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Night Bites
By Paul Crawford

Fishing after dark is normally rewarding, but you can find yourself all dressed up with nowhere to go. Like just about every other change in conditions, the fish adapt after dark and move to new patterns. If you want to get in on the hot action, you have to move with them. This is just one more case of understanding what the fish are doing and applying common sense to the situation.

To understand what the fish are going to do, you first have to remind yourself that bass are predators and are very close to, if not right at the top of, the food chain in their environment. With little to fear in their underwater world, the lack of light becomes a real advantage in finding an easy meal. Bass are very well equipped to take advantage of low light. A bass can still detect motion with it's eyes almost as well at night as in the day, not to mention a large bass can distinguish some 4 million more shades of color than you can. They can hear very subtle vibrations from hundreds of feet away and use their lateral line to pick up the most minuet movement for several feet in any direction. They can smell chemical orders in the water about 1 million times fainter than you can smell in the air. Add rocket fast reactions and good camouflage, and a bass is an extremely formidable enemy at night if you happen to be a minnow.

Hunters by nature and rather lazy by preference, a large segment of the bass in any lake feed exclusively by night, normally including the very biggest fish in the lake. During the day, these fish hang out suspended in open water and move up to find the unfortunate when the sun goes down. Tracking studies have traced down whole schools of about 20 bass suspended in open water with the smallest bass weighing in over 8 lbs. It must of been frustrating when the guys running the study presented every live and artificial bait they knew to that school for 5 hours, (including shiners and newts), and couldn't get a single bite. As soon as the sun started to set, the entire school split up, each moving to a "home" territory to hunt all night long. The next morning, all the of fish returned to the same spot and settled down for the day, or at least until the biologists shocked them and tagged them. This particular 4 year study showed that except for the spawning season, these fish followed the same pattern the rest of the year, even as the vegetation and water conditions changed. They were creatures of habit and for the most part predictable. This should immediately tell you they could also be caught at night, and in fact most of the study fish eventually were, (creating several new wall mounts no doubt.)

Now, other than being one of the better fish stories I've heard in several years, this study and others like it should tell you a ton about how to catch bass at night. First, you should have the confidence that the bass are indeed feeding at night. Second, the fish don't live where they are feeding, just moving through, and many times, just moving. Third, baits that move, in general, work better than things that don't. Fourth, things need to move slow enough for a roaming bass to find it. Fifth, if you find a good feeding spot, a population of fish will likely use it night after night. Sixth, but by no means least, fish are there to feed and are aggressive, so if they are there, they will bite.

With all that said, why is it that all lakes some time, and some lakes all of the time, shut down at night? All of the other, more "normal" conditions still affect fish. Being lazy, with a pretty good history of experience, let the bass know when is a good feeding time and when is it better to skip the night. If you can't get enough to eat to make up for the energy you expend looking for the meal, then you're better off not feeding. Since a big bass in even ideal water temperatures takes two to three days to fully digest a meal, they don't need to feed every night. The smaller fish feed more often, so even on tough nights you should catch a few. And some lakes just are not suitable for open water fish to move up! If a lake is full of cover and the bait is buried up deep in the cover, then a bass makes a better living in the day by ambushing prey than wasting the day in open water. On the opposite end, if a lake has no cover to hold the bait, a bass is better off schooling in open water during the day than just roaming a mud bank at night. Other factors, such as a very windy night, can shut down everything. Depending on the water color, the moon can either help a bass find the prey or expose the bass and make feeding much more difficult. The bottom line is some nights and some lakes are better than others. This really is no surprise to anyone fishes seriously, so I think we can leave it at that. For the rest of the discussion, we'll assume that other factors are fairly equal and fish are on their "normal" night patterns.

There are actually two populations of bass you can target at night, the aggressive night feeders and the day feeders that are just hanging out. The second group, the day feeders, pretty much switch places with the night feeders but don't shut down as hard as their dark loving brothers. Off shore brush piles, rock piles, and fish attractors have a well deserved reputation for producing a lot of fish at night. Other than right around dusk, when you may stick a major league night feeder, most of the fish will tend towards the small side, say under three or four pounds. But if you pull into the right spot, you may find a huge school of a hundred fish all hanging around and will bite if you hit them on the nose with your bait. Since these fish are primarily resting, slow baits like worms, jigs, or upon occasion slow moving top waters seem to work the best. You may need to have a near perfect look, feel, and taste to the bait since the fish will have plenty of time to get a good look at the lure before the bite. This is a good time to break out the shad oil or other juice and go to a small weight for as slow of fall as possible. If nothing else, a fish attractor is a good place for a limit at night if positioned in the right spot for easy access for the fish. It's kind of boring to me, but it works.

Now to the main course, those big aggressive night feeders, or at least the bass that want to grow up to be one. The thing that is probably the hardest to over come is the fact the fish are exactly where you'd think they'd be. All the folk lore over the years that never seems to work out during the day suddenly starts working like a dream. Find a good looking point, a hump with scattered grass, a grass bed on a ledge near deep water, or an old creek channel running out from the shore, and likely as not you're on fish. The reason is simple enough, night fish don't get the kind of pressure their day feeding brethern get, so they use more traditional feeding sites. A friend of mine perhaps summarized it best, "If you're on a spot that looks like it should have fish but doesn't, it only means there is something even better near by." For the most part, this seems to be true. I've caught countless fish at night on points or ledges that don't hold squat during the day yet have all the marking of a good feeding area. On the other hand, some of my best spots I've found by starting near by on something I thought looked good, but where I couldn't catch cold. By just motoring around a likely looking spot, I've found secondary points next to deep water, humps just out from grass beds, hydrilla balls in 25 feet of water, numbers of old brush piles and small weed beds, and even an old pick up truck that rolled into a 30 foot hole. In each case, the fish had ignored a classic looking spot only to gang up on an even better spot within a few hundred feet.

So, you've found this classic little spot where you slayed them one night, and have been back six times only to find water and mosquitoes. Chances are you've found a lane in the underwater highway and just happen to be there when the fish came through. There are actually many more of these spots than actual feeding stations where fish hang around for hours. If you're there at the time the fish are moving past, you can load the boat. But a couple of hours one way or the other means the only thing in that water is your bait. If you can find enough of these type spots, and figure out the timing, it can be a super pattern. You can jump from one of these spots to another and intercept several fresh schools of fish all moving up to feed or retiring after a good meal. Since the fish tend to use the same travel lanes consistently, it will be as regular as clock work and can mean a few minutes of hot action with a five and six pound fish as a common occurance. Just keep in mind that the fish haven't shut off, they've moved, so when the bite slows head to a new spot. When fishing one of these transition zones, plan to arrive an hour or so before you expect the fish just in case they are running early. A good transition zone can sometimes be used by several groups of fish actually heading to separate destinations. This type of spot can keep you entertained all night and is normally found close to the deep water fish call home with several different structures surrounding this entrance. But time one of these spots wrong and you can spend 5 hours waiting for 10 minutes of action, not my idea of an exciting evening. I normally make my calls on the transition zones I fish right after dark or soon thereafter. By 9 or 10 o'clock, I figure most of the fish are already at the feeding stations, so I head for the classic feeding spots.

A good feeding station is actually more of an area than a spot. Small points or humps rarely can sustain enought bait for a whole school of bass to feed on night after night. More likely is a grass bed of an acre or so, or maybe a ledge running 1/4 mile or more. The areas offer a number of smaller spots where one or two fish may split off and feed, so the wise fisherman moves from one of these cover locations to another. A large grass bed may have schools of 20 or more bass roaming through flushing bait as they go. Either way, the fish are moving around some looking for something to eat. The edges of these stations are always a good bet since some number of fish will be cruising there feeding more or less on the side of the station. If there is no submerged grass in the area, bank grass may load up with fish trying to flush bait. But don't make the mistake of assuming all the fish will be on the edge, since many of the fish will move a few feet into what ever type of c! over looking for bait. If you can't get bit casting to the grass edge, it's always worth a try at flipping back into the grass.

When you find a feeding station, a place you can consistantly catch a few fish, you now have a desision to make on how to work it. There seems to be two camps: the "move around and find them" types; and the "stay put and let them come to me" kind. There are strengths to each camp, but you do have to decide to which camp you want to belong. The worst thing you can do is set on a fence and not have confidence or switch back and forth missing the fish consistently. Tailor you game plan to you strengths and stick with it.

If you are the kind of guy who can fish all day in a bath tub, then the "stay put" strategy is for you. Find a good isolated spot within the feeding station, throw to it most every time, and wait for the moving fish to home in on it. The strength of this strategy is you can really work the bait slow and delibrate. Very light weights or no weight at all on worms, jerk worms, grubs, and other bottom bumpers can put out a tantalizing presentation. If you go a few minutes without a bite, a likelyhood given what you're doing, then switch up baits for a few casts. If you've caught two or three on a Texas Rig worm, try a Carolina rig or switch from a worm to a soft jerk bait. Just because you stay in one spot doesn't mean you have to do the same thing all night.

Even staying put doesn't mean dropping an anchor, (unless you are stitching which takes about 4 minutes a cast, but that's another artical), circle the target with the boat and give the fish a different angle. The fish may position themselves with the prevailing wind or current and never see your bait but a slightly different angle may load the boat. The strategy can be slightly modified if you find two slightly different spots in a feeding area and just move between them. Staying home and waiting for the fish can mean several hours of just beating the water, but if you're sure of the spot, many times it will pay off big time the last hour or so of the tournament.

The stay at home strategy is known for consistency. You may not load the boat every night, but will probably have at least a few fish to weigh in and more times than not you'll get your limit. If the big fish move in, then all the better! Long term thinking is the key. You don't panic when you go a couple of hours without fish. Keep in mind that you are probably on a spot that got hammered during the day and it may take some time for the fish to move up.

On the other end of the stick is the run and gun types. Their bylaws are best summed up by Larry Nixon who said, "Anyone can find fish. The trick is to find biting fish!" Any really good spot is worth 6 or 8 casts without a bite, then it's off to the next spot. You're playing the percentages here and if the big ones are on the move, chances are you'll be the one to find them. Good maps, a good memory, and an optimistic outlook are all assets in this game. In practice, you generally don't have time to find enough really good spots to fill up the evening, so you split your time between what you do have. The assumption here is: the fish are biting somewhere; you know a lot of good somewheres; if you cover enough water you'll find biting fish. Even in highly pressured water this works surprising well if you choose your spots carefully and pay attention when you do pull in on fish.

For Run'n'Gun to not be simply an exercise in frustration and a waste of gas, you have to keep in mind what you're trying to do. This is a "Go for the Gold" strategy, and you're looking for a win, not just a check. You may not find the fish and have to be ready to walk up empty handed. But if you can get just one or two of your spots to pay off, you could be taking home the trophey. Most of the pro anglers in the big tournaments favor the run and gun either day or night. I guess when you're fishing against 500 other anglers, a gamble is worth the risk. In the smaller tournaments, it's a mixed bag. For a trail with 20 or 30 boats, you could win 2 or 3 tournaments but still not qualify for the Classic just because it's either the penthouse or the outhouse and if only the top five qualify, you can guess where you'll be.

To get the most out of Run'n'Gun you will probably want to use an aggressive fish bait such a spinner baits, crank baits, or topwaters. If you pull in a spot and catch a single fish, then switch to a slower bait like a plastic worm or jig. Carolina rigs will also let you cover a lot of water while getting down into the cover so offer a good compromise. With any bait, make the fish prove they are there. If you pull in and don't have a fish within 15 minutes or so, move to the next spot. It's a lot like transition zone fishing, except you target the major feeding areas and are depending on the fish beating you there. When combined with fishing transition zones early in the evening, this can lead you to 20 or 30 fish in a single night......, if they bite.

Regardless of your fishing style, keep in mind there are two times at night you want to be on your very best spot: when the Moon rises or sets; and at midnight. These two particular conditions have historically been the best times to get bit, and when you may stick a big fish. The biologists tell us the only thing they can document about these two times is the roaming fish seem to swim faster. The fishermen tell us it's when they get bit. And if nothing else, when it's ten, the moon riding the sky, and you haven't had a bite in two hours, it gives you something to look forward to.

Paul Crawford

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