Bass and the Moonlight
Working Lake Fork’s night shift, guides divulge their dark secrets for locating lunkers.
By Paul A. Cañada
As the permeating light of a summer afternoon fades, schools of shad migrate toward the surface. Under the deteriorating light conditions, the visually schooling fish disperse and, in doing so, lose the protection afforded by their normally greater numbers. Near the surface, gizzard and threadfin shad feed on light-sensitive plankton. In response, good numbers of average-sized predators move up from midday haunts to actively feed on the now-vulnerable prey.
About the time all color fades from the horizon, a large bass leaves her home base — a fork between two gigantic limbs — where she suspends during periods of inactivity. The big sow moves off the sizable pecan tree and up a wash leading to a timber-filled point. The subtle ditch acts as a pathway between the relatively deep water and the first break along the point.
A number of stumps and a single rocky outcrop provide the lunker with ample cover along the way. An overcast sky diffuses the full moon, encouraging the large female to move as shallow as 9 feet. After reaching the first break, the bass turns and briskly moves along the contour of the structure. The nocturnal predator advances with seemingly great purpose, searching out susceptible prey.
A slight disturbance in the shallows reaches the bass’ two sound-detection systems — the inner ear and the lateral line. Although the disturbance is barely discernible, the aggressive bass turns toward the shallow water. As the fish draws nearer the source, the noise and the vibration become more distinct.
Relying on all her senses — vision, hearing and touch — the big female attempts to pinpoint the source. She turns and swims toward the approaching object. Within moments, the pulsing vibration reaches the creature’s lateral line, and the bass spies a flash in the distance. With speed rarely witnessed by anglers, the large predator breaks toward the now full silhouette.
Above the waterline, Lake Fork guide John Tanner detects a slight change of pressure. The throb of his spinnerbait’s large Colorado blade is conspicuously absent. Almost immediately, the angler strikes back. The stout rod bows to the fish’s might, while the braided line refuses to give an inch. With some effort, Tanner succeeds in turning the big female’s head up and away from the timber.
Eventually, the bass tires and pitches to its side. Tanner gently slips his four fingers under her jaw and forces his thumb inside her mouth. Confident of his grip, the guide lifts the bass up. In the moonlight, he’s able to appreciate her tremendous girth and shoulders.
“Yes,” he exclaims. “This is why I’m out here.”
Normally, sensible anglers don’t venture out at night. When hampered by darkness, it’s difficult to complete the most common of angling tasks. Detecting subtle strikes, making accurate casts, navigating stump-littered waters and selecting or changing out lures can be terribly difficult to accomplish at night.
Still, there are many incentives for wetting a line at night. Typically, boat traffic is nonexistent and temperatures are more tolerable. However, the primary reason to take on the challenges of nighttime angling is that summer’s trophy-sized bass move shallower and feed more aggressively at night.
Finding Big Bass at Night
Like Tanner, Lance Vick spends many of his summer nights in pursuit of Lake Fork’s lunkers.
The professional angler and guide finds that the bigger fish hold in deeper water during the heat of day and move up to shallow structure at night to feed.
“At night, the biggest bass use structural features to move from their deep daytime haunts to shallow feeding zones,” explains Vick. “Once they find that certain depth, typically 8 to 12 feet on Lake Fork, they cruise along it looking for prey.”
Vick looks for structure that rises to within 10 feet of the surface and extends out to a depth greater than 30 feet. Once he has such a feature located, he uses his electronics to find a secondary feature that intersects both the deep and shallow water. Typically, this will be a ditch, a drain or a wash.
“I find the bass follow subtle features to ‘funnel’ through at night,” Vick adds. “The ditches and drains concentrate fish and that’s why it’s important to know where they are prior to taking to the water at night. I use daytime trips to scout out potential nighttime hot spots.”
On Lake Fork, some of the better funnels are the many remnant roads impounded by the reservoir that exit points and cross nearby creeks. The submerged roadbed is typically sitting atop a levee or berm, and has trees running along one or both sides. In most cases, the edge of cover — such as a tree line or grass line — represents a change in water depth or bottom relief. Because bass often follow these edges while moving shallow, the cover provides a reference point for anglers and makes it easier to place a lure in the fish’s strike zone.
According to Vick, actively feeding bass, once shallow, continue to move along a key water depth, weed edge or timberline. Moving along an edge, the bass cruise the shoreline or cover, looking for easy prey. The fish will often rush into shallow water or up to the surface to overtake prey.
Like his good friend Vick, Kelly Jordon often works Lake Fork’s night shift. Jordon agrees with Vick’s assessment, only adding that he believes the largest bass are flushing-type feeders.
“When tracking trophy-sized bass,” explains Jordon, “Texas researcher John Hope showed that big bass are flushing feeders. They move relatively fast, covering ground and looking for feeding opportunities.”
Placement and Displacement are Key
Jordon’s perception of how the largest bass feed plays a significant role in his approach to nighttime angling. Typically, Jordon fishes his bait so that it parallels the edge of a fencerow, a tree line or the outside edge of a grass bed along which the bass are moving. He reasons that his chances of encountering a feeding lunker are better when he keeps his bait in that zone of activity.
“I don’t throw a large worm or jig at night like most anglers do,” he explains. “Instead, I almost exclusively throw a spinnerbait. I have found that you can catch more and bigger fish by simply slow-rolling a spinnerbait near the bottom.”
The young pro fishes a spinnerbait, with a number 6 or 7 Colorado-style blade, on braided line. That setup allows him to fish a small-diameter line without sacrificing the line strength required to fight and land Lake Fork’s big Florida-strain bass. The small diameter is important because it makes it easier to keep the slowly retrieved spinnerbait down near the bottom. Also, the low-stretch braided line telegraphs the rotation of the lure’s large blades, making it easier to detect the subtlest strikes.
“I fish my spinnerbait much like a jig,” notes Jordon. “I purposely keep the bait close to the bottom and occasionally stop it and allow it to tumble downward. In fact, I fish that bait so slow, it takes forever to get a cast back to the boat.”
Like Jordon, Tanner believes the placement of a lure at night is absolutely critical to success. Because of this, the longtime guide uses lures designed to stay in the bass’ strike zone longer. His primary lure of choice is a ½-ounce jig with a 3-½-inch plastic trailer. The large trailer is vitally important in that it slows the bait’s fall and gives the package a larger profile, making it easier for the bass to find the lure. When throwing spinnerbaits, he likewise uses the large plastic trailer.
Lunar Light Determines the Bite
At night and during periods of low-light conditions, bass rely more on sound and vibration than sight to detect and locate potential prey. The bass’ inner ear and lateral line hear or feel both the particle motion and pressure changes created by sound. Both systems are important in helping bass find prey, avoid predators and relate to their liquid environment in low-light conditions. Once the bass moves close enough to the object producing the sound or disturbance, it uses its sight to locate the object’s silhouette.
Understandably, Tanner believes lure and blade selection should match the amount of lunar light penetrating the bass’ watery environment. On dark nights, Tanner chooses to fish color combinations that include black and black-nickel blades. On moderately lit nights, he fishes a purple or plum bait and gold blades. During brightly lit nights, he chooses white or yellow baits.
Similar to daytime conditions, the bass’ position in relation to cover and structure and its activity level are determined by the amount of light penetrating their environment. There are many factors that influence light penetration at night. First and foremost, the lunar phase determines greatly where the fish are found and how they feed. Second, water clarity determines how deep the light penetrates. Finally, a stiff breeze or wind, agitating the water surface, will diffuse the light penetrating the water column.
According to Tanner, the best fishing doesn’t necessarily occur during a full moon. In fact, the best fishing typically takes place during the low-light conditions of a new or quarter moon.
“The amount of light penetrating the water column positions often determines how they feed,” explains Tanner. “On a bright night, the bigger fish stay deep and pull tighter to cover. During new- and quarter-moon phases, the fish tend to be shallower and actively feeding.”
Night fishing tests an angler’s skill, stamina and, most of all, patience. It also usually means having to tolerate hovering hordes of airborne pests and fight off the body’s persistent need for sleep. Why endure so much frustration and irritation?
Jordon answers it best, “When active, the big bass are cruising relatively fast. I mean they’re very aggressive. They will hit a lure and fight like they’re on steroids. That’s why I fish Fork at night.”