Seeing the Light

Fishing now is all about sunlight-and avoiding it. Here's how you can catch bass from down till dusk.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Everyone knows the rule about fishing for summer bass: Fish early and late in the day. Like "never play poker with a guy named Doc" or "never date anyone whose problems are bigger than your own," "fish at first and last light" is sensible advice.

The reason seems obvious. Fish don't like the glare and heat of the summer sun any more than you do, which is why largemouths, smallmouths, and all their prey become more active when the world cools down. Sounds reasonable enough, but a closer look at how bass and their prey react to light levels puts a different-and ultimately more useful-spin on summer bass fishing.

Dawn and Dusk
Studies of largemouths reveal that their increased feeding in dim conditions has little to do with comfort and everything to do with efficient foraging. In full light, bluegills, for example, can see bass better than bass can see them. But in low light, a bass's eyes function better than a bluegill's-and the visual advantage goes to the hunter.

With their limited vision at sunrise and sunset, prey fish have one survival mechanism: They disperse and freeze. To locate them, bass ease along the shadowy bottom with their eyes toward the surface, looking for hovering baitfish. It's a good time of day to be a bass.

And it's not a bad time of day to be a bass fisherman. On the early side of dawn and the late side of dusk, try a wobbling surface bait such as a Crazy Crawler or a Jitterbug, retrieved slowly and steadily. At first or last light, a softly fished popper or a Zara Spook is an excellent choice. You don't need to make much noise with the lure-after all, bass are on the prowl for prey that are trying not to make any at all.

Morning and Afternoon
Once the sun hits the water, prey fish find protection in cover and in schools. Schooling makes it difficult for a predator to target individual prey, confounding bass in the same way a flock of ducks does a hunter. The key for bass and waterfowlers alike is to pick a single target.

[NEXT "Story Continued..."] Largemouths and smallmouths do so by foraging in groups, which allows one bass to intercept a single baitfish that is fleeing other bass. Here's where the faster topwater baits work best. Anglers often talk of ripping a popper or chugger, squealing a buzzbait, or bulging the surface with a spinnerbait in order to trigger a strike, and such an approach fits with the way bass encounter their quarry as the morning brightens or the afternoon shadows lengthen. Make some noise. If nothing else, the resulting commotion may sound like a school of predators at work, and a hungry bass knows what that means.

Midday
As the sun climbs higher, the aggressive foraging dies down. Some prey fish form open-water schools. Others hide in the densest weeds or hold in shallow, shaded water.

During these hours, largemouths retreat to cover or drop down to deep weed edges, and they change from stalkers or cooperative feeders to what biologists call sit-and-wait predators. That is, they hide in the shade, where they gain a visual advantage over any forage that comes too close. The effect is similar to looking out a window from a darkened room-you can see into the light but can't be seen in return.

This is the time of day to work the weed edges using a slow, vertical presentation with a plastic worm, lizard, or other realistic soft bait. When the sun reaches its high point, try tickling the green ceiling over the bass's head with a plastic frog or a mouse.

Smallmouths rely more on depth to retain the light advantage. Their chief summer forage is crayfish, which scuttle along the bottom. Bass look for them along shoals or dropoffs. If smallmouths find weedbeds with minnows, they'll stop in, but charging baitfish in full light is an inefficient strategy unless the bait are there in good numbers. If they are, Rattlin' Rogues, topwaater poppers, or floating stickbaits make good choices. If they aren't, dig out the tube jigs in crayfish colors and hit the shaded edges of the dropoffs, where the hunting is good, and it's twilight all afternoon for both the bass and any angler who takes advantage of the opportunity.