by Dave Mull
Fishing is fun any time, but it’s especially enjoyable when the lake is calm and quiet—and you’re catching fish.
During the summer months on inland lakes across the country, it can be difficult to concentrate on getting bites due to the plethora of personal watercraft, wake boarders and water skiers that churn the lakes to a froth.
Difficult, that is, unless you fish at night. No only do peace and quiet reign supreme once darkness falls, but you can get your best summer action on stocked trout and a variety of other species, too.
It’s easy to do with minimal special equipment.
Michigan, where I call home, has loads of inland lakes that get stocked with rainbow trout every year. Although these fish can be caught year-round, the best time to target them is from now to September, especially in the still of the night.
Now is a great time because of a natural phenomenon called the thermocline, which is the horizontal line that stretches across the deeper basin of inland lakes and separates the warm surface layer of water from a colder deeper layer. Trout are biologically designed to thrive in colder water temperatures, while most of the baitfish and bugs the trout feed on hang out in the warmer water. This means that the stocked trout hang right at the point where the water temperature changes, zipping up into the warm water to feed.
Decent sonar units show you the thermocline, reflecting signals back from the concentration of plankton and other little critters that suspend right at the temperature change.
Mike Eberstein is a barber by day and an expert nighttime trout angler by night who launches his Lund into lakes that receive annual rainbow trout releases around his home in southwest Michigan. Setting up in the evening before the sun has set allows Eberstein to get his gear organized and prep his passengers—often neighborhood kids—on how to bait up and use the light spinning tackle.
Location is important. The lakes that receive trout are all deep, and Eberstein prefers a location that funnels the fish to his boat. Basically, that means a spot where the thermocline abuts the lake bottom on a steep break. Trout on the prowl for food stay at the thermocline and follow the contour of the lake around, and Eberstein wants to be in position to intercept them. Instead of dropping an anchor, he puts his Minn Kota trolling motor into “spot lock” mode, which uses GPS to automatically stay on the spot.
The most important piece of gear for nighttime success is a light that shines in the water. Some anglers use Coleman lanterns hung over the side of the boat; others, like Eberstein, employs one or two floating lights that run off of a 12-volt trolling motor battery. (Not all states allow these lights, so make sure you check your state’s fishing regulations.)
At night, the lights serve as “food-chain attractors.” Zooplankton swims to the light, which attracts minnows and in turn game fish. Note that when targeting trout, you’re likely to catch bluegills, crappies, bullheads and the occasional bass, too. You can actively target these other species once your trout limit is in the livewell by putting your bait in the warmer water above the thermocline.
Speaking of bait, stocked trout are hatchery fish that are used to eating pellets. Some anglers use corn. Eberstein favors Berkley PowerBait or Gulp!, which are brands of soft plastics impregnated with scent and available in kernel shapes. Other baits that work well include live minnows, wax worms (this writer’s personal favorite) and leaf worms or night crawlers. Artificial lures work, too, especially small jigs with plastic trailers. Another good lure is the small Jigging Rapala, which is most common in ice-fishing arsenals, but it gets strikes in open water with its swimming, gliding action when jigged over the side of the boat.
Another piece of gear worth bringing along is a butterfly net. Sometimes the trout and crappie get finicky and only want the native minnows, and a butterfly net allows you to scoop some of those that swim into your pool of light.
Fishing for these trout and other gamefish at night is about as simple as fishing gets. Any gear works, but ultra-light spinning gear not only seems to get more bites, but adds some sport. If you use basic tackle with heavier line, it’s a good idea to add a leader of 4-pound test fluorocarbon, which is invisible to the sometimes overly perceptive trout and other fish. Pinch enough split shot on your line to make lowering it to the thermocline level easy. Then just measure off how much line will put the bait at the temperature break and watch your rod tip for a bite.
This summer, if the daytime lake traffic gets too intense, don’t fight it. Just wait for the sun to go down. Fish at night, and enjoy some of the most peaceful and productive action you can find.
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