Night Fly Fishing for Stripers: Part 1

First of all, “Welcome to the Dark Side.”

While, in the beginning, you will find yourself well outside of your normal comfort zone, if you stick with it, the reward will be catching large fish in relative solitude. 

Fishing at night is not the only way to catch large striped bass, but if you are limited to wade fishing and using a fly rod, it will greatly increase your odds of consistently connecting with fish over 30 inches. 

Instead of jumping into the “how,” we are going to start with this: “Why do big fish become more accessible at night?”

A 31″ striper that was rooting up buried sand eels along the beach on Cape Cod

The three factors that are predominant in the areas I fish regularly are: 1. Protection from predators, 2. The availability of prey species, 3. The impact of human activities. 

These three factors propel large striped bass to forage at night in near-shore water that can often be no deeper than calf-deep. This brings big striped bass into fly casting ranges of 60 feet or less most of the time. 

There are exceptions to every rule, so, in some areas I fish even at night where long casts of 80 to 100 feet are required, but that is because of where fish holding structure is located and how close I can get to that structure wading. 

Also, the minimum casting distance can be much shorter than during daytime if you have good presentation skills and put a heavy focus on maintaining stealth at night. At many areas I don’t wade at all, and I will catch most fish using roll casts of 15 feet or less. 

First, let’s examine predators of a striped bass in the inshore environment. There are no really predators of large mature striped bass except seals, osprey, and humans.  

Seals are just as effective hunting at night as they are in the day, but due to their size, seals require deeper water than striped bass.  Osprey are a daylight visual hunter and most effective in shallow water, but at night they stay at nesting sites. 

So, bass are inclined to go very shallow when there are no night-time predators. I will cover the impact of humans separately, as they have more than just a predator impact on bass behavior. But, by and large, human fishing activity is limited at night.

Next, let’s look at prey availability and how darkness impacts prey behavior.  Many food items that are high on a large striped bass’ list of targets of opportunity are dormant during daylight and only come out at night.  I will look at how night impacts some critical prey species behavior and in turn how it brings in striped bass to certain areas to feed:

Average-sized green crab. Some females can be double this size with a 4″ wide shell.
  1. European Green Crabs:  Large female crabs primarily are active at night only and will follow a flooding tide, forcing bass to seek them in the shallows.
  2. American Eels: Buried in the mud during the day, eels begin actively foraging at night and feed on crustaceans and small fish. Big bass have a hard time passing up an eel from July through September, even if they are already full.
  3. American Lobsters: They forage at night primarily and live at rocky structure areas that bass also like to frequent.  The World Record RattleSinker accounts for the current striped bass world record. They make the same noise that a lobster makes when its legs make contact with rocks.  Since trophy bass like lobster and using it for bait is illegal, the next best thing is to use a RattleSinker to attract big bass and then show them a live eel on a circle hook.
  4. River Herring: Birds are the number one killer of herring when they’re migrating in shallow river systems.  To avoid this, movement from brackish water to a lake or river (and, vice versa post-spawning) is focused almost exclusively at night.
  5. Sand Eels: To avoid predators, sand eels bury themselves in the sand at night and stay dormant.  If you can identify areas during the day with high concentrations of sand eels, you need to come back after dark.  I have found the larger bass will come into these areas and attempt to root the sand eels out of their sandy hiding spots. 
  6. Squid: During daylight, squid are often in very deep water, but, at night, they will come into inshore environments to forage on baitfish.  Artificially lit areas attract bait and, in turn, attract squid and stripers. Big and small bait mixed with a nice shadow line can make for explosive fishing.
  7. Silversides: During daytime, these fish school up and move into deeper water as a defense against predators and also to feed.  At night, when they don’t have the visibility to school up, they seek shallow water over sand bars, in salt marshes, and in tidal pools to try and escape predators.
  8. Winter Flounder: Studies show that these fish have a pretty set activity period of moving to deeper channel areas during daylight but then migrating at night to shallow areas near clam and mussel beds.  Big bass love to eat adult flounder and their young of the year.
A pod of river herring running a tidal creek in ankle-deep water

Last, human activity greatly affects both striped bass and the fly fisherman.  Boat traffic at major harbor areas and tidal creeks with a lot of private moorings and docks negatively affect striped bass feeding.  Beach users are swimming and surfing right at the prime inter-tidal zone from the first bar to the lip of the beach.  Both of these issues makes fishing difficult. 

Moreover, at some areas, fishing is restricted to night only.  Some of my favorite locations to fish are very crowded during the day, but devoid of people at 2 am to 5 am. 

Another major factor to consider is artificial light considerations. Artificial light at night will concentrate bait, but it takes about two hours of darkness for a stretch to hold significant bait. 

Also, the shadow edge gives striped bass an ambush location because it is just like a looking into a lit window of a house at night.  You can see the people inside the house great, but they really can’t see you out the window without moving directly to the window and letting their eyes adjust to the darkness. 

This gives bass a predatory advantage, and they will hunt along the shadow edges of artificially lit areas regularly throughout the season. 

This striper was sight fished at an artificial light shadow edge that was concentrating silversides.

I hope this first article has provided you with a good understanding of why night offers a great opportunity for targeting larger striped bass in near shore locations. 

The next article will focus on how to gear up for night fly fishing, fly selection considerations, fly casting in the dark, practicing presentations, and picking a location and how to recon it for night fishing.

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