The Sporting Life
by Dennis Doyle
The Big Guys Show under the Lights
This is what I live for in the fall
The gloom of a nighttime fog hovering around the dock lights couldn’t hide the frenzy in the water. Frantic baitfish skipped over a broken surface while angry white gouts marked the progress of heavy predators following them underneath. It wasn’t a pretty picture for the young menhaden.
But for me, it was the honey bucket. Sitting quietly a long cast away, I stripped fly line off my battered old Pate reel. I had to do this right. After I had enough line to reach the fish, I firmly and methodically stretched it, relieving the coiled memory and scattering the line to the deck at my feet. My fingers trembled with anticipation, but I knew if I rushed it could cause problems, especially if I hooked up to any of the fish I was watching.
When you see surface strikes of striped bass and you’re not sure whether the fish are sizeable or not, the rule is: They’re not. There was no mistaking the heft of these babies. They were throwing water three or four feet high, and the sound of their tails smacking the water was heavy and final. This was serious business.
Ready at last, I rose to my feet and took a deep breath. I had been fishing the last two weeks, waiting for the big guys to show under the lights. They were here. This might not happen soon again. I had to make it count.
Working out my line with a couple of quick false casts, I shot the streamer toward the nearest large roil. It barely touched the water when my line came tight, then burned through my fingers as I cinched the striper up. There was a major heave on the surface as the big fellow rolled and headed out toward deeper water.
My rod arced, bending to the corks as the hum of an exquisite drag in distress issued from the Pate. Line flashed out toward the middle of the Bay. Behind me, I could still hear heavy splashes as my fish’s schoolmates continued with their plunder. Adrenalin and a rush of pleasure flushed through my body. This is what I live for in the fall.
Night fishing the lights from a small boat can be an exciting and fruitful way to use any kind of light tackle in the fall season. Owning your own dock can be even more productive.
Simply install floodlights with photocell switches to turn them on in the evening. Then check out the nighttime water from your window occasionally; if you see the heavy splashes of big fish under the glare of your lights, you’re in business.
All artificially illuminated areas can draw fish, but the best lights for bringing the menhaden, anchovies, silversides and grass shrimp which in turn draw hungry predators are floodlights focused on the water. These create a haven for baitfish, which feel secure in an area where they can see. The lights also throw a shadow line where bigger fish will hold, waiting for careless baitfish to cross over.
Fall is the prime period for fishing the lights. They will attract fish almost year round, but the larger gamesters don’t reliably frequent them until the fall feed-up. Piers and docks that have deeper water nearby and a good tidal current to keep things moving seem to regularly draw the biggest fish. But any lighted area can be productive at night.
Whether fishing on a pier or from a boat, noise discipline is essential. A quiet approach and stealthy movements are critical to consistently hooking up better-sized fish. On the water, an auxiliary electric motor can give you a tremendous advantage in closing on these rascals, for they are incredibly wary.
There is also a certain amount of etiquette for boaters who fish the lights, such as avoiding the piers where the residents are fishing and skipping over structures that are being worked by another boat. Other than that, and of course being respectful of private property, it can be an exciting and productive enterprise.
Boaters will be aware that all of the water safety rules apply here, but especially: Never go anywhere you haven’t explored in the daytime; be sure all your Coast Guard requirements are on board; have an operational marine radio or cell phone in case of problems; and check your weather reports carefully.
Nighttime Anglers Note: Striped Bass cannot be possessed by anglers fishing between the hours of midnight and 5am. Catch and release, however, is permitted, and all other legal species can be kept during those hours.
Fish Are Biting
The rains of the last two weeks seemed to have washed out more than just the picnics; striped bass have become scarce around our area as well. Most successful rockfish sorties have been toward the south at locations such as Chesapeake Beach and The Hill. As we dry out, the rockfish should go back on the feed, so be ready.
Rain hasn’t bothered the bluefish, however, and scads of fish in the three- to five-pound class have been crashing bait all around the mid Bay.
Spot are on their way out, but really nice perch in the 10- and 11-inch class are showing up in coolers much more regularly.