B.C. Boat and Sportsmen's Show
Saltwater Night Fishing for Salmon
Can salmon really see in the dark?

Timothy Kusherets

Every year I head out to intercept some of the best producing tides for salmon and every year I end up fishing for them at night. Fishing the best tides means, “fishing the best tides” and tides don’t know time. Sometimes the best tides to fish are at one o’clock in the morning. The flood and ebb tides change daily by approximately an hour, so, the “great” tide that produced one day will advance by an hour the next and eventually take you into the night. Over the course of many years I have come to know that saltwater fishing at night for salmon can often be more productive than daylight hours.

Fishing for salmon at night reveals some insights of what it takes to put fish on the bite even in the presence of pressure, which is known to put fish off. Predation, boats, fishermen, barometric fluctuations, and strong oceanic currents are just some forms of pressure that typically put salmon off the bite, but fishing for them at night seriously diminishes the amount of pressure they feel during the day due to sight loss; not from fish, but from everything else. Fishermen and predators, mostly, abandon the prospect of fishing at night because they can’t see, which of course takes almost all pressure off of salmon. This is the time to fish.

Understanding the presence of bioluminescence, species targeting tackle, and the keen ability of salmon eyesight put fish on the hook in the dead of night, in many cases, anglers can expect to be the only fisherman out on the water and along shorelines.

You’ve seen the green glow from a rooster-tail as you motor in for the night. It’s beautiful and often gives anglers something to ponder as they look at the green hue. Shore fishermen will often see mud and sand sparkle with each step as they patrol the shoreline looking for signs of fish using whatever illumination they can to see surface disturbances. One of the deep-seeded secrets of ole timers is the glow of moving fish milling around drop-offs, and shorelines that are easily spotted at night during one of the last legs of their oceanic journey before inland migration. It’s the glow that first should be considered and to do that we have to know what it is.

Bioluminescence (green glow) is a chemical reaction between marine animals (plankton) and plants (phytoplankton) interacting with oxygen. There are many reasons for the prolific nature of bioluminescence, however, the most common are on the basis of defensive and predatory mechanisms from these microscopic organisms. They can be found in every marine environment on earth. It is the green glow of nighttime turbulent water that caused many fishermen to believe that the illumination was caused by the element phosphorus, which of course isn’t true.

The green glow on the surface is the same as beneath it, and with that in mind, consider the kind of lures you intend to fish with. Ordinarily the color of the lure would come into play during the day, but, at night the only thing you need to worry about is the size of the lure and what kind of action it will create. It has been said that the larger the lure is the larger the fish is going to be; that’s an over simplification for night fishing; what the old credo means is that if you intend to fish for Chinook (King) or Coho (Silver) make sure that the lure compliments the size of the fish. King salmon will strike at large profile lures while Coho will not, even if both species are in the same area at the same time. Conversely, the smaller a lure is the more likely Coho will strike the diminutive profiles rather than Kings; but beyond that, color is not significant since the environment will be dark and the undulations of currents around the lure will interfere with any color that would be present.

This honey of a fish (below) was taken on a size two zinger.The rod is the butt end of a twelve-foot rod with a very limp body and tip that I use for a revised form of fishing with falling lures.The length of it allowed me to cast very far from shore allowing the lure to spend more time in the water and effectively getting more fish.
Though you might not consider it a big thing during the day the marine environment that has bioluminescence makes fishing line critical to consider at night. The diameter of the fishing line can be seen very well; the heavier the test is the more visible it becomes. As the line travels through the water it lights up like a flag and any fish in the area will be too spooked to touch it no matter how tasty the offering might be; it is the equivalent of sending up a flare. Fishing at night is a time when you should fish with as light a line as possible. Even when I fish for Chinook at night I never go above 10-pound test. Line thicker than that is seen very well regardless of whether you fish from a boat or from shore. The smallest line that should be considered should not be less than 6-pound test for pinks, sockeye, or Coho. Don’t let the diminutive sizes of the line intimidate you into fishing with heavier test. I have personally landed a 34-pound Chinook on 10-pound test; if you fish with line stronger than that you might get a fish but you’re more likely to snag it.

Adaptation is key to getting fish at night and that means using tackle in creative ways. The fishing rod I use most of the time, while fishing at night, is 12 feet long; it’s limber enough not to break light line and was originally meant for surf-casting which meant I was able to cast incredibly far with it when I use zingers and buzz bombs. Each time I cast out with the 12-footer, I can depend on my lure being in the water for as long as three minutes. The longer my lure is in the water the better the chances a fish is going to get a good long look at it and substantially increase my chances of getting hookups. It is not unreasonable to fish with a shorter rod and catch fish. Routinely I drop down to a 10-footer for the smaller fish because the test of my line compliments the lure allowing me to still make astronomical distance casts. The lighter the line is, and the longer the rod is, the farther the lure will go, which is key to know when night fishing, but, in the way of tackle there is one more general rule to apply.

Adaptation is the key to getting fish at night and that means using tackle in creative ways. The fishing rod I use most of the time, while fishing at night, is 12 feet long; it’s limber enough not to break light line and was originally meant for surf-casting which meant I would be able to cast incredibly far with it when I use zingers and buzz bombs. I don’t suggest using darts at night because the only thing there good for is snagging either fish or structure; they fall much too fast to be productive. Each time I cast out with the 12-footer, I can depend on my lure being in the water for as long as three minutes. The longer my lure is in the water the better the chances a fish is going to get a good long look at it and substantially increase my chances of getting hookups. It is not unreasonable to fish with a shorter rod and catch fish. Routinely I drop down to a 10-footer for the smaller fish because the test of my line compliments the lure allowing me to still make astronomical distance casts. The lighter the line is, and the longer the rod is, the farther the lure will go; and that is key to know when night fishing; but in the way of tackle there is one more general rule to apply.

With the blade of my spinner, the stirred up phosphorescence got the attention of these two fish.The six-pound test ensured that that the line would be nearly invisible which aided in taking the pressure off and putting these fish on the bite.
Hooks ultimately determine whether or not the fisherman is going to get the fish. If the hook does not penetrate the jaw of the fish it’s likely that it will be thrown in a matter of seconds. It’s stands to reason that the larger a hook is the harder it will be to set it. Straight tine hooks are the way to go but should not be larger than 1/0 for Chinook but no smaller than a size 2 for pinks and sockeye. Touch it up the moment you take it out of the package. Sticky sharp small hooks don’t require much hook setting power. One of the perks of fishing at night with light tackle is the increase in line-sensitivity, which is important since you won’t be able to see the rod tip bend in the dead of night.

One of the great things about fighting salmon in bioluminescence is the green glow of the fish as it bolts to and fro; and that’s the thing to remember. You’ll be able to see them, they’ll be able to see lures and line, and they’ll be able to see you too. Don’t let fishing in the dark seem intimidating; there’s really nothing to it, but make sure to watch the surface of the water. When the wind dies down fish can see incredibly well.

There was a night I went out to hook into some Coho. Fish were jumping all over the place. I was the only fisherman there and the environment was surreal. The moon was out and the estuary was pristine calm. The surface was as flat as glass. Occasionally I would see fish jumping close to shore and knew they would be the untouchable ones so I didn’t even try for them. You can’t catch the fish you see but you can catch the fish you don’t. What that means is, the fish that are interested in active feeding aren’t jumping yet and the fish that are jumping are not active feeders any longer. With that in mind, I disregard fish that jump when aggressively feeding fish are in the area. That night I was using spinners and spoons so the line was only 6-pound test. Each time I would cast out the activity would drop off just a little. It was the significance of the lure that drew the attention of the salmon so I was satisfied to know the bite could happen at any time. All at once the activity stopped; and I mean nothing was moving. I knew that the only time fish did that in unison was when a predator was around. What I could see immediately illustrated just how bright the bioluminescence was. About 60 yards from shore I could see a large image moving through the water just beneath the surface. It was huge. There was no denying the fact that the smallest thing it could have been was a sea lion. My theory was proven when it came up for air and bellowed a gruff cough. It was not happy that it couldn’t find anything. The seal had no chance of corralling fish in the dark. I knew he was in the area for the salmon because he could hear them, above the surface, but he couldn’t see them. With the limiting visibility of darkness, even with the bioluminescence present, it was impossible to find the scattering fish. For the salmon it was no problem to avoid the seal at night; the sensitive lateral line affords them the ability to feel and hear vibrations without depending on the need for sight. There was nothing left for me to do but sit down and wait for the lumbering seal to leave. It took about 20 minutes before I was sure it had left. I no longer saw the green silhouette the seal made and soon the activity picked up and I commenced fishing again; but this time it was different. Every time I picked an area to fish all activity in the area would cease. I thought that a school was moving parallel to the shoreline so I moved with it. Each time I moved to a new area where activity had picked up the fish would stop moving all together. The same thing happened to me four times before I decided to sit down and think it out. I was sitting right at the shoreline for several minutes when fish started jumping in front of me not more than a few feet out. I stood up and all the activity stopped once again, just then, it occurred to me that they could see me. I wasn’t entirely convinced; but it was the only thing that made sense so I tested it.
Going back to the where I had originally started fishing I got in the water and stood perfectly still; I had waded out to about knee high and thought that if the fish could see me along the shoreline they might not see me if I got closer to the surface of the water. Refraction being what it is stood to reason that the rules still applied at night, especially with a full moon. I didn’t move for about 5 minutes when the first fish started jumping. If I had a net with me I could’ve gotten my limit in a couple of seconds; that’s how many fish there were. I was right. They could see me right away and were probably driven closer to shore when the seal was around. Given how close to shore they had been driven they were looking out from the smooth surface of the water. It was eerie for me to know they could see that well; it just made sense that they could. I had seen steelhead do the same thing many times in rivers. As always, I didn’t waste my time trying to catch the jumping fish but began casting out into the abyssal night away from shore. Because the fish around me were at ease fish further out felt pressure taken off. I started hooking fish soon after that and with all the other components coming into play the bite was on until dawn.
You have to fish when nature calls if you want to fish the best waters and that means fishing at night occasionally. That doesn’t mean you’ll be fishing at 3 o’clock in the morning, but it could if you accept the fact that the best times to fish don’t know time. If you can fish marine areas during the day and catch fish then by all means go for it, but don’t rely upon getting those times consistently. Tides adjust every day so watch the tides often. Remember, don’t back away from fish, rather, do the opposite. Get down low in the boat or wade in the water. On clear nights, I guarantee, salmon will see you if precautions aren’t taken. Use the bioluminescence and light tackle to your advantage. You might just convert to exclusive saltwater night fishing for salmon when you see just how many fish you get.

Further Reading:
Collin, Shaun P., and Marshall, N. Justin. Sensory Processing in an Aquatic Environment: Retinal Sampling and the Visual Field in Fishes. New York: Springer-Verlag, 2003.
Levinton, Jeffery. S. Marine Biology: Tides, Estuaries, Bioluminescence, Physiological and Behavioral Response. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

© Timothy Kusherets, 2004/09

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