After-Dark Smallmouths

The end of the day is just the beginning of good smallmouth bass fishing. Take the advice of our experts and catch brown bass while your fishing buddies sleep!

Stephen Headrick shows why the night bite is right for summer smallmouths. Photo by Ed Harp

Yes, it's the middle of summer. The days are long and hot. The sun is intense. Water temperatures in your favorite reservoir are approaching that of bath water. Worst of all, the daytime smallmouth bass bite is almost nonexistent.

The problem is that smallmouths are one of your favorite species. You're addicted to the way they fight, the way they pull line from the drag, the way they jump and shake their heads. So what do you do?

Savvy anglers have the answer: They start working the graveyard shift. They rearrange their schedules, they organize their boats and they sacrifice sleep. In turn, these anglers are rewarded with some of the best smallmouth fishing of the entire year.

SEARCHING FOR COOL, DARK PLACES
Talk to any angler - any knowledgeable smallmouth angler, that is - and the first thing they'll likely tell you is that smallmouth bass do not like light. They just do not like it, period. Almost never will a smallie be found in the sunshine. They are always in the shade, the darkest part of the cover. The night is made for such a creature.

The second thing these anglers will tell you is that smallmouth bass do not like warm water. Cool to downright cold is their preference. As water temperatures increase during the summer, they'll drop deeper in search of a more comfortable zone, a cooler place to spend the day.

These two factors make summer daytime smallmouth fishing tough for even the most experienced angler. Darkness changes all that. With the setting of the evening sun comes the lower light favored by the hunting bronzeback. These fish feel secure, comfortable and in control.

The night brings cooling air temperatures that are more favorable to the angler. The setting sun reduces the number of pleasure boaters, water skiers and personal watercraft operators. These changes give the angler a fighting chance - if he or she understands the rules of the game, that is.

It's popular to talk about the darkness bringing some cooling to the water. This cooling is largely a myth. Anglers who keep careful records will tell you that the reduction in water temperature during the night is only a degree or two - at most - and that this reduction occurs only at the very top of the water column. In most cases, this tiny temperature reduction does not occur until nearly dawn anyway.

TWO AFTER-DARK EXPERTS
According to Stephen Headrick -- the "Smallmouth Guru" -- darkness is what the night bite is all about, not cooler water. The darkness brings these brutes out from their daytime deep water haunts in search of food. It's really just that simple, according to Headrick. In some reservoirs these daytime haunts are weedbeds, in others rock structure and in still others manmade structure of some sort.

If there are weeds in your favorite reservoir, start your nocturnal search there. Nearly always there will be some fish in the weeds. One of the most effective and most popular methods of tricking smallies after dark is to work over the top of these weedbeds. Some anglers prefer jigs, while others choose live bait.

For the jig-fisherman, the technique starts with locating weeds in relatively deep water. "Deep water" is, of course, a relative term and is a function of location. In some deep-water highland reservoirs these weedbeds may be located at 35 feet; in some smaller, shallower bodies of water, the weeds may be at 5 or 6 feet.

Either way, the technique is the same. Spool your open face spinning reel with a quality fluorescent line, attach black lights to your boat and motor to the weeds. Cast or lower your jig into the weeds. Let it settle until it is resting on the bottom.

Then raise your jig with a sweep of the rod tip until it is up, over, and out of the weedbed. After that, let the jig pendulum back towards the boat while you hold it up, just a little, as it returns. When it is at the bottom of the arc let the jig settle back down into the weeds. Repeat this sequence back to the boat. With practice, you'll be able to just tick the tops of individual weeds as the jig swings back. This seems to stir up the smallie's instinct to feed.

Some anglers use a pork or plastic trailer of some sort on their jig, while others believe that a plain jig is more effective. Those who favor trailers point out that the bulk of a jig with a trailer allows the bait to fall more slowly, giving the angler more control.

When asked about lure color, Headrick said, "Yes, it matters - even in the dark." There is surprising agreement among smallmouth anglers when it comes to nighttime color selection. Nearly all, including Headrick, base their color selection on the phase of the moon.

Beginning with the new moon - that is, no moon at all - most favor jigs in solid black, blue/black, brown/black or dark brown. This should come as no surprise to any angler as these are standard nighttime colors. They may work because of the contrast making them visible, or for some other reason the fish have not told us. Either way these colors have passed the test of time.

When the moon goes into its first quarter, the traditional black/blue combination is a universal favorite. As the moon climbs to half and beyond, combinations of green, orange, and brown seem to be most productive. From the three-quarter stage to the full moon, preferred color choices range from red and orange to purple.

A number of anglers insist that their jigs have red eyes. Legendary smallmouth angler and guide, Bob Coan (www.members.aol.com/ finbaits/bobcoan.html), is one of them. He believes red eyes mimic the natural appearance of crayfish in the water. This belief stems from what scuba divers report after dives - namely, that crayfish eyes look red under water.

JIG SELECTION
Materials and sizes for jigs are more problematic. There are as many materials for tying jigs as there are anglers, or so it seems. Jigs are tied with materials ranging from synthetic products to exotic naturals. Hair is, of course, a common choice, especially for use in clear water. Hair choice ranges from synthetic material to bear, deer, boar, fox, raccoon, opossum and even dog hair.

Typical jig sizes range from 1/16 to 1/2 ounce, depending on water conditions and depth. Most anglers keep it simple when it comes to jig sizes, using as small a bait as conditions will permit.

Both Headrick and Coan believe that noise is an important factor in after-dark smallmouth success. They recommend selecting your noisemaker with care, however. With so many different designs on the market, some are bound to be better than others. The most important feature of a noisemaker - apart from its racket-production quotient - is its ability to do its job without interfering with your hookset.

One of the most popular and effective rattles is made by Headrick's own Punisher Jigs (www. punisherjigs.com). It's made from a small piece of aluminum tubing, inside of which is a BB. One end of the tube is crimped flat; the other is also crimped flat, but has a hole drilled through it. This creates a canister within which the BB rolls around and makes a clicking noise.

The rattle is affixed to the jig through the plastic chunk trailer. The flat end with the hole is slid through the chunk until it is flush with the front end. The chunk is then impaled on the hook, running the point through the hole in the tubing. The result is a rattle inside the chunk that doesn't get in the way of setting the hook.

LIVE BAIT OPTIONS
Other anglers select live bait when chasing nighttime smallmouths. A typical rig for live bait at night begins with a 4-inch shiner. The shiner is impaled through both lips with a circle hook. Enough split shot is pinched to the line to keep the bait at the desired depth. The bait is then lowered until it ticks the tops of the tallest weeds in the area. A float is affixed to the line to keep the bait at the desired depth. From there it's just a matter of working the electric trolling motor as slowly as possible while covering the area.

Float selection is largely a matter of personal choice. Many anglers select lighted models - the kind with small batteries in them. Others prefer fluorescent colors illuminated by black lights.

DIFFERENT STRUCTURE, DIFFERENT TECHNIQUES
In reservoirs without weed growth, favorite locations include long rocky points, sloping rock banks or areas of steep drops and shallow flats. In these locations, the jig is typically either dragged along the bottom - sort of like a crayfish scooting along - or hopped back to the boat. Rattles or noisemakers of some sort are strongly recommended for these areas.

In rocky areas crayfish are an especially popular and effective choice. They're typically rigged by hooking them through the third or fourth joint of the tail with a circle hook. Just enough split shot is used to keep the crayfish on the bottom. After that, just slowly drift around the area until you are satisfied it has been covered. This is known as "tightlining" in most locales.

Soft craws are considered a delicacy but are often hard to find, and even harder to keep fresh. As a result most smallies taken on crayfish are taken on hard craws.

One of the best kept secrets of nighttime smallmouth angling is the topwater bite. Sure, everyone knows that smallies can be taken over weeds, off points and along steep bluffs. How many know about the other hotspots - the ones no one will talk about?

Some of the best night catches are made from relatively common areas such as swimming beaches and campgrounds. These are areas that are often passed over on the way to someplace "better."

These areas - where the water is relatively shallow and the bottom is generally devoid of structure or cover - are made for topwater fishing; for whatever reason, they hold fish after dark once daytime activity has settled down. There are several theories to explain this. Some anglers believe that fish use these places to hunt, others believe the water cools quickly in these areas, and still others believe that the daytime activities increase the oxygen content of the water. The candid ones admit they don't know why - they just know the fish move in after dark.

Poppers and stick baits are excellent lure choices for these areas. Poppers are generally retrieved with a hard jerk that generates a large forward splash of water. It is then allowed to sit stationary for a few seconds before the jerk is repeated.

Stick baits require more practice, but can be even more effective, especially on larger fish. Learn to retrieve them with a wide, side-to-side walk. If retrieved in quick, hard jerks they will cause quite a commotion on the surface. This commotion seems to be magnified after dark. Most anglers do not stop their retrieve with this bait. They just keep it coming.

The color of these topwater baits is important only to the extent that it is black. Experienced topwater anglers point out that black makes the best silhouette against the nighttime sky - regardless of the moon phase. The darker the night, the blacker the lure should be, according to these anglers.

BY THE LIGHT OF THE SILVERY MOON
You may want to consider moon phase when selecting your fishing times. Both Headrick and Coan suggest you do. In fact, they believe it is the single most important factor in your success.

Both anglers opine that the period for two or three days before the full moon is best for numbers of fish, but not necessarily for size. They theorize that crayfish are responsible for this.

Crayfish are an important food source for smallmouth bass. They live in the same waters as the smallmouth and spawn during the full moon. Their spawning grounds tend to be rocky shorelines, sloping banks and rocky points. The smallies move in to feed on them at the time of the spawn. The moonlight provides just enough light to allow the fish to successfully pursue them.

Anglers who fish the full moon sometimes fail, however. There may be several reasons for this, but one of the primary reasons is that these anglers fail to consider and deal with the moonlight. Remember: Smallies do not like light, moonlight not excepted. That's why savvy and experienced anglers fish the shade created by the moonlight. This is true whether it be a point, a weedbed or some other form of structure or cover. Countless times anglers will report a good bite in the shade of the moon, but a poor or nonexistent bite in the light of the moon. To fish moonlight properly, analyze it just as you would sunlight. The fact that it is less intense does not mean it is less important.

The phase of the new moon is generally considered to be a slower bite, but with bigger fish. Most believe that the bigger fish tend to move about more in total darkness, believing it affords them safety as well as feeding opportunities.

GEARING UP
Generally, tackle is a matter of individual preference. Given the lack of light, line size is not as important as it may be during the day. Still, most anglers opt for spinning gear. It's easier to cast in the darkness and will handle the appropriate lure weights.

Rods in 6 1/2- to 7-foot lengths are the most popular. Actions ranging from medium-light to medium-heavy are adequate. A majority of anglers find that this combination of length and action provides a comfortable mix of power

and handling ability.

Nighttime angling can be the experience of a lifetime. It can also be a disaster. When fishing after dark, safety should always be your first consideration. Things look different at night. If you are not familiar with the area you intend to fish, spend some time in the area during daylight hours.

Make certain your boat is organized. Put everything you are not using in storage lockers or out of the way. The less there is lying about the boat, the less there is to trip over.

Invest in one of the newer lights that clip on your hat or shirt. They come in a variety of styles and designs. One of the most popular, used and recommended by both Headrick and Coan, is the Bil-Lite (www.bil-lite.com). It features a soft yet penetrating white light as well as an optional red filter.

Be sure to wear a life jacket at all times and to tell someone when to expect your return. After all, you'll need someone around to admire your catch!

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