I started night-fishing for striped bass because the toll collectors on the bridges were less likely to chase me away after dark. My first season of striper fishing mainly consisted of soaking clams and throwing poppers during mornings and late afternoons, but at that time, the most serious fishermen in South Jersey fished atop the bridges. Fancying myself a serious fisherman, albeit one without a driver’s license, I, too, began to fish the bridges rather than surfcasting at night.
After a few memorable seasons of fishing 40 feet above the water, local authorities started cracking down on bridge fishermen. About the same time, many low-to-the-water causeways were being replaced by higher spans with no fishing access. So, I returned to the surf, but not to daytime fishing.
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From the bridges, I had seen how the waters came alive on the after-dark tides. The streetlights flickered on, and before long, schools of bait gathered in the glow, swimming hard to keep from being swept off in the tide. Soon after, larger, dark forms appeared in the shadow lines, holding their positions against the tide with just the slightest sweep of their tails. They were barely recognizable as fish, until a baitfish swam too close to the shadow line, and the dark shape turned broadside as it rolled on the surface, engulfing its evening meal with a loud SMACK!
On my return to the beaches, I learned that the same changing of the guard took place in the surf. The fluke, snapper blues, and kingfish that ruled the shallows by day found themselves one link lower on the food chain when the stripers slid into the surf for their nightly hunts.
For my own nightly hunts, I quickly discovered that I needed to prepare differently than I did for daytime fishing or from the bridges. Fishing effectively at night requires a different approach, and different gear, in order to be successful, and safe.
Three Must-Have Colors for Fishing at Night
There are only three colors you need at night: light, dark, and loud. The bright night/bright colors, dark night/dark colors strategy will serve you well, but I try all three types of colors every night, regardless of moon phase or brightness. On many occasions, I’ve had a white, or light-colored plug catch the biggest fish on a dark night.
On bright nights, I favor loud colors like chartreuse, hot pink, and yellow. I think they work simply because the fish can see them from a distance. This is especially true when big bluefish are around because they feed ravenously on full-moon nights, and the brighter, more obnoxious the color, the more bites you’ll get.
I really like contrasting colors after dark—for example, a white bucktail with a red trailer or a plug with a red-head/light-body paint scheme.
The classic red-head color pattern has almost gone out of style in today’s striper lures, but the relatively few I have account for a big percentage of my larger stripers at night. I’ve seen these patterns out-fish solid colors on many occasions, none so jarring as when my friend landed a 54-pounder on a red-head/white-body plug after I’d been swimming the same plug in all-white through the same water for several casts.
The Nighttime Plug Bag Starter Kit
Darter – The side-to-side slide of a slowly-retrieved darter has claimed many cows after dark. Unlike a swimming plug, you won’t feel a darter working, but any questions about whether it’s swimming will be answered by the sharp strike of a hungry bass.
Slow-Sinking Needlefish – A 7-inch, slow-sinking needlefish like the Super Strike Super “N” Fish is one of the most versatile lures you can throw. This lure works well on open beaches, in boulder fields, and even in swift current. You can control how deep a needlefish swims by how soon you begin the retrieve after the cast, and by where you cast in relation to the current. To fish high in the water column, cast down-current and begin your retrieve immediately after the plug lands, To fish near the bottom, cast up-current and give it time to sink.
1.5-ounce Bucktail Jig and Trailer – Much like the needlefish, the bucktail jig is a versatile lure that can be used to probe the bottom of inlets, beaches, boulder fields, and anywhere stripers swim. While the best size varies by location, a 1.5-ounce jig tied with dense bucktail hair seems to have the widest range of applications.
Soft-Plastic Stickbait Rigged Weightless or on a Light Jighead – A slow, steadily retrieved soft-plastic stickbait is an after-dark killer. Use it with or across the current for a natural look that stripers can’t resist.
“Old School” Minnow Plug – While new-age, weight-transferring, beautifully colored minnows are far and away the best baits for daytime, in the nighttime surf, the lazier action and bulkier profile of a Red Fin or Bomber Long A will draw more strikes.
Subsurface Metal Lip – There are many styles to choose from, but a metal lip that swims below the surface is a must-have for imitating large baitfish. On a slow retrieve, the wide wobble of a metal lip sends wounded baitfish vibrations throughout the water column.
Bring Two, and Use Them Sparingly
The well-prepared surfcaster hits the beach with two lights: a narrow-beam flashlight worn around the neck, and a headlamp with a range of settings. Two lights ensure that you have a backup, but they also serve different purposes. The headlamp helps with navigating tricky terrain, landing fish, and blinding other fishermen by looking at them with it turned on. The neck light can be used for lure changes, unhooking fish, and signaling your buddy down the beach that you’ve found fish.
Both lights should be used sparingly. The less often you turn on your light, the sharper your night vision will become. Also, I’m in the camp that believes lights on the water spook fish. Some fishermen use red-tinted lights to both preserve their night vision and prevent spooking bass. Fortunately, many headlamps come with a red light setting.
While the headlamp needn’t be waterproof, the neck light, which is more likely to be splashed, dropped, or submerged, should be.
Making a Neck Light
A neck light is best made with a small size click-on flashlight because it requires just one hand to turn on and off, unlike a twist-on light that requires both hands. If you’re wrestling with a big bass you’re trying to unhook, you will appreciate being able to light up the night with just one hand.
While a regular lanyard works, something with a bit more substance will keep the light from swinging excessively and twisting. I like surgical or aquarium tubing, but some fishermen prefer elastic webbing.
Take each end of the tubing or webbing, and tape it into place about halfway down the flashlight. Leave about two inches free at the end of the flashlight, and loosely wrap it with electrical tape. This makes it easier, and less painful, to hold the light between your teeth when both hands are busy.
Safety and Utility
The surf belt has two primary purposes—safety and storage. To keep casters safe, the belt cinches waders tight around the waist to keep water from completely filling them in the event of a misstep into deep water. The ability of a surf belt to keep tools close at hand gives fishermen a reason to wear them even when fishing in board shorts or wetsuits.
A belt should have, at a minimum, a set of stainless pliers in a sheath, a sheathed knife (many surf fishermen like a blunt-tip dive knife), and a lip-gripper for handling and unhooking fish. Belts are also used to carry surf bags with additional lures, ropes for stringing up fish destined for the dinner table, and water bottles.
The Plug Bag
Pack Plugs with Less Action for More Fish
I like the fleeing action of a Magic Swimmer or an erratically retrieved soft plastic for triggering reaction strikes during the day, but after dark, slow and steady wins the race.
Stripers hunt differently at night than they do during the day. For all the times I’ve seen stripers pin mackerel against the rocks in the Canal or trap a school of bunker between jetties during the day, I’ve never seen this at night. I’m sure it still happens, but this kind of coordinated blitzkrieg on a school of baitfish requires some level of visibility. While stripers see and sense more than we do at night, that sensory perception is still limited by the lack of visibility.
After dark, stripers take their prey by surprise, waiting in ambush behind a bridge piling or boulder, or slowly cruising a transition zone between deep and shallow water or rocks and sand. These bass, especially if they’re large, are looking for unsuspecting prey, so they might let a frantically moving lure go by without a second look. A subtle action, like the wandering of a darter, the slow glide of a needlefish, or the flick of a bucktail trailer, is more likely to attract the bass that go bump in the night.
My exception to this “rule” is the bottle plug. In turbulent water, when subtle actions can be lost in the noise and movement of a rip at peak tide or a building surf, the hammering of a bottle plug worked across the current can be the best way to get a striper’s attention. In these cases, the more frantic action mimics a baitfish that isn’t fleeing from a predator, but one that has been overwhelmed by the conditions and is doing its best to avoid being swept away with the tide. This presents an easy meal for the striper as it effortlessly conquers the current with its big, broad tail.
Red Bull, motor-oil-thick coffee, Five-Hour Energy, Cleanse Diets—I’ve tried everything to keep the engine running through long nights in the surf (and at the office the following day), but the fact is, there’s no replacement for sleep. If you can sleep during the day, do it. If you have a 9 to 5 and a family that prevents you from catching Z’s after a night of bassing, choose your times wisely. Use vacation or sick days around prime time, like the days surrounding the new moon; otherwise, catch catnaps whenever you can. If you feel your eyelids getting heavy on the drive home, find a rest stop or a parking lot, recline the seat, and sleep. Catching big stripers is important, but nothing is as important as returning home safely so you can continue hunting the nighttime tides for many seasons to come.