People are often amazed or even frightened by the idea of kayak fishing in the ocean at night. To many, the thought of taking a small, self-propelled boat into the darkness of the ocean is dangerous. Of the few who partake, though, the ominous feeling of low visibility and sounds of the surf can be exhilarating. Some of the excitement comes from knowing that the biggest bass are on the move and feeding under the cover of dark. Kayak fishing at night is a stealthy and remarkably productive way to target striped bass in coastal waters across the northeast.
Since our senses are reduced at night, there are increased challenges. To ensure a safe and productive trip, there is much to consider when embarking on a trip to the local reef or boulder field after dark.
Weather and Tides
The most obvious yet often overlooked variable is the weather. Understanding the forecast is essential and the biggest factor to consider for safety’s sake. Wind direction and how it affects the surf is important to determine when it’s safe to go and when to stay home. The forecast should be monitored until the time you launch because we all know how fast the weather folks change their minds, and conditions on the water can change just as fast.
Midsummer weather can be erratic when unstable air masses create pop-up thunder and lightning storms. I’ll usually drive to the shoreline and observe the conditions before dark while monitoring the forecast and radar. There are times when nobody should be in the ocean on a kayak, day or night. Reading the direction of the wind and determining whether you are exposed or sheltered by land is important. I tend to use the Weather Underground app for general weather and weather.gov for more detailed information. Using multiple weather sources is best for getting an accurate comprehension of the forecast since they often vary on magnitude of winds and precipitation.
In my local waters of Long Island Sound, summer storms often move from New York to Connecticut, skirting the coast of the Sound. It can be questionable if they will track north over land or provide a soaking if I decide to venture out. The threat of such storms, aside from lightning, are strong winds that may come with the storm cells. One time, I was fishing under a clear sky and the weather app forecasted only a 10 percent chance of storms. I took my chances and left the raincoat behind. A bit later, I heard a slight noise off in the distance. Within 30 seconds, the sound transitioned to what I sounded like a waterfall in the distance and soon drowned out everything as a wall of water approached. There was no avoiding it, and in no time, I was drenched. Luckily, there was no lightning or high winds accompanying this storm, but it goes to show how the weather can change in an instant.
Comprehension of tides is essential for saltwater anglers who want to be successful, but a kayak’s susceptibility to current, along with the added component of darkness, makes understanding tides that much more important. Tides and current vary drastically from location to location. Having a lay of the land (well, water) is a good idea when planning to head out after dark.
Ideally, you have previously explored the waters during the daytime and have a good sense of the local currents and potential hazards. If that is not the case, getting out before sunset to gather some knowledge of the area is a must. When paddling some rocky areas off the coast, playing the tide right, especially at night, often means quality fish. Tidal currents around boulder fields and reefs can cause taxing conditions, and a given area may be fishable by kayak only during certain tides, but often wind conditions can contrast with current direction, meaning a miserable time and dangerous conditions. Moon tides are often the best times to fish because of the more drastic tidal fluctuations. Keep the moon phase in mind when venturing out, considering the currents will be stronger than normal.
Kayak and Gear
Having a kayak that is stable and you feel comfortable in is most important. The ocean at night is not the place to get a feel for it or test your ability. My kayak is a Hobie Outback, which is a pedal kayak, which helps me handle stronger currents, cover more distance, and hold my position in current while fishing. In general, a sit-on-top, self-draining kayak is best for fishing in the ocean. In the dark, it is much more difficult to see waves approaching, so being confident in your abilities and your kayak is essential.
Make Yourself Visible
While kayaks offer a stealthy approach that goes unnoticed by the fish, kayakers can also go unnoticed by boaters. When kayak fishing at night, it is extremely important to make yourself visible to other vessels, and that starts with having the proper equipment.
- A 360-degree white light, positioned above your head and out of your line of sight is not only essential, it’s required by the Coast Guard.
- Wear a headlamp, or keep a hand-held (and waterproof) flashlight handy, not just for fishing, but for signaling boaters to your presence.
- Lastly, a brightly colored, reflective flag will increase your visibility both during
the day and at night.
Having the proper gear for night fishing on a kayak is also a necessity. Much of the gear applies to all kayak fishing, but there are some key items that are a must for heading out at night. Lights are by far the most important thing to have, and redundancy is good for safety. Kayaks are nearly invisible to boaters in the dark, so use a 360-degree white light. A headlamp is also an additional light source but should not be relied upon as a primary source.
A fishfinder with a chart plotter is convenient to have and adds a level of confidence. Navigating the coast at night can be challenging, so having the ability to follow a track helps. A dark shoreline can be very disorienting, so at the minimum, a cell phone with mapping will help find your way back, and a compass is always a good backup.
A handheld VHF radio attached to your life vest is also an important safety measure. It can be used to communicate with other anglers on the water and, in a case of emergency, call for help. Keep it attached to you in case your kayak flips and you become separated from it. Wearing a life vest goes without saying but, seriously, just wear it. Too many kayakers die each year, and most weren’t wearing a PFD.
Fishing is generally best just after sunset and in the early twilight hours, especially when it comes to striped bass. Targeting shallow waters in a kayak at night is ideal for catching large bass that move into these areas to feed. Kayaks are perfect for accessing these areas.
Hooking into a large fish is exciting as you will be towed and spun around. Striped bass tend to use the current to their advantage, and always head toward the nearest rock. Keep this in mind as you are being towed, and watch out for barely submerged boulders, which have the potential to result in a sticky situation. Landing a fish becomes more difficult at night when you must pull the hook while it’s violently shaking. A headlamp lets you see what you are doing when trying to pull a fish onto a kayak, especially a large one.
Once a fish is landed, many anglers like to document their catch. This can be difficult when you don’t have an optimized camera setup for your kayak. There are many options out there for removable booms and camera mounts that can be installed on a kayak. I use a GoPro mounted on a monopod with an accessory light attached that I can move between rod holders for different camera angles. GoPros are commonly used because of their sealed housings and high video quality. The downfall is that they are not great for taking low-light photos and videos, so you must fine-tune the lighting for good quality media. From what I have seen, standard waterproof digital cameras often take the best-quality photos at night and can be set to shoot on a time delay. Or, the buddy system works to get a photo if you are not fishing alone and your buddy is not currently fighting a fish.
I have several productive nighttime spots that I frequent during the summer months. They range from boulders along the shoreline to underwater reefs a mile or two offshore. Even with knowledge of currents and what conditions are safe, approaching at night while hearing the turning of the water as the tide rips over the reef still gives me an adrenaline rush.
Fishing from a kayak during the “non-human hours” can be extremely productive. Understanding the weather and tide conditions is important for safety, so take time to scout some areas during the day to get a sense of how they are affected by different tides, and then prep yourself with the essential safety features. Targeting prime areas at night from a kayak can pay off in a big way, and what can be better than a good ol’ Nantucket sleigh ride!