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LAKE POWELL
NIGHT FISHING

By Joel Thalheimer and Wayne


 

Current Recommendation

Where to Fish - Winter 2005-2006

 

Fish deep-water with bait at 40' to 70' even if shad or plankton are not drawn to light, can be sporadic with fish leaving for an hour or so and then returning, this can continue until dawn.

 

 

 

Night Fishing in a Nutshell

A refresher on basics: Beginners should read Basic Technique below for details.

Equipment:

Your choice of rod and line - Braid or microfilament line recommended. 

Size # 1 hooks, ¼ oz sinkers and snap swivels  - or ¼ oz jigheads.

Plankton attracting light with fully charged 12 volt battery.

Frozen anchovies.

Helpful accessories:

Treble hook for shad snagging...

         LED headlamp …large rubber net ……boat ice chest and ice for fresh caught stripers.


Technique Reminders:

Avoid full moon phase (4 days before and 3 after full moon) …if you can choose go closest to no moon as you can. 1” pieces of anchovy will catch more than larger pieces. If you can snag or catch shad around light, they are superior to anchovies and stay on hook better…use same size pieces, however prepare to use anchovies, don’t rely on catching shad.

Keep track of bait depth and vary if fishing slows, 40’ to 60’ is usually best regardless of depth of shad or lake bottom A two hook setup, several feet apart, offers bait at two different depths and provides a spare bait if one gets bit off.

 Deep-water stripers are likely to move up or sideways rather than down after taking bait making bites subtle. Braided line is more sensitive making it easier to detect subtle bites.  Moving bait up or sideways with slow sweeps is usually more effective than letting bait rest motionless, especially when bite is on. Bites are easier to detect with moving bait. Set hook at slightest line twitch or slackening.

If not using braided line, after having caught a few fish, constantly check line for abrasions and re-tie hook setup when any abrasions are found. Put freshly caught stripers on ice before they die, do not put in live well. 

If with a partner: begin fishing at different depths …if bit, notify partner of depth …if partner hooks one and you can’t get at least 15’ away, reel in your line and wait till hooked fish under boat before lowering your bait unless you’re catching stripers under 1.5 lbs.

If both of you are rigged the same and doing the same thing and partner is getting all the bites, don’t commit Hari Kari, it’s probably just the law of averages, which says: if everything’s the same, there is a 50-50 chance that both of you will get an equal number of bites each night. If one of you gets 5 bites in a row, don’t fret! It’s nothing but the law of averages and bites will eventually even up. However if your partner gets six consecutive bites while you’re being shut out, you’re allowed to throw him overboard. 

If fishing is slow don’t be afraid to experiment even with something seemingly off the wall. As one night fisherman reported, “ It was working even though we didn’t know why or why it was working where we were at. We just figured we had a good thing going and we might as well ride it as long as we could.”

For those who are a glutton for punishment, often there is an early morning bite that starts about ½ hour before dawn. It may not be dependent upon the light-plankton setup.


Basic Technique:

Basic Technique, posted in 2002, was used for capturing fall stripers when they migrated into backs of canyons. A lake wide explosion of forage since then has allowed stripers to remain in deeper and cooler waters year round. Apply technique as per the Current recommendation at beginning of Night Fishing Page for general locations, and ignore, for now, any information below that is specific to backs of canyons.

Nighttime fishing is a different animal and most likely not suitable for everyone on all trips. Primary advantages lie in the aesthetics and consistency in catching effectiveness. At night there’s no sun, generally calm, (If windy, less wind) no wake turbulence, no boat traffic and associated noise, no jet skis, no running from spot to spot incessantly casting and changing lures etc. At night it’s generally quiet and relaxing. Shortly after sunset you’re often treated to a rendition of Carnegie Hall Wild performed by the natives; daytime recluses whom you may have never known were there. You’ll hear songs from calling grebes, coyotes, bats, herons, owls and occasional frog accompanied by musical splashes of ripples against hull and shore and cymbal like splashes of surfacing fish.  An occasional falling stone from some unknown footstep adds mystery. The slightest hint of moonlight transforms daytime vistas into fascinating haunting spectacles. It’s beautiful. A+ for aesthetics.

During day fishing, there’s nothing as exciting as a striper boil and at times every drop of the spoon results in a hookup, however these times seldom last long and often don’t happen at all, leaving us always remembering and trying to replicate that one perfect trip, usually vainly. Even though I do all the day stuff with fervor and sometimes can brag about results, usually 70 to 80% of a trip’s catch is caught at night. If the following techniques are followed it’s almost impossible to get skunked and 20+ “keepers” per person per night is more normal than not. A+ for consistency in catching effectiveness.

It’s not all roses and honey. If you enjoy group socializing in the evening and/or partying this won’t work. Not recommended for young children and difficult to do effectively if more than two to a boat unless boat is large. You may have to ride out a storm, which can be uncomfortable and scary. If fishing is good, be willing to alter your sleep patterns.

My experience, limited to Lake Powell, may have to be adjusted for other lakes. I take three 5-night trips each fall, which allows time to adjust tactics if first night doesn’t work.

**Ninety-five percent of success is determined before a line is wet.

The basic strategy involves using a light to create a food chain with stripers as the final predator. The first step, done during daylight, is to locate plankton.

If you’re going to hunt lions in Africa, where in Africa do you go? Africa is a gigantic country ... You go where grass is green; that’s where grazing animals will be, which is what lions eat. At Powell we pursue plankton. Shad eat zooplankton (which are actually little animals that have locomotion), and stripers eat shad. One reason why this strategy can be so deadly is daytime techniques involve frantic pursuit of a prey that might not be interested once located.  At night, we lazily chill out, lay back and entice stripers to come to us. If they come, it’s because we have something they want and they arrive anxious to feed.

However, the key is locating plankton, not necessarily stripers.

When to go? At Powell, fall is best. Spring runoff flushes nutrients into the lake stimulating plankton growth and feeding newly hatched shad. By fall, shad population is peaking and stripers are fattening up for winter. By comparison, in spring, shad and plankton population is at its lowest, while winter stripers are sluggish and summer stripers deep.

My three 5-night trips are scheduled between Oct. 1 and Nov. 15. During this period, as water temperatures cool, stripers move from their deep-water summer time haunts into the backs of bays and canyons, actively feeding. Typically it seldom rains and summer crowds are gone. It’s 65 to 80 degrees during the day but nights are chilly, especially sitting in a boat… bring a snowsuit. The ideal 5-night trip of the year, if designed for solely for night fishing, is the no moon phase that occurs between Oct. 15 and Nov. 15.

Moon phase is usually critical. Three or four days before or after no moon is best while three or four days before or after a full moon is usually the pits. Avoid this time if you can. Evidently there is not enough difference between full moonlight and artificial light to attract and concentrate plankton. Full moon catch is often only 5 0r 10% of no moon and one could probably catch that many without any light.  Steep walled canyons can sometimes provide a few hours of fishing before moon comes up even during full moon phase. Occasionally I have done well in the full moon period in very stained water. Possibly the moonlight didn’t penetrate the stained water well and the artificial light did. Or possibly I just happened to be in an area with a large concentration of stripers for whatever reason. Avoid the full moon if possible. If you can’t, look for as dirty water as possible, provided depth is right.

Where to go … Hite-Bullfrog or San Juan area. Most lake nutrients come in from the Colorado or San Juan rivers and these areas produce the greatest concentrations of plankton. In other lake areas look for canyons that receive runoff, Warm Creek, Last Chance, Navajo, etc., but these are dicey bets in comparison to the Colorado and San Juan ends.

Night fishing numbers add up quickly when conditions are right.

Stuff, techniques, tips, etc.

The reason why you should be ready to start ½ hour before dark, even though our food chain hasn’t been started yet, is often there’s a minor bite ½ hour before and after both sunrise and sunset, not dependent upon our technique. Possibly, low light conditions triggers feeding. They’ll be shallower now than later on, try about 30 feet down.

Two to a boat is best, each fishing off opposite sides of stern end. You want to stay away from anchor to prevent hooks or hooked fish from tangling in rope. If more than two to a boat, you can count on hooked fish getting tangled with other lines or anchor rope… not impossible to do, but count on a lot of frustrating down time. Even with two to a boat, person with a fish on should notify other if fish headed partner’s way, so partner can take evasive action or reel in if it’s a wild one.

For whatever reason, though probably water temperature, only once, when canyon we were fishing in was crammed with fish, have I done much good on keeper fish if lake bottom less than 45 feet deep. Fish caught in shallower lake bottom depths at night are usually skinny. After food chain started, shad and plankton will gravitate towards surface. Don’t fish there: fish 4 to 15 feet off bottom. Many times have experimented with fishing at different depths but seldom successful shallower. Ones caught shallower are usually small. There have been times larger fish never came in so we fished 20 to 30 feet down and caught the smaller ones. In this case, still keep occasionally checking deeper depths for larger fish. Two possible reasons stripers stay near bottom are

1. water temperature and oxygen levels at deeper depths are more to stripers’ liking and

2. stripers, being basically sight feeders, can’t catch a healthy shad at night and hang below waiting for weakened stragglers.

Possibly both factors come into play. Measure length of line pickup of one reel handle turn to determine how far to reel bait off bottom. Usually it’s about 2 feet per crank.

For bait, I start off using 1/2 to ¾ inch chunks of frozen anchovy. If larger pieces used, often stripers grab just an end and rip it off without getting hooked. Once shad come to surface, if they do, I snag shad using just a single bass-lure sized treble hook, on a separate rod. If you get into a bite where each drop is a quick hit, anchovies work just fine. However in most cases, shad pieces out fish anchovy pieces 3 to 1. Cut shad into same sized pieces. They stay on much better than does anchovy and one can often catch two or more stripers on same bait. Shad snagging is an art and takes a little practice. Don’t have a weight or lure above treble as that will hit shad first. You may knock them silly but never snag them. Have tried both dip and cast nets but shad too quick and avoid them. Shad aren’t a necessity but will increase your catch. After first night I usually have enough left over to start next night.

Everyone has his or her favorite bait rig, here’s mine. I turn stripers into tuna by using a crappie rod and spinning reel with drag set light enough that a healthy 2.5 lb.’er makes drag sing on surges, but won’t take out much line unless 4 lb. or over. I like the music, can judge size and condition before boating and an average night will make wrists ache. I use 20 lb. braided, which is still thin and limp. Striper mouths, fins, scales and probably even breath are worse than sandpaper. Non-braided line, under 20 lb., will require rerigging several times during an evening because of line nicks and cuts and even then you’ll lose some fish. Everything, including rerigging takes twice as long at night. 20 lb. test or higher loses effectiveness in presentation because of stiffness.

I use two snelled #1hooks, each about 2.5 feet apart, with a quarter ounce slip sinker in-between. Attach hooks to split rings or bear claws else braided line will eventually cut thru snell. After every 20 fish replace snelled hooks. If alone, put out two rods until stripers come in. I generally have one shallow for the sundown bite and the other near bottom. As soon as fish come in, retire extra pole. If you don’t, often you’ll have two on at once, most likely they’ll get tangled, and you’ll be down 15 frustrating minutes. The two hook rig gives you two different depths, probably a better presentation, and most importantly gives you an extra bait in case one gets bitten off or lost on a strike… you won’t have to keep checking to see if bait is still on. With a little practice you can lift rod and feel if both baits are still on, or off.



Lights

A light is needed to attract plankton, the first step in the food chain. That’s all it does …attract plankton. Almost any type of light will work to some extent if plankton are around. However, there are two basic types designed for night fishing. Here are the pros and cons:

1. Crappie light … a car headlight encased in Styrofoam, which floats on water shining down, with a long cord and alligator clips that attach to one of the boat batteries.

2. Fluorescent tube types …some sink, some float, come in different sizes, put out a green light and attached to battery the same way.

Advantage to crappie light is cost, approx. $10, and compact size. Primary disadvantage is heavy current draw. It can completely drain a heavy-duty battery in 4 nights, or 20 to 30 hours of use. However it does the job fine and I used one effectively for many years.

Advantage to Fluorescent tube types is minimal current draw and tests show green light travels under water 5 times farther than white light before being diffused. It can be run off any boat battery and cause little noticeable battery draw down. The small ones cost $20 to $40. The Hydro Glow is 4’ long, the most powerful, comes in a protective case… the Cadillac of the lot, but costs $220.

My experience is the Hydro Glow will draw plankton and shad quicker and probably more, however the crappie light will draw all you need with maybe a 20 minute lag time. I now use a Hydro Glow and carry a couple of crappie lights as spares.

The real question is no one knows how much plankton and shad are needed to effectively draw in stripers. Though a crappie light works effectively, the minimal current draw alone makes the Hydro Glow worthwhile for me, though that wouldn’t be as much of a concern if my trips were only a couple of nights long. My recommendation for someone new is to buy a crappie light and see how you like the night fishing experience. It’s inexpensive and will work fine. If you become hooked and night fishing becomes a major focus of your trips, then consider buying the Cadillac.

The stern boat light will provide all the light you need for general seeing, you don’t need anything more powerful constantly on. However I recommend wearing a headlight for focused light. When bite is on, train light on rod tip. You’re fishing deep; if a fish swims out with bait rather than down, rod tip will barely move. If it swims up, line will slacken. In either case you probably won’t feel it…need to watch rod tip. Headlight also needed for unhooking etc., more convenient than hand held lights. They now have l.e.d. headlights that put out an adequate light and batteries last forever. Regular headlight batteries last 4-5 hours. Tried l.e.d. Lights for the first time last season. 3 AA batteries gave me 90 hours of night fishing and since then been using it around house still on same batteries, though they’re starting to dim now.

If you watch a stern end graph, within 20 to 30 minutes shad may show up about 20’ down. It may take several hours before they come up to the surface and are snaggable, sometimes they never quite reach the surface and this appears to relate to shad numbers. If there’s lots of shad they’ll eventually come to the surface.

Sometimes leaving still bait works best, but 90% of time moving it frequently is more effective. Though not sight feeding, evidently night stripers can sense presence of bait, that it is bait rather than something else, and respond to bait movement. Many times during active night bite we’ve tried spoons and jigs and never have even had a hit. They’re not sight feeding at night but sensing. Welcome a breezy or windy night as boat will be constantly swinging and moving bait. Generally if breeze or wind picks up so does biting.

One evening I went out despite an approaching thunderstorm because I could see clearing skies beyond it. It didn’t clear. I got into 4-foot waves and couldn’t hold anchor. I was being blown into cliffs, camp was a mile away and was afraid to try and make it back at night. For the first hour I’d throw out anchor, and all the anchor rope I had, into 70 feet of water and within 5 minutes I’d be in 10 feet, and then would motor out and try again, never even tried to put a line out. Finally, anchor found a rock and held in 45 feet. Boat was bucking so hard I couldn’t stand without holding on to the windshield. Put out a line and had one of my best nights.

If bite is on, I never let bait set still longer than 30 seconds. Sitting in stern seats, start with rod tip extended out and almost touching side of boat, lift and drop bait several times while swinging rod 180 degrees until almost touching boat in opposite direction. Let it rest 30 seconds and swing back, takes about 10 seconds for bait to catch up once rod stopped. Watch line catching up to rod and strike on any twitch or line slacking. Sometimes slightest bite is biggest fish. Experiment with technique, but give bait at least occasional movement.

If bite hasn’t started it can be pretty boring watching line or holding rod. If you have a deck behind your seat, put rod on deck with rod tip extending just 6 inches over railing and wrap line one time over an empty aluminum soda can within a foot of reel. The slightest bite will cause line to unwrap from can and cause a noticeable noise, alerting you of a bite. This allows you to read, get something to drink, perform some chore etc., and still be noticed of a bite.

At night I’ve never seen a large school of stripers show up on the graph. I suspect schooling is an effective striper sight feeding strategy that is useless at night and, at night, like shad, schools scatter into singles or small groups. However, scattered fish provide a more consistent bite.

Skinny fish, seldom caught on surface or fast moving lures, will make their presence known when bait fishing (but only in years that is a problem, currently it isn’t), and you’ll have to wade thru them. In lamplight it’s often difficult to tell if a marginal fish is too skinny to keep. Each of the following is a good indicator of skinny fish and about 80% accurate: Striper is caught on bottom. Big fish but relatively little fight. At end of fight, fish lays on side at surface gasping instead of swimming upright with mouth closed. Fish swallowed hook instead of being mouth or lip hooked. If two caught at same time, one on each hook, it’s unusual for one or both fish not to be skinny.

If you a use light rod for the sport, netting will save your rod from snapping. I use a rubber net because hooks and sinker won’t tangle in net. Also works great, for same reason, if you net fish caught on spooks or other multi hook lures. Wearing a fillet glove while unhooking will keep hands from being scraped, spiked or chewed.

Bite often ends between 11 pm and 1 am, though sometimes not. If it really slows during this time period, I turn in.

Here’s how to bring back fillets in perfect condition from a five-day trip ant not worry about filleting at night. I buy and bring at least 200 lbs of ice in 12 lb. blocks purchased from “Water and Ice,” or some other similar store that specializes in selling purified water. Blocks are made from real frozen water. Blocks purchased from marinas, Circle K’s, 7-11’s and other franchised “quick stop” stores are composed of flaked ice that has been refrozen into blocks…don’t ask me why… and they melt faster. I have a built in box on boat for drinks, sandwiches etc., and bring a 100-quart ice chest stuffed with ice and whatever food I need cooled, in addition to two 60 –70 quart ice chests containing 3 blocks each. I stash the 100-quart at camp and bring the two smaller chests along at night, and most day forays. A kept fish is put on ice and never leaves. A striper on a stringer or in a live well, rapidly dies and begins to spoil. Ice-chested fish will stay cold and fresh. I fillet once a day. Fillets are freezer bagged and stored in the large chest at camp. Ice removed from the camp ice chest, to make room for fillets, goes into the boat chests. Fish stay in perfect condition and are easier to fillet because they’re stiff. Early October trips are warmer and sometimes one trip into a marina for a few more blocks of ice is needed.

Expect to catch an occasional catfish along with the stripers. Bait fished on the bottom usually catches catfish or skinny stripers. Depending on canyon fished, it’s not unusual to catch a couple of walleye each night. A walleye technique that sometimes scores is; with each bait drop, raise bait two cranks off bottom and keep bait constantly moving for three or four 180-degree swishes before raising it to the striper depth you’ve been fishing, provided it’s different. Though it varies throughout the evening about 5 cranks off bottom seems best for stripers. Every few years have caught occasional crappie or carp; have never caught other bass species or bluegill at night.

That’s it. Try it, you might like it, and it can really be effective. Occasionally, by myself, I haven’t quit the evening until having crammed both ice chests full of stripers, along with a few more stashed into the built in ice chest. The two ice chests alone, fully crammed, will hold an average of 70.