5 Tricks for Catching Trophy Fish at Night

5 Tricks for Catching Trophy Fish at Night

Night fishing has always presented its own unique set of challenges. There are safety concerns, equipment issues, and the simple fact that stumbling around on a riverbank or a boat in the dark isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. However, during summer when the days are bright and the water is warm, many larger predatory species of fish don’t even become active until well after the sun goes down. This presents night fishing anglers with an opportunity to catch some truly monstrous fish that they may not see during the day.

Even with the temptation of landing a possible record-breaking fish, many anglers still shy away from night fishing because it can be a slow burn with little to no action coming from their usual fishing methods. But if you’re willing to think outside the box a bit and make some small adjustments to your standard presentations, fishing at night can not only catch you some big fish, but can maybe even lead to the greatest day (or night) of fishing that you’ve ever had!

Bedazzle Your Lures

One of the best ways to catch trophy fish like walleye or striped bass at night is by trolling with large jerkbaits or crankbaits. It’s a standard practice that usually yields decent results, as hungry fish can rarely resist a fluttering lure being dragged right past their noses. However, even if you’re using bright neon-colored lures, trolling with your typical offerings in the dark will rarely attract hunting fish to your lures. This means that you either find schools of fish on your electronics to troll through, or if you’re fishing without sonar, you have to go back and forth across areas several times to find the right spot. Yet one small trick can change this shot-in-the-dark type of night trolling into a complete rod-bending extravaganza—bedazzling.

When I say bedazzling, I’m not talking about the plastic jewel-encrusting nonsense that teenage girls do to their backpacks and phone cases, well, at least not entirely. But if you’ve ever looked down into the water at a school of baitfish in the dark, you’d notice that you aren’t seeing the baitfish themselves but rather the sparkling glint of the moon and starlight bouncing off their scales. This sparkle attracts predators to the baitfish schools and is what you need your lures to imitate.

Sticking a couple plastic rhinestones to a dark-colored crankbait or gluing a glitter patch to a jerkbait can imitate this baitfish flash very well by creating large glinting silhouettes in the dark water. If you’re not into arts and crafts, you can create this extra flash in other ways. My personal favorite method for dazzling up my trolling lures is by adding a couple of thin strips of reflective tape to the body of the lure itself. Just one small strip of tape across the body of your lure can sometimes double your catch rate and can keep you in hot fishing action all night long.

Go Bigger or Go Smaller with Topwater

Topwater fishing at night is its own special thrill. Instead of seeing a fish strike your lure, you’re hearing a deafening explosion of water from somewhere out in the darkness then suddenly feel your rod nearly being jerked from your hands. It’s a great way to target species like bass, trout, and even muskie at night as topwater fishing can call giant fish to the surface that you didn’t even know existed. However, nighttime topwater fishing can also quickly go from a pulse-pounding blast of excitement to a boring evening of monotonous casting and retrieving with no results if you aren’t using the right size lure for the dark.

Most topwater lures come in standard sizes for different fish species, with smaller lures designed for smaller fish like panfish and perch and larger ones intended for species like bass and pike. At night, the norms of topwater fishing are often thrown out the window.

Many times, if you aren’t getting any nocturnal strikes when fishing with a typical topwater lure like a Torpedo or a Jitterbug, it’s because you aren’t creating enough of a disturbance on the surface of the water and need to beef up your setup. Often, swapping out your normal topwater baits for something much larger like a Whopper Plopper or a Smash Tail can make all the difference with the bigger splashes triggering more aggression in fish, especially on nights with little to no moonlight.

On the other side of the coin, using smaller lures or flies when topwater fishing is often the way to go, especially when fishing for species like trout. As much as we all like throwing huge mouse patterns like the Mouse Rat or Moorish Mouse on our fly rods, big flies like this often create too much disturbance on the surface of the water and actually scare spooky fish like trout away from the area. If you’re not having a lot of luck with the big mouse flies, try switching to a smaller, more elongated mouse pattern like the Master Splinter, which creates a much smaller wake on the surface that better imitates a trout’s natural prey, triggering more strikes.

Put Some Stank on It

While attracting fish with noise, light, and movement are all effective ways to catch fish at night, you should never overlook their sense of smell. Fish like catfish, bullhead, and burbot, and even predatory species like gar and bass, all rely on their nose to find food, especially in the dark. Of course, many catfish anglers have known this for years and regularly use stinky baits like aged cheese and rotten chicken livers to catch big channels and blue cats. However, you don’t have to go to such olfactory extremes to add to your night fishing game.

All fish have a surprisingly sensitive sense of smell and usually don’t require too much extra stink to come over and investigate soaking baits. Simply dipping standard baits like nightcrawlers or live minnows into a jar of cod liver oil or even something as unconventional as a box of powdered Kool-Aid can leave enough of a scent trail in the water for predatory fish to follow. All fish are naturally curious, and like sharks, they will often track strange or appealing scents in the water for hundreds of yards to find their source. So, adding that little extra bit of smelly spice to your baits can be just the thing to get a curious but reluctant night-hunting monster to swim over, making all the difference when you’re having a slow evening on the water.

Never Stop Moving

Jigging is hands-down one of the most productive ways to catch schooling fish like walleye, crappie, and white perch during the day, but it can work twice as well at night. That is, so long as you do it right. Unlike jigging during the day when you drop your lure down to the desired depth and then jig it periodically while pausing to have a sip of beer or to simply rest your wrist, when jigging at night, you should never, ever let your lure stop moving.

Night-feeding fish rely heavily on their lateral lines to find food and will key in on any movement beneath the water’s surface, especially when they can’t see. If you do the standard jig and pause cadence in the dark, fish keying in on the lure’s movement will often swim off as soon as it stops bouncing. So, you’ve got to keep it moving by jigging slack off your line as the lure sinks down and even by jigging and reeling when you bring the lure back to the surface. While this constant movement strategy can lead to a bad case of carpal tunnel syndrome, the payoff can be immense.

For a little extra movement, try tipping your jigs with soft plastics like a Tail Grub or even a live minnow or leech, which will help create some natural movement in the water. Adding spinner blades or propellors to your jigs or fishing line can also be a great benefit as they put off a lot of reflection and vibration in the water, which in turn will get you more strikes.

Light It Up

As nice as it is to be fishing in complete darkness, the key to catching larger predatory fish consistently often comes down to adding a little bit of light. I’m not referring to lights on the surface of the water such as headlamps or spotlights which bounce and move around when you do and can often scare fish. I’m talking about using stationary lights either just above or beneath the water’s surface to act as beacons for drawing fish in.

A constant artificial light source beneath or just above the water can trigger a chain reaction of food sources, ending with large predatory fish. The light will attract a concentration of microscopic plankton which will attract small minnows, which will attract larger fish like shad or alewives, which eventually will attract larger gamefish. The trick is that you must have the lights completely stationary for long periods to trigger the chain reaction, so it’s best done from a dock or anchored boat.

You can set up your lights by simply lowering a lantern down on a rope so that it hangs just above the water’s surface. Or you can go the more complicated but effective route by setting up two to three waterproof LED light strips a few inches under the water. If you’re using multiple lights, space them at least three to four feet apart to give you a wider radius of lights and different lighting zones. Fish more attracted to light, such as bass or pike, will move into the brighter areas, while more nocturnal fish like walleye or catfish, will stay in the lower-light areas.

Fishing with lights can be incredibly effective, so much so that it is illegal in many places. Before setting up, be sure to check the fishing regulations and make sure the lighting is legal.

Alone in The Dark

There’s something magical about a summer’s night of fishing. The harsh light and hectic pace of the day is gone, and the world itself seems suspended in its own special place in space and time. While you can still hear every cricket chirp, frog croak, and owl hoot that’s carried to you on the warm breeze, the world somehow still seems muffled in a living silence.

It’s almost as if the night was designed for the quiet reflection of angling, with the twinkling stars above your head shedding just enough light for you to delve into the mythos of the darkness and to perhaps catch some greater meaning—or at the very least, a couple of big fish.

Feature image via Mike Hehner.

Sign In or Create a Free Account

Access the newest seasons of MeatEater, save content, and join in discussions with the Crew and others in the MeatEater community.
Save this article