by Sean Thompson •
Night fishing creates a sense of mystique among anglers and is loved as much for its old-fashioned charm, as its exciting adventure and possibility. Spots that might otherwise offer only average returns during the day can turn on hot action during the night. Likewise, a spot that might be riddled with tiddlers during the day can, under the cover of darkness, see monsters suddenly lurk beneath the surface. With good planning (and a bit of good luck), those monsters might even grab your bait or lure!
Apart from the chance of scoring ‘the big one’, one of the other great benefits of night fishing is to escape the crowds. Even in heavily fished locations, or during peak holiday season, most of the crowd on the water or on the beach, will pack up and go home by dusk. This leaves you to enjoy your fishing rather than focus on distractions like jet skis running over your drift or anglers crowding you out in a gutter, which you might have found yourself. For me, there is nothing quite like the camaraderie of fishing with close mates at night in a boat or off the beach and watching the moon rise over the water in front of you.
Nevertheless, fishing at night commands some inherent risks, and all anglers should be aware of and prepared for these, and should take the relevant safety precautions. Don’t ignore these dangers, as no fish is worth risking your life over.
All in all, the magic of night fishing and the chance of landing a leviathan, is what makes it one of life’s simple pleasures and why anglers come back to it time after time.
FISH BEHAVIOUR: NIGHT VS DAY
There are two key influences that lead fish to hunt and feed during low light conditions rather than the middle of the day. Firstly, fish react to the external environment such as weather, water clarity, and human influence. Secondly for biological reasons such as survival instincts, eyesight and other natural advantages they might hold over their food source at this time.
In terms of the external environment, boat traffic or even 4WD traffic on the beach can spook fish during daylight hours. Similarly, concerns about attack from above by birds of prey can lead fish to be hesitant to enter the shallows or really clear water during the day. Likewise, if there are glassy conditions on the water, sparse cloud cover or the water is too clear, the fish will become cautious during the day and head to deeper water or more protection under cover. With most of these negative influences out of play at night, it can mean that even hard fished areas suddenly become productive.
Biological design also guides fish to hunt at night, some fish have large eyes or eyes nocturnally suited to search for prey under the cover of darkness. These include, but are not limited to, fish such as mulloway, tailor, barramundi, and pearl perch.
For an authoritative insight into this topic, check out Steve Starling’s articles ‘A fish eye view – Parts I and II’ from the October and November 2013 editions of QFM, available online. Broadly, Starlo points out that fish differentiate between colours by using cells in their eye called cones. Other sets of cells called rods are responsible for detecting black and white images (especially in low light conditions). Fish that hunt more at night, in dirty water or at great depth will typically have more rods than cones. Some species also have a special reflective layer at the back of the eye called a tapetum. This mirror-like membrane reflects light that has already passed through the eye back into the retina, which greatly enhances the fish’s ability to see in very low light or murky water. This feature is what gives barramundi and mulloway eyes a distinctive red or pink glow in flash photos. Both species are therefore perfectly equipped to find prey in low light conditions.
PLANNING AND STORAGE
When the fish are ‘on’ after dark, you can maximise your success with preparation. The last thing you want to be doing is fumbling around in the dark making a new rig, banging around on the bottom of your boat searching for gear, or turning your headlamp on continuously and ruining your night vision.Try to go pre-prepared – pinpoint your location, prepare your rigs and tackle boxes, and have everything you need sorted nicely in your boat, the back of your 4WD or on your person.
Planning your night session
Like most things in life, planning ahead will lead to better returns. From a fishing perspective this can mean doing your research at home before you arrive at your spot, either via a Google Earth search, reviewing your previous fishing diary entries, or entering a mark and route on your boat’s GPS so you are ready to hit the water pre-dawn or before dusk. If beach fishing, check the wind and swell so you are prepared for the conditions when you arrive.
Easy access to your gear
The other key aspect to prepare for a night fishing session is to organise your rigs and gear. In a boat, you want to maximise floor space to cast and fight a fish. While some purpose-built boats might come with their own tackle tray compartments, most don’t, so it is a case of using the space you have at your disposal to your advantage. Rather than just toss your gear in a backpack or two in your underfloor or above-floor storage, take the time to organise it into specialised tackle boxes, lure wallets and clear storage boxes clearly marked with a purpose. For a very small investment, I bought some Oates storage stacker drawers from Bunnings, added some elastic loop lockers, and placed them under my centre console to have easy access to key tackle and safety items.
For 4WD beach anglers, there are also a couple of good storage options for your gear. Firstly, there is the permanent option of storage drawers made to fit most makes and models of 4WDs. These are fantastic, but will set you back a couple of thousand dollars. A much cheaper, temporary option is to use individual storage crates for your waders, shoulder bag and belt and another for your tackle. Another solution I have been pleased with is the XTM car boot organiser for as little as $33. These come with three large compartments and are collapsible. They are very handy to sort gear into for quick and easy access at night. Finally, while most 4WDs have a light for the boot or canopy tray, a great handy addition at night is to carry a magnetic portable LED light. I use an ARB re-chargeable mini-adventure light, which is perfect as you can hang it by a hook or attach it magnetically. You can use it for added light in the back of the vehicle, to cut up bait or fillet on the beach after your session. It could also come in handy in an emergency like getting bogged or a flat tyre at night on the beach.
A final piece of planning and storage advice is to make some rigs before your trip and have them in readily available storage containers or devices. While there are a few commercial rig holders on the market, one of the best rig holders is also one of the cheapest and easiest to make. Pool noodles, that cost only a dollar or two, can be cut into small sizes of about 20cm, and enable you to wrap a number of rigs around and hold them in place with coloured head pins. I then place these within a snap lock bag and write the strength of the trace and target species. Alternatively, you can store heavier traces in small snap lock bags by carefully wrapping the trace in a circle and covering the hook(s) with alfoil to stop the rig tangling. Mark the bags with a permanent pen noting the strength and length of the trace plus sinker size if included.
Having these rigs ready will be a godsend if you get broken off, or your rig is chaffed during your session. Every minute your line and rig is out of the water is time you can’t catch a fish.
BOAT FISHING AT NIGHT
If you have gone to all the trouble of planning your trip, organising your tackle and storage and making some rigs in advance, the last thing you want to do is waste all your hard work by making mistakes on the water.
To make your life easier it is best to arrive to a night session before dark to find a likely spot, anchor up (or start your drift), and if necessary, catch your live bait or start your berley trail (if anchored). While many anglers will go straight to a previous mark and anchor up for the night, with the advent of structure scan or side imaging technology you can choose where to start for the night when you arrive. You can pinpoint within a radius of 80-100m either side of the boat where a school of fish or a concentration of bait might be located. In the case of the bait school you might choose to anchor up on top of it and berley to bring the fish to you.
Likewise, if you plan to fish pre-dawn, allow yourself some time to find the fish and/or bait first rather than just arriving right on the peak change of tide or dawn period. I also like to have my rods rigged up ready to go so you can start to fish straight away.
If you decide to move spots during the night, keep noise to a minimum and lights off the water as much as possible. Don’t expect to catch fish if you roar off to a spot and come to a skidding stop by tossing the anchor out at speed. Slow right down before you arrive at your spot and drop the anchor over as quietly as possibly. Avoid banging the bottom or side of the boat, as this noise will amplify underwater.
Keep any light off the water except for your compulsory all-round light when at anchor and navigation lights when underway. It is also advisable to run LEDs under the gunwale in case you need to access your gear while at the same time keeping the light of the water. Lights on the water, with the exception of permanent light sources, will spook the fish.
Techniques at night
If baitfishing at night, use set rods whether you are chasing snapper, mulloway or big whiting. There are plenty of rod holders for this purpose, but a good trick taught to me by an old whiting fisher is to run a knotted rope across your boat near the stern or the bow and lay your rod low against the rope with the knots preventing it slipping sideways. This keeps your rod down low to the water helping to minimise the resistance a big whiting will feel when it picks up your bait. When doing so, a good idea is to use light or glow sticks and/or bells on the tip of your rods to help you detect bites or takes.
Lures are an under-used option at night by anglers. You can try one of two types. Charging up fluorescent or luminous lures like Gulps with a torch has worked for me on snapper in Moreton Bay. You can also use dark coloured lures, as these provide a silhouette against the night sky. For example, you can keep trolling for flathead after dusk if you use dark lures, especially on a full moon night. There are also a variety of lures on the market with LED lights that will automatically activate when the lure is submerged under water. These could work on squid.
Great spots to try in an estuary or river during the night are areas lit up by artificial light. This includes the type of light found on bridges and roads fringing the water’s edge. These are permanent sources of light and not short flashes of light so they don’t spook the fish. In fact the lights attract baitfish, which in turn attracts the big predators nearby. The best method is to cast your bait or lure right along the shadow lines on the water. I have found this to be particularly effective for tailor and flathead, the latter a fish many anglers view as a daytime-only target.
The king of the estuary, and the source of so much of the mystique of night fishing is the mighty mulloway. Mulloway should be targeted in deep estuary holes and around bridges where they will sit just inside eddies caused by the current running into the bridge pylons. This occurs both sides of the bridge, up current and down current.
Great night whiting haunts are the shallow flats over yabby or worm banks, where they will comfortably feed in just inches of water on a rising tide. However, they can also be targeted in the melon holes and undulations of deeper sand banks in renowned whiting spots like the Pimpama River and upstream in the Maroochydore River near Bli Bli.
Finally, oyster leases will also turn on great fishing for bream at night, just make sure you up your trace a bit in these areas.
BEACH FISHING AFTER DARK
When and where?
Beach fishing after dark is one of the best ways that casual anglers can put the odds in their favour to catch ‘the big one.’ Gone are the annoying pickers like tiny dart, and in their place are XOS models of most fish from bream to tailor to sharks and giant mulloway. There are a few simple tactics and rules for success at night that have been around for decades and will continue to be for many more.
The best places to fish the beach at night should be pinpointed during the day. Scout around from headlands, or climb on top of the sand dunes to spot your intended spot using the sun to your advantage to make out the formations during the middle of the day. Use a quality pair of Polaroid sunglasses and look for darker green water and waves forming but not breaking as a sign of deeper water. Look for gutters with two entry points, one to the north and one to the south. Remember that you will be back about six hours later so factor that in, in terms of being able to cast to the deeper water at that time. Close in gutters that might be shallow at low tide will fill and bring the big feeders in close to you at high tide at night. Note exactly where the gutters are with landmarks or by distance (use your ODO or a portable GPS in the 4WD) to return to just before dark.
If you don’t have time to check the beach during the day, don’t despair. If you arrive after dark you can simply look for steeply shelving sand into the water as a sign of deep water in front of you. As your eyes adapt to the dark you should begin to make out whether waves are forming but not breaking as yet another sign of deep water.
Once you arrive, don’t make the mistake I see year after year at places like Fraser Island where anglers turn their headlights on high beam onto the water. Don’t even use your headlamp to look at the water, as flashes of light are a sure fire ways to spook the fish and you will be waiting quite a while for a bite. Don’t do it to other anglers either. When you need to re-rig or check your bait, always turn your headlamp away from the water but try to limit use of your headlamp to retain your night vision. Headlamps used this way are a much better option than a torch, as they leave your hands free. In terms of headlamps, the best I’ve come across in terms of value for money (under $50) for a high quality product is the Korr 10w headlamp. It has a good waterproof rating, a zoom-able beam, three light settings, and a huge range (up to 150m).
Bait and rigs
Baits with higher natural oil content are a good option to attract fish at night. Baits like slimy mackerel, bonito and tailor fillets are good, as are pilchards – especially if you cut the tail off to help release more oils. Mulloway will pick up the scent of a bunch of beach worms from a distance as well.
A great addition to your rig at night is the addition of a small green glow bead, charged up by your headlamp. This should sit just above your hook/bait. These things really make a difference and I learned this the hard way before trying it myself. One of my fishing mates at Fraser caught three mulloway to 110cm over two nights while the rest of us didn’t get a hit. The only difference in rig, bait or location was the green glow bead he used above his hook. I’ve used them ever since at night. Smaller glow beads are also worth a try for whiting, simpley substitute the red tubing used during the day for a couple of glow beads above the hook at night.
Finally, sand tracks off the beach can look the same at night, whether you are on foot or in a 4WD. A ttach a glow stick or reflective tape to a tree or long stick and place it in the sand at the entrance of your track to find your way home after the session. However, be sure to take it with you when you leave as we don’t want anglers associated with littering our beautiful Queensland beaches.
OTHER SHORE-BASED LOCATIONS
If you plan to fish from the shore in estuaries, creeks or freshwater lakes at night approach the area with finesse. Pull up well back from the water in your car or 4WD and don’t go stomping down too close to water as you will spook the fish that feed right in close in the shallows at night. Stand 10-15m back from the edge and throw your first few casts within 5-10m of the edge with very lightly weighted baits. If you don’t have any luck, throw parallel to the shore before fanning casts out deeper.
At estuary mouths, or places such as Brisbane’s Moreton Bay foreshores, use live or fresh peeled green prawns at night, as these will be high on the menu for bread and butter fish over summer through to May.
SAFETY AT NIGHT
As relaxing as night fishing is, it does require a few extra precautions to ensure your session is a safe and enjoyable one. Please take note of the safety factboxes and enjoy your time on or near the water after dark, take in the serenity, and may you land that big one you’ve always wanted!
If you’d like to read more unique fishing tips and reports from all around Australia, check out my family friendly fishing page – www.facebook.com.au/ontourfishingaustralia.
Until next time, bag your mates – not your limit!
Night boat safety tips
• Become familiar with the waterway before tackling it at night.
• Do not fish without lights, as other boats may not see you.
• Reduce your speed at night due to possible floating objects like crab pot floats, rocks or boats without lights!
• If you intend to do a lot of night fishing consider purchasing a marine radar. These will pick up just about everything above the water’s surface.
• Make use of GPS route tracker and your sounder but in ‘night mode’ to keep backlighting to a minimum for your night vision.
• Take note of land marks to navigate (in case the GPS fails) and be aware that beacons can be hard to spot with background city lights.
• Keep your deck lighting to a minimum, and try to keep your radio down, so that you have the best chance to see and hear any approaching vessels.
• Use your night vision to see and only use a blue spotlight sparingly to locate or identify a nearby object such as an unlit boat, marker, the shore or a jetty.
• Carry a spare battery and spare spotlight in case of failure.
• When at anchor or on the drift, have the boat ready to start quickly with the keys in the ignition and motor down ready to go.
• Wear a lifejacket, especially on your own.
• Attach an emergency stop lanyard securely to yourself so the boat will stop if you hit something and you are tossed from the steering wheel.
• Night-time beach/estuary safety tips
• Do not wade out too deep off the beach or in the estuary due to risk of sharks, being hit by a rogue wave or stepping in a deep melon hole (especially in waders).
• On thin beaches, beware of waves in a big swell that can sweep up past and behind you and hit you with force on the way back.
• The Alvey Deluxe wading bag is a good option on 4WD beaches, due to the reflective strip. Turn the strip side towards approaching 4WDs if you are standing on the beach at night.
• Carry a mobile phone in a dry pack or in your car for emergencies, as well as spare water.
• When driving on the beach at night, slow down as it is difficulty to see with no streetlights and often thick sea mist, risk of wash-outs, trees and branches washed up, and exposed rocks.