What time will you be home?” my wife asks me every time I head out fishing. What she’s really asking is how long is the drive home, because she knows I’ll be on the water until its dark, every time. “Dark-30 and then it’s a two-hour drive,” I reply. It’s become a routine and for good reason. It doesn’t really matter what I’m targeting on a specific day, it could be pike, walleye or trout, the rules are the same. The transition period between light and dark is often some of the most productive fishing time and I am going to be there for that!
Fish like transitions. We often look for them in places where transitions exist: drop-offs, weed beds, windbreaks and current seams. The same is true of light conditions, fish really like the transition between light and dark. They like the periods of low light at dawn and dusk for feeding because they have a significant advantage over their prey during this time. Walleye, in particular, have evolved their very large eyes which allows them to see their prey in poor light situations. When the light changes they have the edge over their prey, be it baitfish, insects or crustaceans, they are just that bit easier to ambush. Aside from that we know that fish are weary in bright conditions because of the potential of aerial predators like ospreys, eagles and others. As a result we know that in low light conditions fish have more confidence to move and feed and they have the advantage over their prey and are less vulnerable to becoming a meal themselves. So it holds that these will be the conditions when fish tend to feed more aggressively.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t catch fish when it is bright out. In fact, understanding that fish like low light conditions can help you catch more fish during the day. If it is a bright sunny day you need to look where the light is low. That generally means looking deeper, look for a shaded bank or under overhanging trees or other structure. If, however, the conditions change, clouds move in and the wind picks up and breaks up the surface of the water you can suspect that the fish will move too. If the light conditions deteriorate it will allow the fish to move confidently into zones where the food is more abundant. When fishing for trout, rainbows especially, I have gone from catching them in 15 feet of water or deeper to finding them in 3 feet of water or less in less than half an hour when the light conditions have changed.
Knowing and understanding how fish respond to light will not only affect your fishing success it will cause you to change the way you plan your fishing adventures. A friend, and an inexperienced angler, asked me the other day why the fish always seem to bite just before they go home. I told him it’s because he was going home too early! It always amazes me how many boats I will see on the water during the day, but, when we get into prime time they are long gone. I’m OK with that and I understand it. We have busy lives, families and campfires to attend to! The conflict though, particularly in spring when we have long days, long transition zones and the sun sets late into the evening, is that if you want to be on the water during the best fishing periods you’re going to miss dinner.
We all have busy lives, some more than others and so it makes sense that if you only have a limited time to get on the water you want it to be the best time it could be, right? If that is the case then plan carefully when you go and make sure you are on the water during the lowlight periods.
I live in the valley of the North Saskatchewan River and so often when I go fishing at the river I will go in 3 or 4 hour stretches. If it’s a bright sunny day in June I’ll happily tuck my kids in bed and then head off for the stretch of last light late into the evening. If it is a gloomy, cloudy day then I am pushing to make sure I can get on the water by mid-afternoon because I know the action will be steady throughout. When I am heading to a lake further away I never have plans that night, in fact, if I can get away with it I will spend the night at the lake, fish the morning and be home before lunch the next day. I would much rather be gone from 2pm until 11am the next day than from 6am until 8pm the same day. How much time do we spend driving to or from the water during the best light periods?
It’s a lesson for me that has been cemented over the last decade or so, and while there are always exceptions to the rule (it is fishing, of course!) it has served me well. Much of my best fishing experiences have happened when others have left the water or haven’t arrived yet. I have had some wonderful times and caught some fantastic fish on days when others choose to stay home. Fish are opportunistic feeders. They play the lifelong game of cost-benefit analysis. They will always take the easy calories over the hard-fought ones, if they are available. Use that information to your advantage and you will catch more fish and have better experiences. See you on the water, I’m there ‘til dark-30!