The phases of the moon played a dramatic role in my success. Undoubtedly a moon directly above, directly below or on the horizon provided the most consistent action. The season combined with the water temperature, wind speed/direction and the moon provided my equation to success. I know that the tides played a huge role in feeding activity but they did not influence my decision of when to go fish; therefore I only took note of the overall tide level and not the tidal movement. I suppose that the tidal movement could have been added to my equation; but, as with any equation, the more variables involved the more complicated the equation. I found that the season, then water temperature, then wind, then moon and finally tide, were what I relied upon, in that order. In general, a high tide was better than a low tide.
When it came to lure selection one choice was clear: Top-waters filled the void of silence during the night, and provided a super sensory explosion of sound. I was fishing blind. I had no visual target, only the sound of mullet jumping and large trout exploding beneath them. I would simply cast in the direction of the sound. Many times I found myself rewarded with a large trout based on only the sound of a “splash” a “slurp” or a “pop.” Selecting a lure size was relatively simple. The larger lures produced the larger trout, the smaller lures produced more trout. If I was simply looking for action I would use a smaller top-water like a Spook Junior. If on a mission to catch the largest trout of my life I would use a Rapala X-Rap (about 7 to 8 inches long). Even when my ambitions exceeded my ability, I caught trout that had the same problem. I remember catching a 17 inch trout that ate an 8 inch lure.
Lure color selection can be counter intuitive. I prefer black with a chanteuse head. I know; using a black lure at night sounds like the lure will blend into the night. This is not the case. From underwater a black silhouette viewed from the eyes of a trout is pronounced against any available light, such as moon light. For the darkest and blackest of nights I have found that anything from a glow to silver can reflect available light. If in doubt natural colors produce results in almost any condition.
Sound, especially in the dark of the night, could be the most important variable involved in top-water lure fishing. The sound that the lure produces on its own should make a “click” when moved, but the sounds that you make the lure produce at very specific intervals is the key. The technique is referred to as, “walk the dog.” The lure should “walk” in a choppy zig zag fashion without a dragging motion. You know the motion is correct when you hear a defined “twitch click, twitch click, twitch click” at about ½ second per interval. Sometimes a pause in the middle of this pattern can draw a vicious strike: “twitch click, twitch click, twitch click, pause…POW!” This pause is especially important after a missed strike. When a fish misses the lure try increasing your retrieve followed by a pronounced pause. This shows the fish that the bait is scared (making it look real) and the pause provides opportunity for a final kill.
On a final note, sometimes late at night I am able to see a trout “slick”. A slick is the regurgitated oil from the last meal of a trout with indigestion. During the day this is easy to spot; a slick oily sheen on the surface of the water sometimes only the size of a dinner plate. Strangely enough not only can you see it but you can smell it. The smell is the distinct smell of watermelon. The smaller the slick the newer it is and the larger the slick the older it is. The origin of the slick is the key to locating the trout. A slick that appears as a small platter means that the fish is just below the slick. A slick with a long tad pole shaped tail means that the slick has drifted and the fish can be found near the tail. At night, a slick appears as a black hole in the water. The first time I saw this I was confused and did not know what to think. I later realized that the oily surface provided the illusion of a black hole in the middle of black water.
My late night fishing excursions into the dark opened my eyes to a new light. This light was a door that led me into the mind and eyes of a trout. My informed imagination now allows me to become the trout:
I am old and I have lived this long because of my wisdom. I now choose to feed at night; it is quiet (there are no boats or fishermen). I can casually swim beneath my prey without their notice; and, when I find the perfect meal I can take advantage of it. I find that the warmth of this man-made concrete structure draws my prey and I also find myself comfortable. Sometimes the moon is high and the silhouette of my prey stands out against the light. I find my prey to be vulnerable. On occasion, the wind is blowing hard, the moon is high, and a trickle of tidal movement tickles my scales. In this situation I can do as I please and I take advantage of it. I gorge myself until I can eat no more. With my stomach full, I have a tendency to “burp”; fish-oil laced with scales float to the surface above me allowing me to see the moon and stars with amazing clarity through an oily sheen. This is the perfect time for a nap. I do not always remember my dreams but on rare occasion I do. The dreams involve a much needed meal swimming above me making a strange “twitch click, twitch click” sound. I bet “that one” tastes especially good.
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