Off in the darkness of night, the Jitterbug eerily sputtered across the surface of the water, giving the angler only an educated guess as to how it looked as it lightly splashed water along its zig-zag route.
It clacked. It sputtered. It …
What was that? Was that a fish?
The clacking and sputtering noise was gone, and the fisherman lightly reeled tight and leaned in hoping to feel a pull on the line.
There it was, the tug he wanted, and he answered with a strong, steady jerk, hoping the hook found the lips of the fish.
In the distance, the unmistakable sound of an irate bass splashed on the surface, and the battle was on.
With steady pressure and heavy line, the fisherman won and a 5-pounder was soon being admired in the boat.
Welcome to the excitement of summertime bass fishing at night, when the two most important words from the above account may just be:
In the middle of the summer, as the sun beats down with relentless perseverance, quality bass fishing time diminishes. Breaking a sweat while launching the boat, and climbing back into a truck that feels like a vinyl sauna are mitigated little by the few minutes of tolerable fishing time.
It is well-established fisheries science that bass go deep when the sun gets bright and the water temperature rises. Night bass fishing is one way to scratch the itch to fish and not be slow roasted on a carpeted griddle.
There are a few tradeoffs for the comfort of fishing under the stars. One is not being able to throttle-up and race to another spot at 60 knots. Another is not being able to see stumps and other objects just under the surface, or spotting the grass or weed lines, or a path through pads.
But, these obstacles can be overcome, especially on a full moon phase, when it can be amazing to find how quickly the human eye will adapt to low light.
The upside is obvious. Fishing in 70- or 80-degree temperatures and without blistering sunshine sure beats 100-degree heat indexes and searing sunshine, which, rest assured, bass do not like either.
Every bass angler knows that water is far slower to adjust to a temperature change than the air above it. For that reason bass are only tempted to venture shallow at night because of the lack of sunlight.
This said, anglers should look for the comfort range bass seek most of the time. In summer, that is the depth where the highest dissolved oxygen is located. From there bass may move only as far as they need to move to find a meal. There’s a good chance every other fish will be in that same thermocline.
The short and long of this is to say bass will be at night where they are during the day.
Fish, critters more active
“Night fishing is really not all that uncommon,” says Johnny Lewis of Brandon. “When I’m bass fishing at night I see people running jugs and trot lines for catfish, people using submerged lights and fishing for crappie. So night fishing is not a new thing.”
Lewis adds that in pad fields, bass and the critters on which they dine, can become very active at night. Frogs and lizards are free to move without the fear of being picked off by a bird. That makes soft plastic frogs, lizards and other weedless floaters effective.
“Critter baits are my favorite,” Lewis said. “But for explosive topwater action, I’d say a black Jitterbug is as good as it gets. Bass can hone in on the sound and when they smack it, they smack it hard. It seems strange that the black Jitterbug works best. I guess they can silhouette the lure when the water is clearer. It works very well when there is a bright moon overhead.”
Fisheries biologist Tom Holman says the lateral line is the organ that allows fish to sense movement of other objects in the water. Cells in the lateral line contain tiny hairs that act something like human ears to sense movement and sound. The lateral line may be the fish’s best weapon for locating prey at night, or in murky water.
“The Jitterbug alone is an ideal night bait, but adding a trailer, such as a Rebel or Rapala crankbait seems to add a certain magic that bass just can’t resist, Lewis said. “Attach the trailer with about 12 to 14 inches of fluorocarbon leader material and retrieve the combo just fast enough to make the Jitterbug dance steadily. I can’t tell you how many bass I’ve caught with this set-up.”
Night fishing is one reason why the Jitterbug is still a popular lure.
“It is still a top choice for night fishing across the country,” said Lawrence Taylor, an avid bass angler and spokesman for PRADCO, who markets the Arbogast line of fishing lures. “It’s proven that bass and other predator fish love the look and action, but that doesn’t account for its sustained 50-plus years of success.
“A big contributing factor is that it’s a perfect night fishing lure because anglers don’t need to see it to know it’s working. At night, an angler can cast the bait into the darkness, begin a retrieve and simply listen to ensure the bait is walking correctly across the surface.”
What’s the one thing that most of the popular night fishing surface plugs have in common? It’s a side-to-side, “walk-the-dog” retrieve that is continually producing surface disturbance, but it’s not quickly moving out of range of the fish. Think about it, the bass notices the sound and action and comes in to investigate. The Jitterbug is easy to locate, and that mesmerizing side-to-side motion gets them to strike.
Said Taylor: “The Arbogast Jitterbug is likely the only artificial lure that many anglers can identify by sound alone. The gentle “plop-plop-plop” is the soundtrack to so many great night fishing memories.”
Taylor also sings the praises of spinnerbaits with large single Colorado blades. Colors are not so important, but I have seen many anglers paint or use black jigs and spinners for the basis of critter bait. A squirt of attractant adds to the probability the bass will take the bait, as they are attracted by the vibrations and taste and smell the attractant.
Lots of other choices
Jason Reynolds is an Oklahoma native and professional bass angler who uses his talents in conjunction with a “bass tub” at events such as the Mississippi Wildlife Extravaganza, in Jackson each year (July 31-Aug. 2 this year).
“We get the tub set up and filled with water, then go looking for bass,” Reynolds said. “There are some go-to private lakes when push comes to shove, but most of the time the bass are caught from public waters on Thursday night before the show opens on Friday.”
Reynolds points to speed worms as bait that moves a lot of water and allows bass to quickly pinpoint the target. He prefers to float a worm across a pad field at a slow pace or rig it Carolina style for submerged structure.
“Remember the bass are shallower for the feeding opportunities,” said Reynolds. “And most bass want a big meal for the effort they put into catching it. That’s why I use many of the same baits at night as I use during the day, maybe with the exception of topwater noise-makers. The only true secret is to fish them a little slower.”
Fruit jar bass tournaments are a popular method of fishing late in the day. Anglers enter the tournament by putting a fee in the winner-take-all pot. Fishing is generally done late in the afternoon and early evening. Some end fishing at 8 p.m. others may fish until midnight. The point is, the water is dark when the tournament is winding down. Gleaning information from fruit-jar anglers is as simple as asking.
Where to look
So now we know the time of day and the baits to use, where are we likely to find the bass? The answer sounds simple enough, but finding it is always a different story.
“Look for grass, weeds or pads near water that is 8-12 feet deep,” Reynolds said. “Any spot that will hold forage fish. The bass will be spending the most intense heat of the day in the shade of a dock, or structure. They will be looking for the magic thermocline where the water is most comfortable with the greatest amount of dissolved oxygen.
“My best luck night fishing comes in those areas where there is abundant light, such as boat ramps, piers, or marinas. Lighted areas attract insects, which in turn attract the entire food chain of fishes. I can’t explain it, but I see more groups of foraging bass at night. Like a wolf pack ready to go wild on a ball of shad or a school of bream or minnows. When we bow fish at night, with the deck-lights on, we see them then too, but of course they can’t be shot.”
Reynolds recommends big baits; 10-inch ribbed worms with several worm rattles. He uses big trailers with rattles and dark critter baits; big surface plugs such as Devil Horses or Rebel Minnows that contain rattles; any bait that is black and makes a lot of noise or moves a lot of water.
“Attractants are also important to the night angler,” Reynolds said. “Many attractants now contain natural fish hormones, and while some will argue that fish cannot smell, I think they do have an olfactory system that helps them find food. Baitfish scent, crawfish, even garlic have worked well for me in night fishing situations.”
Available light is amazingly plentiful on parts of many lakes, like Barnett Reservoir, after sunset. Streetlights, starlight, moonlight and even automobile head lamps combine to provide enough to allow functionality. Still having a flashlight or two handy can be a great convenience when retying bait or removing a hook. Headlamps mounted on baseball caps allow all this to be done hands free.