Nighttime Muskie Stalking
September 24, 2010
Muskie fishing can get pretty tough during the summer, but you can really increase your chances of catching one if you fish at night. These tips will help you boat a beast!
This muskie decided to wait to feed until the cover of darkness arrived.
Photo by Pete Maina.
We arrived to do a TV show with Lee Tauchen, a full-time guide who had been fishing the same lake for a week. The report was he and others were seeing a fair number of muskies during the day, but overall it had been tough. He did say, though, that if we were willing to stick it out after dark for a while, it would very likely pay off. It did. The fish weren't anything tremendous, mind you, but one muskie in the low-20-pound range was caught, and one was missed. By muskie fishing standards, this is a success, certainly. However, the only actual strikes came after dark!
The interesting thing to note was that there had been some consistency for nearly a week where there was definitely a more reliable bite going on after dark. Every night, the opportunities were there, whereas during the daytime, actual strikes were doubtful.
Night-fishing for muskies is truly nothing new. Starting my career as a guide, I noted that Tony Rizzo had written about night-fishing success three decades ago. I've had success after dark for over two decades now myself, and many of the best younger guides rely on the night as a mainstay of their plan. Just keep in mind, though, that just like during daytime, weather and forage movements will result in varied success.
Though it's far from new, and many folks have spoken and written about their successes, one of the major advantages of night-fishing for muskies is still in place: lack of angler pressure. There is still far less direct muskie fishing pressure on the water at night. This simple fact ups your odds, in that you're more likely to be the first to come across a hungry muskie parked on a prime location. Also, because muskies actually have very good night vision, they are more apt to hit rather than follow at night, thus not being able to inspect things as well. I also believe muskies are a little more predictable in location at night. It's also a lot more peaceful and pleasant than during the day.
I've done a lot of night-fishing and have caught muskies after dark in five different states and a couple of provinces, and in rivers, reservoirs and lakes. I've learned some pretty important things. First off, it's simply not all that different from daytime fishing -- other than it's dark out. The equipment, lure choices, locations and weather factors are all very similar at night as they are during the day.
I originally assumed muskies really couldn't see very well, and therefore, straight-line slower presentations would be necessary. While they certainly work, it's not the case that they are the only things that work. Everything will, at times. I've seen fish taken on everything from soft plastics to topwater lures. The most reliable -- and best for the percentage game -- are in-line spinners or bucktails, spinnerbaits and crankbaits. A surprise, at least initially, was the effectiveness of jerkbaits, too, especially those that hang neutral on the pause.
Structurally, target areas are really simple. Since there is a significant lack of pressure on the fish, comparatively, concentrating on the most classic areas -- basically the most popular spots -- is a good plan. During the daytime on pressured water, staying away from the heavily pressured spots is often advisable, and concentrating on more secondary, smaller spots, or even open water, hoping to be dealing with less-educated fish. At night, though, the prime larger structures are the way to go, places with distinct edges and turns, possibly several different types of structures -- weeds, rocks, wood -- with main-lake water access. These are the ones that jump out at you when you look at a map, and they usually have the muskie boats on them during the day.
These are great spots for everything they offer, but the odds of catching fish on them is often much better after dark when many of the smarter and larger specimens -- via some bad daytime experiences -- have decided it's a better idea to prowl under the cover of darkness. These can be very shallow areas or deeper structures, too. For some reason, there's still a general "idea" prevailing out there that all the fish go shallow after dark. If it's good structure that holds fish, it's worth fishing after dark, whether it be deep or shallow.
A good general pattern that I do consider is that it seems fish will be less apt to be in the heaviest cover on a spot where often they will be located during the day. This may be a pressure issue partially, where heavy fishing pressure pushes fish deeper in, or it could be that fish are hoping to be shaded from direct sunlight. In the case of weeds, they could actually be robbing oxygen from the water at night when there's a lack of natural or wind-induced currents to mix the water. They'll be more likely to be on shallow rock, and will just generally be in the open more.
Also, on waters you would likely fish a lot, pay special attention to "where" on a structure you got bit. It seems like after dark, there are more specific spots-on-spots that fish will relate to. I will generally concentrate on larger, more complex structures at night. And often, some key areas start to show where you can nearly always count on one being "there" -- when fish are in a feeding mood.
My general plan of attack after dark is to fish larger structures that I have completely to myself. I'll work them more precisely and slower at night, but nighttime is no different than day in that there are often feeding windows that open and close due to weather, lunar effects, or it just happens. What I do is continue to work the same spot rather than run all over. But if I start to get activity when it has been quiet previously on waters I night-fish often where I know the sweet spots, I'll start running around and hitting only what I feel are the best. Hopefully, this maximizes the results from a feeding period.
Back to the presentations. I like spinners with big blades. It's tough to beat nickel (silver) with a darker body. I like bigger targets in general at night, so I'll choose a big lure like a 10-inch Jake rather than smaller crankbaits. Depending on the structure I'm fishing and its depth, I choose lures to run effectively in that zone. If it's shallow, the in-line spinner gets the nod, or a shallower-running crankbait like a big Stalker. If it's deeper, I run with the heavy spinnerbait, the Jake or a deeper diver. Both of these presentations are very efficient and offer great hooking percentages. Try different things with retrieves -- don't stick with slow and straight only. Be aware that spinner hits at night can be very soft, so stay on your toes.
I mentioned jerkbaits, and they do work well. I've caught many muskies on a weig
hted Burt jerkbait. Sometimes this will just be what they are in the mood for. Soft plastics like the Bulldawg can work very well, especially on breaks.
One of the last lures I'll choose to try, and they are always tested from the back of the boat, are surface lures. Most of the time, a hungry muskie that would hit a topwater at night will also hit spinners and cranks. I love topwaters, but muskies miss them often at night -- and people twitch -- which results in a very low hooking/landing percentage overall. Try them if nothing else is working.
Trolling can be very effective at night, too, and is definitely the way to go on large, flat areas or open water -- where legal. Yes, I've caught suspended muskies at night, too.
Here are a few other things to consider. You have to be able to see, so headlamps for all are a must. A spotlight isn't absolutely necessary, but nice. I haven't done it, but I know some successful anglers who have basically rigged their boats so they are lit up so they can actually see their retrieve finishes and do figure-8s. They say "soft" light and gradual change don't bother the fish at boatside. I do know that "surprise" light is a problem though from filming TV shows. They hate camera lights, and they leave quickly.
I use glow tape on the backs of lures, and small squares or circles on spinner blades just to help see the lure return to the boat. Use Super Glue around edges of tape. Boatside figure-8s or circles are vital at night. I have much higher percentages of boatside strikes at night than during the day. Do them every time -- large and wide.
Finally, the one thing that can mess with you at night is looking at bright light after having your eyes adjusted to night vision. This is where some of the new technology is tremendous. I don't want to have to concentrate on the graph much at night anyway, so what I will do on some of my popular spots is save a plotter trail on my GPS, or just run the edge of a spot I plan to fish later during the day, and that trail will still be up. What's nice is on the big Lowrance 111C that I use, I will go to night-vision mode and be only looking at the GPS. It makes boat control much simpler and precise, and you don't have to wait for your eyes to readjust.
Tight night lines!