The Importance of Stealth and Field Craft
The use of a headlamp is something that is to be limited at all costs once near the water.
- The fastest way to kill a great night bite is to introduce white light on the water. In the previous chapter, two headlamps were recommended that have a red light and white light. I prefer the Princeton Tec Remix Pro because it has three small red LEDs as the primary light source when you first turn it on.
- If you push the button the first setting is a very low output single red LED which is enough light to tie a knot near your face or see if you are about to step off an edge. This level of light will only spook a fish if directly next to you. This is what you should use when near the water’s edge. No light at all if possible is the best approach.
- If you need more light you can use the higher output red light setting and try to keep that focused no further than 10 feet in front of you to minimize spooking fish. I use this when crossing areas deeper than ankle deep for safety purposes.
- In general, I rarely use a headlamp when hiking into my fishing spots, but sometimes when it’s a new moon with heavy cloud cover it’s just too dark to hike safely with no light. In that scenario I use the high output red LED setting too. Don’t use white light it will take your eyes a long time to adjust to darkness when you arrive at the fishing spot. Fish could be feeding and breaking surface right when you walk up on water so be ready to fish not partially blind from hiking in under white light.
- If you need white light for safety or an emergency that is the only time to use it. The only white light on my fishing trips used is a camera flash.
Wading is to be avoided if possible.
- If you must wade try to stay ankle deep or shallower. Fish will hunt in calf to knee deep water so by wading that deep you could be standing right where the fish want to feed so try to avoid it.
- Generally the only time I will wade deeper than ankle deep is if I am fishing an inlet or estuary with strong current and I am targeting a piece of structure that is out in current flow. I only wade as far as necessary to properly cast too and present fly across that structure at correct depth. When fishing this way I always wear an inflatable life vest as a misstep can lead to a very dangerous situation.
- Not wading into the water immediately upon arriving at a fishing spot has resulted in me catching more fish. Often those fish were less than 15′ away from the shore and were caught with a simple roll cast. The biggest mistake I see newbies at night do is wade into the water and turn on their headlamp. To keep myself from being tempted I often only fish in knee-high rubber boots, which also helps to prevent overheating on some of the long walks I make to fishing areas from the car.
Being quiet and careful in your movements is important.
- Speak very softly and tread carefully on rocks or marsh. An errant rock or loud heavy steps can spook fish just as easily as loud talking.
- First of all, there are usually houses around don’t wake people up it is just not the right thing to do therefore keep things quiet.
- Secondly, I have had people think it’s fine to be noisy way out a mile plus from shore on a flat. Subsequently, they spooked shallow fish by yelling to me instead of walking over on sandbar and talking to me.
- Move slowly watch out for holes, drop-offs, loose rocks, and other hazards. These will ruin your night take your time its dark move slow and carefully.
Know where you plan to cast from and how you will land fish from that location.
- You are chasing trophy fish planning for how you are going to win the fight before you hook a large striped bass is critical.
- Know where critical rocks, mussel beds, or other structure a bass may attempt to use to break off in the run are located. Being able to know when and which direction to apply pressure to keep bass clear of obstacles is critical. I guarantee that big bass know’s exactly where she wants to go to break you off so you need to predict and fight her accordingly.
- You must fight aggressively the longer a fight drags out with a big fish the lower your percentage is to land it successfully.
- If you have a partner to help land a fish your shot at catching a trophy doubles so when possible fish in a two-person team at night.
- Having a stable platform to fish from will allow you to make longer casts, fight big fish effectively, and most importantly fish safely in the dark.
- Know when to move to new locations with the rising and falling tides. Staying too long can make getting back in dangerous or keep you from being in the right place when bite moves. Experts in their fishing locations know when to move at what time based on tide heights shown on the tide chart for that area.
Stay back from edges and drop-offs at least a fly rod length if possible.
- First of all, this is a major safety factor, so if possible, I stay a rods length away from edges and sharp drop-offs in the dark.
- Secondly, a lot of bass hit fly right at these edges, so I like to have some standoff room to have a chance at hooking a last-second bite at these edges.
Finding Fish with Visual and Audio Clues
Stalking by sound.
- Searching large areas by sound can be a highly effective way to avoid dead water on a night outing. Keys to this strategy are having calm conditions that will allow you to hear long distances. At night you can hear much further than you can see with your eyes so this becomes your primary way of locating fish. With practice, you will find you can be just as effective at finding fish using your hearing at night as using your eyes during the day. Each type of environment has some nuances to stalking by sound at night:
- Beaches: These are by far the hardest places to hunt fish by sound as there is always noise from wave action even on a quiet calm night. However, I find on very calm nights often the bait will spread out and be less concentrated on bars, points, and bowls. So, searching is a good idea. I like to walk on the firm lip of beach are and will walk ½-1 miles along beach stopping and listening every 25 steps. If I make it a mile and hear nothing then I will fish my way back hitting the predictable bars, points, and bowls along that stretch.
- Inlets/Bridges: If it’s a bridge my preference is to listen from top of the bridge if there is a safe place for a pedestrian to stand. The sound echoes up to the bridge above so if fish are feeding on the surface you will hear them. At inlets, I listen only in two areas the up current end and the down current jetty. I tend to find the surface activity just inside the inlet, of the tip of the jetties, an upstream light edge at a bridge, or in a downstream eddy line on a bridge. I don’t tend to see fish feeding on the surface in the middle portion of inlet/bridge where current is very strong unless the jetty or a bend in inlet creates an eddy line. If that exists you should check there too. In general, I will fish an inlet or bridge with no active surface feeding, because there are almost always fish there. The surface activity is key to listen for though as it may clue you into a portion of the structure that currently has a bait concentration that fish are keyed in on. Once that activity dies fish will fall back into their normal feeding lies.
- Salt Marshes: These are very difficult places to get around on foot due to all the ditches cut into the marsh for mosquito control. My strategy is on calm nights you can hear a very long way so I will walk the hard ground at the edge where it meets the marsh. I will spend a much longer time listening because I am much further from the water’s edge so typically I will stop every 20 yards and listen for two full minutes. If I hear feeding activity I will then check my GPS to see the imagery of the marsh to refresh my memory of where all the creeks and ditches are. If I think I can get out to the action then I will head out into the marsh, but before going all the way out I will stop at the halfway point. At this halfway point I will once again listen 2-4 minutes trying to regain contact with the feeding fish. If I stop hearing feeding activity I will give it another 2-4 minute listening period. If I hear something I will head out to the edge of the marsh and try to intercept the feeding fish, but if I hear nothing I will head back to solid ground and keep moving. Big bass will push into the marsh on flooding tides and will betray their position when feeding in shallow water so if fishing a low into flood tide I will only fish where I hear fish feeding. Closer to high tide you will hear feeding but its frequency is much lower and it will occur when bass traps fish against sod bank and ambush them. So searching by sound is much more effective when water is skinny in the marsh than during higher tide stages.
- Estuaries: Strategy is very similar to Salt Marshes. However, I tend to cover further distances so the length of listening periods will be the same, but I only stop every quarter mile or so. I like the lower part of the tide either incoming or outgoing as it will cause fish to reveal themselves more when feeding. Focus on where shallow bays meet the main channel. Also, focus on narrow points in the estuary that produce rips and current. I like to cover a lot of ground in an estuary at night and fish where I hear fish feeding. The two main estuaries I fish regularly have a pattern where I find the bait will end up in one specific area of estuary each night, but this can move 1-3 miles up and down the estuary night each day. By hiking quickly along the water’s edge I can find where the active feeding is occurring, which will be where the main schools of bait ended up at sunset. Looking at my 10 dedicated estuary trips last year my average walking distance per trip is 4.5 miles. I walk until I hear the feeding and generally once that activity is found I will get a couple of large schoolies (22-26”) or keeper fish over the course of 1-2 hours fishing.
- Flats are by far my favorite place to stalk fish by sound. I like 90 minutes on either side of low tide for my night flats trips. I prefer to hunt the deep-water edges of flats structure and I am often one mile or more from the beach when fishing. Upon arriving at a flat I will walk halfway out to the deep water edge then stop for my first listening session. During this session instead of listening for fish, I am listening for sea birds primarily gulls. Gulls will sit on the exposed bars in the dark that are very close to where the bait is concentrated. Once I hear birds I will continuously move in that direction until I hit water deep enough to hold fish. Once I get to that point I will start my listening pattern with a focus on listening for sounds of fish breaking surface. On flats rarely are fish actually feeding on the surface instead their tails or bodies are breaking the surface as they root sandeels or crabs out of the sand.
- Once feeding fish are located the “stalk to the fish by hearing alone” is an art that takes practice and some gut instincts you can only develop through practice and knowing the terrain you are fishing in and out. Once you get competent you can stalk to within 20-30 feet of the feeding fish, which makes it much easier to cast accurately in the dark. It took me 5 trips before I really got dialed into this so don’t get discouraged. Once you figure it out it is as satisfying as stalking a fish by sight during daylight. One key is knowing the nuance of how bass feed on a structure, for example, are they feeding into the current on a channel edge. If that is the case you want your fly to land slightly up current of where you hear the fish feeding. I will never forget the first trip I put it all together (5th night trip of my fly career). It was a calm night with almost no wind so I was able to locate a fish about 40 yards off by sound then stalk all the way to its general location. Next time it broke surface rooting on sandeels I was able to make an accurate 25-30 foot cast and two strips later my sandeel clouser met sharp resistance. A decent fight later I was into a 37” striped bass on the fly and I was hooked on night fishing the flats for life.
- Wind direction is similar to sun angle during the daytime. The sun angle impacts where the best window of vision will be on the water’s surface. The wind carries sound so stalking into the wind will allow you to hear much further away that moving across it or away from it. Rarely is a flat or beach without wind so I like to stalk into the wind towards the structure that I know will concentrate bait or hold fish. It helps me identify fish feeding much further away than moving across or with the wind direction. Also, I like to fish into the wind as opposed to having a strong tailwind behind me when fly casting.
- Judging bait type by the sound of feeding activity takes a lot of practice and you still may make the wrong judgment even after a lot of practice. However, we have limited time and sometimes making an assumption helps us get a jump on catching fish. I will do the best I can to describe what different feeding sounds for bait types sound like. However, similar to deciphering trout rise forms its definitely an art and not an exact science.
- Shrimp and worms: The best way to describe this is it sounds like a big trout sipping dry flies. The splashes are not very big or very loud.
- Swimming or floating crabs: These sound very similar to the sipping for worms and shrimp, but you will often hear a distinct popping sound. That is the sound of the bass crushing the crab in its mouth.
- Small bait like silversides or peanut bunker: These will be louder and splashier than the feeding sounds on worms and shrimp. The bass will be pursuing this bait. This sound should be familiar as most of the time when you see bass blitzing or feeding during the day it is on smaller bait. So when its day time and you find that activity take a second to close your eyes, listen, and commit it to memory.
- Large bait like bunker or herring: These will be loud explosive tail slaps or deep suction sounding feeding noises. When you hear them you will know you have found big fish on big bait.
- Swirls and Tailing from feeding on the bottom in shallow water: These sound more like the disturbance of pulling a paddle blade through the top of the water. Its primarily driven by water pushed by fishes tail as it roots the bottom. You will hear no suction or feeding noise if you pay attention just a big swirling sound.
- Judging fish size by the sound of feeding activity: After a while, you will be able to tell how close and how large a fish is by the sound signature it makes while feeding. You are only going to learn this after two dozen night trips listening to fish feed so don’t expect to figure it out right away. It is worth developing this capability because on the flats or in a shallow salt marsh I will still be able to identify the larger fish feeding around me by comparing their feeding audio signature to the other ones I hear. That allows me to “spot” the biggest fish by sound and cast to those fish instead of the smaller bass just like sight fishing during the day. The adage I always use is “if the suction feeding sounds like someone just ripped a 5-gallon bucket under the water’s surface that is a 20lb class fish”.
Stalking by moonlight and by afterglow.
- The MOST important thing to remember is even when you have great night visibility you can still hear fish much further away than you can see. USE YOUR HEARING FIRST then use your vision to assist with locating and casting to specific feeding fish. You can see very well on these nights with a bright full moon high in the sky and you can use your hearing to find fish further than 100 feet away, but once you get into the 20-40 foot range you will be able to see them swirling, tailing, and feeding. Its literal sight casting but at night and one of my favorite ways to fish.
- A lot of surf-casters and striper fishermen, in general, are very superstitious of full moons. They say the fishing is not good for them on bright moonlit nights. As a fly guy fishing at night, I have not found this to be the case. The only difference is on bright full moon nights I use flies that are natural coloring and I am more inclined to match the fly type/size to the prevalent bait size profile (if on sand eels 3-4 inches, if on herring 9-12 inches, etc). On dark nights I use only larger flies (9-12 inches long) that are all black and make a lot of commotion. Personally, I think full moon nights are the best for fly fishermen because our approach is inherently stealthier than a 2-3 oz plug landing hard on the water.
- On the nights with no moon, you can still often spot fish by using afterglow from major urban areas. The key to all this is using angles and a low profile. Where I fish most frequently always has an afterglow on the horizon from Boston. So when stalking by hearing I choose areas where I can stalk or view towards that afterglow. By crouching down the light will reflect across the surface of the water and you can see fish feeding as that activity will break the reflection of the afterglow. This same tactic can be used during moonrise or set when the low moon angle does not provide great illumination like when its high in the sky.
Stalking by street and dock lights.
- This is an easy place for beginner night fly fishers to start. Because of the artificial light, you will be able to see your casting and where your fly and line are on the water.
- Remember that the striped bass will be in the shadow edge not in the light. They may dart into light when feeding and reveal their presence, but often you are looking for darker shadows in the shadow line that indicate a fish is present.
- Don’t forget to stop fishing and listen regularly because there is often a lot of surface feeding even in very deep areas that are artificially lit. It is easy to forget to listen since you can see but listening may clue you into better fish activity further away in the marina or on the other side of the bridge.
Fly Presentation Tactics for Night Fishing
- Deep Swing: I spend 75% of my trips fishing inlets or estuary sections with a fast current so this presentation is my number one way to fish. The key is you want to be down as close to structure as possible without hanging up and try to make your swing match up to the current speed so flies are not presented unnaturally fast to a bass hanging on the bottom structure. So pick flies that are jig style or worm hook weedless to help keep hang-ups to a minimum. Make sure the sink rate of fly and fly line is appropriate for depth you are fishing. I always use a sinking fly pattern as I would rather lose my fly in the rocks than get my full sinking line stuck in rocks. So I prefer the fly is the first thing to get down and hangup (its a lot less expensive trust me). If you know the area well and losing your fly line is not a concern feel free to use a neutral buoyancy fly patterns. The key to this presentation is knowing the depth/locations of key structure that creates the holding/feeding areas. Cast as far upstream as you need to sink the fly down to the right level and initiate the swing. The number one problem fly fishermen have is they think their fly is much deeper than it actually is. Getting down to 15 feet is tough and getting down to 25 feet takes a lot of practice. I find that having your fly less than 1 foot from the bottom makes a huge difference in getting hits or not. If you fish somewhere with deep structure and you don’t hook any striped bass on the trip the first question you should ask is “did I lose any flies or snag the bottom”. If the answer is no then you probably were not deep enough and therefore not in the strike zone. The spot is not the problem it is your failure to present the fly along the bottom.
- Greased Lined Swing: This is a presentation that I am very familiar with from salmon fishing that I have not used for stripers because I discounted it for the salt for years. That was a major mistake and thankfully a couple of people made me realize it’s a great tactic for striped bass too. I recommend you visit Steve Culton’s website currentseams.com he has some really great blog articles about greased line tactics for striped bass. Also, I highly recommend you check them out or purchase the book Striper Moon. Prior to 2018, I was mainly using an intermediate head and some extra mini-sink tips for fishing. I switched to using a full floating line and a full sinking line in mid-August 2018. Without a floating line, this approach is not possible so looking forward to employing it in 2019 very frequently. This is clearly a presentation that works very well based on books from several well know authors and I look forward to exploring its uses in the coming striper season.
- Cast and Strip: This is what most people think of when striper fishing on a fly rod. The point I make on this approach is to pick targets you are trying to work the fly through. Whether that target is a rock pile, jetty edge, sod bank, or the front drop of a beach scour hole. Don’t just cast out into the darkness and hope to find a fish. Fish use the same structure they like in daylight at night. They will hunt in open water too, but anything that provides an ambush opportunity should be targeted. Its okay to blind cast, but don’t “cast blindly” have a purpose for each cast.
- Lesiering Lift: This is an approach I have read about for trout fishing and never would have thought of until I read about it in Rich Murphy’s book “Fly Fishing for Striped Bass”. Steve Culton also referenced it in his presentation at the fly fishing show. I have used it with some success last 2018 season. I need to put a lot more time into it in 2019. Basically, you let fly dead drift to bottom them stop the fly line causing the fly to lift up from the bottom at a certain target area. The fly lifting from the bottom is what triggers the strike. I found it useful in estuaries mimicking mummichogs during first light at salt creek intersections or outlets from salt ponds. It could work at bridges or other inlet scenarios too and I am thinking big flounder flies for big bass is something I will try in 2019.
- Dead Drift with Glow in Dark Indicators: This is a traditional right angle indicator nymph fishing on a beefed up gear with bigger 3-4 inch crab flies. The key is water current to make the drift occur. I particularly like this approach fishing breach ways and outflows of major salt ponds on dropping tide. I found the largest size thingamabobber in glow color was best. I used a small UV flashlight to charge the float faster and preserve night vision. Just like nymphing you want fly bouncing along the bottom so the indicator should be moving slightly slower than surface current. It is harder to understand your drift speed at night so I recommend nymphing areas during the day to really dial in what you need to get fly down in the zone and stay there. You can either use a split shot and an unweighted crab or a heavily weighted crab. I personally like a large unweighted crab and use a split shot to adjust to the constant changes in current speed as tide changes at inlets. I will select indicators if the area I am fishing requires me to fish too far away from me to attempt a tight line approach. This approach just began in the 2018 season and it needs a lot a refinement, but I decided to share the concept and you can decide if it is something you want to pursue or not. NOTE: I am fishing in Massachusetts and the main crab species stripers are targeting are European green crabs which don’t swim and tumble in current if dislodged. So if you are somewhere like Chesapeake Bay where stripers are targeting blue crabs which are good swimmers I am not certain how well this will work for you or not.
- Czech Nymphing for Stripers: Use in the same areas where you would use the dead drift with an indicator, but the feeding zone is closer in allowing for a tight line approach. A killer combination is any outflow that has a primarily sandy bottom with a rock wall or jetty. The area where the sand meets the rocks is the sweet spot. One issue I found is leader size with using 25-30lb fluorocarbon impacts my ability to get down in deep spots with heavy current. I may need to construct a leader using a braided line to better cut down through the current and a short shock leader/tippet. This approach just began in the 2018 season and it needs a lot a refinement, but I decided to share the concept and you can decide if it is something you want to pursue or not.
- Dead sticking and Rattling: I like this in areas near eelgrass or other major submerged aquatic vegetation or near edges of rock piles or boulder fields when current or sweep from surf is relatively low. I used a full sinking line and a large rattling jig lobster or crab fly. You cast near an edge of rocks/vegetation, BUT NOT INTO IT. Let the fly sink to bottom wait 2 minutes then lift rod tip and establish contact with the fly. Keep fly rod at 45-degree angle to water so you have room for a big set upwards. Use rapid short tip movement and tight line to activate rattles for 30-60 seconds. Let fly sit for another 1-2 minutes then repeat the rattling sequence. This is very boring but can call some big fish out of the structure when surface or near surface presentations over the structure fails to produce fish. I usually don’t start this way, but go to it after other methods fail to produce fish. If I have good luck on it one night I will go right to this approach the following night. This approach just began in the 2018 season and it needs a lot a refinement, but I decided to share the concept and you can decide if it is something you want to pursue or not.
- Surface Presentations: In general, any surface-based approach needs to be very, very, slow at night so a floating line is a must. I kept trying to make this work with an intermediate line and it just never does so if you are going to fish surface flies at night ditch the intermediate line. Intermediate lines and fast-moving poppers do work well during the day time and first light it is just at night where it becomes a major problem. At night I like sliders or other flies that push a V wake with a very slow deliberate presentation pace. The goal is to push the largest V wake you can while moving the fly as slow as possible to create that wake. This will take a lot of fine tuning and changing patterns until you find one that works for you. The best fly I use is a Rich Murphy pattern called the Quarter Moon Special. Get creative with your night surface flies if it has a long profile and will push a nice wake it should be a good night surface fly. Also, poppers do work at night too, but I have had the best luck fishing them with very long pauses ranging from 30-90 seconds between very hard aggressive pops. Which of course is only really possible with a floating line or popper gets pulled under surface by intermediate during that long a pause.
The next article will be four case studies on fishing the following types of locations: Salt Ponds, Inshore Flats, Inlets, and Artificial Light Options.