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Dusk and Dawn: The Golden Hours

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by Ed Mitchell

Fishing in low lightDusk and dawn are times of transition, fleeing hours when the world slips to and from the full light of day. Beyond their aesthetic appeal, these periods of twilight are also special moments, times when the marine world pulses with life. It is something every angler learns early on: Fish the salt when the shadows are long and your chances of success are the best of the day.

Even the simplest organisms in the sea establish daily patterns of activity based on light level. That in turn sends a ripple effect through the entire food chain. Naturally game fish are in synch with these rhythms of light, so as the forage because more active, so do they. Consider too that these predators are primarily sight feeders. So the twilight hours hold the first and last opportunities of the day for game fish to use their vision to its fullest extent. It is only natural that they would take advantage of these times. In addition, when the sun is low on the horizon it creates a higher level of visual contrast, making objects appear more defined and three-dimensional. There is every reason to believe it does the same thing in shallow water, helping game fish better see their prey.

Dusk and dawn certainly increase your odds of meeting up with hungry fish, do not expect them to jump in your stripping basket. No, you still have to work for each and every hookup. And inevitably there will be sunrises and sunsets when even your longest cast and your favorite fly fail to entice a single strike. Overall the thing to remember is this: Like all other brands of fishing, your success hinges on how well you are prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. In short low light fishing demands that you be on your toes.

For one thing, it is not uncommon for dusk and dawn fishing to provide only a short window of opportunity, sometimes lasting but an hour or less. Arrive late and you could easily miss it. This may mean having your alarm go off a lot earlier than you like, but it is imperative to be in place and fishing well before the actual time of sunup or sundown.

You can also fine tune their plans based on the idiosyncrasies of the particular species of fish your after. For instance striped bass prefer to feed in faint light subsequent to actual sunrise and tend shut down as the sun climbs over the horizon. Atlantic bonito, on the other hand, feed better after the sunlight actually strikes the water and the action may well build into the morning.

Once you are on the water, twilight fishing requires a good deal of concentration. Frequently signs of life, ranging from a quiet swirl to a few baitfish leaping about, are subtle and hard to detect in the low light. If you are one of those people whose heart doesn't really start beating until noon, dawn fishing is going to be a challenge. Do everything you can to shake out the cobwebs. As you climb over the last dune or pile of rock on your way to the beach, take a deep breath and then focus yourself on the task at hand. And always be ready to move toward anything that even vaguely hints of feeding fish.

Perhaps the most critical part of your low light strategy is figuring in the effects of time of year. On the simplest level, the time of sunrise and sunset changes across the season, and anglers must adjust accordingly. More significantly, however, time of year affects the behavior of a great many species of fish, creating major inshore/offshore or north/south migrations, as well as changes in daily feeding habits. That, in turn, has a profound effect on the quantity and quality of fishing found at dusk and dawn. It pays, therefore, to keep a fishing log.

Here are some of the things I expect to see each season in southern New England. Action at dusk and dawn begins in May and of the two, I would give a slight edge to dusk especially when it holds the better stages of the tide. This is primarily striped bass fishing, although by mid month bluefish appear, particularly offshore and around the islands. On Long Island Sound, the sun rises around 6 AM (DST) in the opening days of the month, but by month's end it's up a half an hour earlier. Likewise sunset is on the move, starting out at just short of 8 PM and gradually pushing back to 8:20 PM over the course of four weeks.

Sand EelsBy early June, we come to one of the finest low light fishing events of the entire year. It centers on striped bass and a menu favorite of theirs, sand eels. When and where everything clicks, you get a regular dusk and dawn bite that not only takes place, day after day, in the exact same location, but last for weeks on end. It is one of my personal favorite fishing experiences and something I look forward to each year. And it is also one of the most predictable bits of salt water fishing you likely to ever find. With local experience, it is possible to tell within fifteen minutes when the first swirl will show.

In order to take advantage of this bite, naturally, you first find a location where sand eels bed down in large numbers. As a rule, they prefer beaches that combine three ingredients: sandy bottoms, tidal current, and proximity to the mouth of an estuary such as a coastal river, inlet or salt pond. That narrows down things quite a bit, but even in these areas the action may be focused into only a hundred yards of shoreline. Therefore local knowledge is extremely helpful.

Look for this fishing to start slowly sometime around 6 PM (DST) and build toward sunset, which happens near 8:30 at this time of year. The fishing may continue right through the night, but in the predawn light, as the sand eels emerge from the bottom, there is often an intense flurry of feeding. In the best locations this first light bite is a true spectacle, involving literally hundreds of striped bass swirling, breaching, tailing, and, yes, even jumping clear of the water. Yet as the light brightens the action will suddenly die. Make no doubt about it; you are in a race with the rising sun.

By the middle of July the sand eel action tapers off in most locations as water temperatures steadily climb. This is especially true in the shallower bays. Now your chances of finding a large striper at dusk or dawn dwindle for the same reason, although schoolie size bass tolerant the temperature better and may be around in good numbers. Still as striper fishing wanes a bit, a new game starts to take its place. Now the focus switches to bluefish.

Blues are big eaters and come boldly to the breakfast table. Like striped bass, look for them to get underway in the weak glow of predawn. Unlike bass, however, they are much more likely to stick around as the light brightens. A high dawn, one where clouds along the eastern horizon delay the sun's appearance, extends the action further into the morning, especially if the tide is still running.

At this time of year, blues are ready for a fly all day long, but clearly they peak again from late afternoon into dusk. My favorite searching pattern for blues in both twilight situations is a popper. A noisy presentation generally out produces a subtle one. Nevertheless, you may want to change your retrieve speed a bit based on the light level. At dawn speed up your retrieve as the light rises and at dusk slow it down a bit as the night comes on.

With the warm waters of August comes another ravenous mouth to the morning meal, the Atlantic bonito. And within several weeks, similar fish, the little tunny, often called the false albacore, joins it. Unlike bluefish or striped bass, do not expect to see these scaled down tuna working overtime in the weak glow of predawn. They seem to prefer to hit the snooze alarm for a couple of extra winks, busting more fully on the scene as sun first greets the water. With sunrise around 6 AM, they often appear between 7 and 7:30, but may be as late as 8 or 9. Once they arrive, however, they roll through inlets and rips eager seeking to be fed.

When autumn arrives on the coast, it brings falling water temperatures and with it some of the finest fishing of the year. Game fish chow down with abandon, utilizing every chance to score a meal. Not surprisingly, dusk and dawn fishing gets a real shot in the arm and each trip afield holds the possibility of walking into a full-scale blitz. Still it pays to keep your ear to the ground for some years the fall action is concentrated into specific areas of the coast even inside an individual state. For instance last fall (1994) the southwestern shores of Rhode Island were not as productive as usual, but reliable reports tell me that just short distance away in the waters around Newport, the action was outstanding.

Another thing to consider is that fish tend to migrate along the coast in schools. If you hear of a good dusk and dawn bite in a specific location, try to get there as soon as possible. These fish may move on in short order and then the action wanes dramatically. After that it may be several days to two weeks before another school travels through the same area. The later in the fall you fish the more this "hot & cold" scenario appears to hold true.

If forced to pick between dusk and dawn at this time of year, I would take dawn for a couple of reasons. Since game fish feed heavily all day long during the fall, they are apt to be their hungriest and most aggressive at first light. In conjunction with that it has always been my feeling that many migrating fish travel during the hours of darkness. At first light the fish you find may be fresh in town and ready to clobber anything that moves. Next, dawn fishing in the fall is less apt to die down as the morning progresses. So you can continue fishing into the day with excellent success.

Fall is also the time when you can try for a grand slam, which in our waters is a striper, a blue, a bonito and a little tunny all in the same day. The first weeks of October frequently hold the most promise, since shortly after the little tunny will make tracks south. With luck you may be able to catch all four species within a matter of hours, although commonly you have to commit the whole day. And the hours around dusk and dawn are often critical to your chances of success. I recommend concentrating at sunup on the two more difficult parts of the equation, the bonito and little tunny. Then fish as much of the day as necessary to fill out your scorecard. If things do not go your way, at least you have dusk to use as your ace in the hole.

Usually we get a final push of stripers and blues in November. This fishing can be intense but it is rarely long lived, perhaps a week or two at best. And it tends to jump from location to location. Just as critical for shore-based anglers, the action only comes close to the beach in early and late in the day. The reason for it is simple: The primary baitfish are members of the herring family and very sensitive to light. In the hours leading up to dawn they feed near the surface and frequently in shallow water. When the bass and blues blitz them you have a good chance of hooking up. As the sun rises the herring head out to deeper water and descend. Now the action moves well off the shore and even if you catch up with it in a boat you best get the fly down. As dusk approaches there may be a second bite close to the beach.


Originally published by www.flyroddingthecoast.com. 1995

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