Fishing at night is incredibly productive for a wide range of species, from big tuna offshore to jewfish in the estuaries. Yet, for some reason, many anglers seem to fear the night and head home the moment the sun sets. There is often an apprehension about taking on the darkness, but this is unfortunate because fishing at night can be awesome. In fact, many species actually bite better at night than during the day.
As the sun sinks, a whole new world of creatures emerges. Offshore, most fish rise to the surface to feed, including species like swordfish, which rise up more than 600m in search of food. Inshore, jewfish come out of the shadows to actively head out on the prowl. Then there are the sharks, which really love the night.
But for some reason, many anglers seem to be scared of fishing at night. Maybe it’s the cold, fear of the unknown or the potentially increased danger and lower visibility when travelling. Fear of collisions is understandable, but the risk really isn’t as high as many anglers may think. It is simply a matter of preparing oneself and using a bit of common sense.
Fishing at night is very different from fishing during the day and anglers need to change their approach to maximise their fishing opportunities after dark. In most cases a lot more preparation is required for night fishing. It isn’t simply a matter of cruising out and dropping a line; there is often a fair amount of forethought required to get it right.
ABOUT THE WEATHER
The weather is the biggest consideration when night fishing and there are few things less pleasant than getting smashed by a howling 30-knot southerly buster while trying to keep your lines in the water and your mind on the task. At the other end of the spectrum, a dead flat night is awesome. The ideal scenario is the calmer, the better.
The weather is a major influence, especially for offshore expeditions, but another equally important factor is the lunar cycle. This is not just for the fishing, but also for angler comfort. With a full moon and a clear night, it is often so bright that visibility is nearly as good as during the day. And this can actually have a positive impact for those who suffer from sea sickness. Studies have shown that being able to see and be aware of what’s around you can alleviate some of the symptoms, so it’s something to keep in mind when planning a night on the water.
On the new moon, though, it can be completely pitch dark, especially if there is cloud cover. Running at night in complete darkness can be unnerving for those who are not used it. For this reason it really is essential to plan your trip to coincide with not just the best weather, but also the stages of the moon.
Fishing at night is not as dangerous as many anglers think. However, those heading out at night can’t take things too lightly; they need to be prepared and – most importantly – they need to understand the risks. With reduced visibility comes the need to keep your wits about you and always maintain a vigil. This is not just while travelling, but also while fishing.
Fishing well offshore at night you tend to be pretty much on your own, but inshore or in harbours and estuaries is where things can get risky at times. Remember, it isn’t just the risk of you hitting something, but you are also vulnerable when sitting at anchor from someone else hitting you.
My pet hate is people who don’t have their navigation lights on. I still find it hard to believe that in some places, like the Hawkesbury River, anglers are so concerned about no one else discovering their spot that they fish with all their lights off! I have had a few close calls with idiots who don’t display their lights. I have noticed that the main offenders are nearly always people in small tinnies, which are hard enough to see anyway, and ironically they tend to be close to the boat ramp.
When it comes to lighting, you need to have the best. The old days of single-filament globes are over and the only choice these days, as far as I’m concerned, is LEDs. I have been running Hella lights for several years now and while they are pricey, they are reliable. Believe me, when a cheap running light stops working at sea you will wish you had spent a few extra bucks on quality lighting.
Obviously you must have operational running lights (green and red) as well an anchor light to even travel at night, but it is also important to set up some working lights. Again, I use Hella LEDs, which light up Strikezone’s deck like a Christmas tree and make it very easy to work. I also run a pair of blue underwater lights, which definitely seem to attract more fish and especially squid.
Underwater lights have really come into vogue and they definitely seem to be playing a role in attracting more baitfish to the boat. In particular, blue lights seem to work best and as all fishermen know, the more bait the better.
Not only are LEDs much more reliable, but they draw almost no power, which means you don’t have to worry about flat batteries. If you’re serious about fishing at night, then upgrading to LED lighting will save a lot of headaches and, of course, it goes without saying you need to run two batteries, with an isolating switch. When the engine is off, you must always be running off one battery, so the other is still fully charged in case you have an issue.
As an added precaution when fishing offshore, I also turn my engine over every hour or so and run it for a few minutes just to check my battery levels. The beauty of modern four-stroke outboards, like my Honda, is that they are so quiet that you can even leave them running. They also use very little fuel at idle.
Breakdowns are never good, but the implications are heightened at night due to the limited visibility. But again, modern marine engines rarely have any problems. The key here is to always maintain your engine and ensure it is serviced at the proper intervals. If you don’t fully trust your engine, then simply don’t go to sea.
Another hint is to dim your electronics when running. They can be incredibly bright at night and will dramatically reduce your night vision when you are trying to see what’s up ahead. I also make a point of opening the clears so there is nothing inhibiting my view. If you are a regular offshore angler, then radar can be worth its weight in gold. And always, always leave a detailed plan of your itinerary, be it tuna fishing offshore or live baiting in the local harbour.
A lot of anglers talk about the problem of hitting something at night, but in reality not enough people look where they are going during the day, let alone at night. In fact, I believe senses are heightened at night and skippers tend to be, for the most part, more alert. A good idea in this situation is to employ a hand-held searchlight when underway and keep it pointed in your direction of travel.
It’s also smart to hit the water mid-afternoon and start sounding around or look for a temperature break so you can ensure you are on the right spot well before dark. That way you can be prepared and ready for action before the sun sets.
The moon also plays a big role in fishing productivity. The moon affects different species in different ways. For instance, when cubing for yellowfin tuna, night fishing around the full moon is much more productive than during the day, but on the new moon the bite can be intensive right on sunset.
Likewise, nocturnal swordfish are primarily sight hunters and, as a result, they are most active around the full moon, as the stronger light allows them to hunt through more of the water column effectively. Inshore jewies also peak around the full moon, while snapper love the build-up.
One hint I can offer is to take note of when the moon rises and sets and compare it to your local fishing results. Depending on the species being targeted, there are some theories which favour a rising moon, while others prefer the setting moon. The jury is still out – there is no shortage of opinions and theories – but it is definitely worth taking note of the various stages of the moon and how they might possibly be affecting your individual fishing outcomes.
There are a number of techniques that are employed for offshore fishing at night, most of which are simply adaptations of day light techniques.
Trolling has increased in popularity in recent times and anglers are catching everything from bigeye tuna to swordfish on artificial lures after dark. The only real differences from daylight fishing are that trolling is generally done a bit slower at around 3-6 knots, as opposed to 8 knots in daytime. Lights are also employed and anglers regularly add glow sticks or strobes to the lures.
Slow trolling live baits in the dark has never really taken off anywhere, possibly due to the high by-catch of sharks, but dead baits do work well. Primarily, anglers chasing swordfish employ squid and fish baits, sometimes combined with artificial lures, to great success.
Cubing is dynamite at night and is a method employed by a number of top tuna anglers. Also, at night the tuna seem to be a lot less finicky and will happily snap at baits rigged on much heavier leaders than during the day. Nearly all of my biggest tuna have been taken just after sunset.
Possibly the most common method of night fishing offshore is simply drifting with baits positioned at different depths. The most common approach is to run three baits usually set between 150m and the surface. The deeper baits are held in place with the aid of breakaway lead, while the surface bait is held in position under a balloon. One trick is to put a small light stick in the balloon so you can keep an eye on it. Both live and dead baits are employed and while most anglers target swordfish, tuna and sharks are common by-catches.
LET THERE BE LIGHT
Lights, be they glow sticks or strobes, are essential for night fishing. Commercial records show that since the introduction of glow sticks, swordfish catch rates have jumped dramatically. It makes sense when you consider swordfish are sight hunters so will naturally be attracted to light.
Anglers chasing the likes of jewfish, hairtail or snapper inshore often favour anchoring up on specific grounds. Unlike the offshore situation, where the more lights we have, the better, fishing inshore is generally better done using as little additional lighting as possible, especially when chasing jewfish.
One of the key elements to all offshore life is something called the ‘scatter layer’. The scatter layer is basically the layer of life consisting of everything from microscopic organisms through to squid and baitfish that sits deep during the day and then rises towards the surface at night.
Identifying the scatter layer is crucial to fishing success and will dictate exactly what depths you need to focus your efforts on. Finding the scatter layer can only be done with a decent colour sounder that has been tuned correctly to give the best possible picture. Understanding the scatter layer is essential for successful night fishing, whether chasing swordfish or tuna.
Another point to consider when contemplating fishing at night is that anything is possible. It is like the last frontier that has yet to be fully exploited. Fishing after dark is a whole new adventure that is sure to produce some surprises, from the highly elusive swordfish to ‘ooglies’ like hairtail. There is a whole new world of fishing opportunities for those willing to take on the darkside.
And there are some really cool gadgets out there that can make fishing at night a lot safer. One of the best is FLIR night vision. Not only can you use it to spy on the neighbours, but at sea you can use it to see anything from other boats to floating debris. It is especially useful when trying to navigate between moored boats.
So there you have it – night fishing can be incredibly rewarding, and occasionally surprising. It’s all about making the most of the opportunities available. Just use common sense and keep safety at the forefront of every move – especially your night moves.
Al ‘Lord of Darkness’ McGlashan offers his top five night fishing tips
1 Fish the full moon when you start night fishing because greater visibility will make it easier and safer.
2 Ensure you have adequate safety gear, especially a new digital EPIRB.
3 Always keep a watch out when underway and anchored.
4 Expect the unexpected; night fishing is a new world that offers some awesome surprises.
5 Think outside the square and don’t be afraid to try new things.