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Kayak fishing in the dark

By Jason WalkerNZ Fishing World
Kayak fishing in the dark

Kayak fishing is normally thought of as a method reserved for daytime activity only and for the beginner kayak angler it’s a good rule while they learn about their kayak.

However, once some experience has been gained you too may be lured by the challenges and rewards that can come from night fishing. For some kayak anglers the evening and night has become a preferred time to go fishing.

The best part is that your fishing kayak is the absolute perfect platform for taking advantage of the opportunities that evening and night presents. In the daytime the kayak platform allows you to become the stealth angler without any fish-scaring motor noise but as the sun drops and the darkness takes over your stealth factor increases, as you no longer cast a shadow into the depths.

 Night areas that seem barren during the day can come alive during the night.

A kayak is more mobile than a shore based fishing expedition, giving you access to that “just a bit further” fish holding area, and a plastic kayak silently bounces off rocks much better than a fiberglass or alloy boat hull!

Now I’ll be upfront, honestly fishing in the dark isn’t for everyone, it can be a real mind-job at times, especially if the water is really calm and quiet. At first you will imagine a lot of bogey men, every splash you hear will fill your mind full of huge man eating sharks cruising around looking for a feed and when that driftwood log bumps into the side of your kayak you’ll be grabbing your paddle and heading to shore at record speed! Time on the water in the dark will slowly dissolve your fear each time you fish you’ll soon find your night fishing groove.

Fish will bite at dusk and often stay quiet until it is very dark. Waiting an hour or more will often pay off as fish come back on the bite.  

Safety

Getting out on the kayak at night introduces a certain element of risk, so following all the kayak safety measures is essential. By far the most important safety measure is to ALWAYS wear your PFD whenever and wherever you are using your kayak – of course this rule applies not only for night fishing you should be wearing your PFD during the day too. Remember that you are wearing the PFD for emergencies and not convenience – please wear one at all times.

Buddy Up - Not limited to night fishing sessions, fishing with another kayak angler is helpful.  Not only can two anglers cover more water, but you can also watch out for each other and assist if you get into any trouble, plus they can be handy when you realise you left those spare jig heads at home.

Fish the shallow water first, snapper and other fish will often come in close once darkness has fallen.

Skill Limit - At night it is important not to step outside your personal skill set; don’t attempt to fish more challenging water than you usually do and don’t attempt to make trips to areas you wouldn’t normally fish in during daylight. If you are fishing with others please do not bow to peer pressure. If you feel you are out of your depth be sure to make yourself heard and tell the others you are uncomfortable following their lead, do not be afraid to tell them they are heading beyond your comfort level.

Communications - In the event of an emergency on the water, it is critical to have reliable means of communication. Kayak anglers should at least carry a mobile phone in a waterproof bag or case. The better choice is a submersible VHF radio. Handheld VHF radios are very affordable and easy to use, you should do the Coastguard VHF Operators course and get yourself a registered VHF Call Sign too.

Carrying a light at night is a legal requirement on watercraft, it is also important in areas of busy boat traffic.

When buying a VHF radio look for a model that has at least three to five watts of broadcast power. If you are unfamiliar with handheld VHF radios, be sure to spend some time with the instruction manual before heading out on the water. If you are in a distress situation you will have enough to worry about without trying to figure out how the squelch control works. A VHF radio is also invaluable for communicating with your fishing buddies. It is easy to get separated at night and a radio will help you reconnect, plus you can use the radio to communicate with them where the fish are!

Using a light that has either a red light function or a low light output option is handy so your night vision isn’t compromised when handling rigs or fish.

The Plan

Don’t forget it is also important to share the details of your fishing plan with someone back on land before your departure. The plan should include when and where you plan to launch your kayak, the area where you are intending to fish and of course your expected return to land and return to home times. Verbally communicating this information to someone is okay, but writing it down is infinitely more reliable. All of your plan information can be passed on to the emergency services should you not return as planned and will hugely assist the services in any search, should it be required.

Lights and Illumination - Carrying a light on your kayak at night is not only a legal requirement in some areas it is also a must for use in high traffic areas to ensure other water users can see you. I recommend having both a permanent pole mounted light showing an all round white light and also having a handheld flashlight handy that can be shone in the direction of any approaching watercraft. Powerboats are mercifully less common after dark, but you may still encounter motorised craft at night, so don’t assume you are alone.

You will also need some type of light simply so you can see what you are doing on your kayak: rigging baits, landing fish, tying knots for example. There are many good quality headlamps available, look for one with either a red light or one that has a low setting so you do not blind yourself when operating.

I also recommend using reflective materials to increase visibility. Consider a PFD with reflective patches or piping. You may also want to add reflective tape to the ends of your paddle and along the sides of your kayak, you will find this tape for sale at most good kayak stores and safety supply shops. Remember, if you can’t be seen, you can’t be safe.

Electronics - There’s no reason to stop using your electronics such as your fishfinder on your kayak at night, they work just as well at night as they do in the day. They will also help you locate those drop offs and structure changes that you know so well in the day but cannot find by sight in the darkness.

All fishfinders have some sort of backlight so they can be used in the dark. The higher end units will offer you the ability to adjust the brightness allowing you to drop it down so you can still see the details without becoming night blind. Some units also have colour sets that allow you to switch to a night colour with a black background rather than the regular white background.

A GPS and or chart plotter will not only give you the ability to find your way to your favourite fishing spot, but it could also be your best tool for finding your way back to shore if you become disoriented in the dark. It is very easy to lose your launch spot when fishing away from major towns where shore based lights can be few and far between.

What to Take

Now you’re ready for some night time kayak fishing. When you’re packing gear for your trip, I recommend adhering to the saying “Less is more.” Two or three rods and a small amount of tackle is plenty.

Tackle choices should be kept familiar because untangling a line or retying lures isn’t always easy in the dark. If you normally use a spin set for your softbaiting then taking out a bait caster reel setup at night is going to be asking for trouble! Think about taking out two or three rods rigged with different lures or baits, this will allow you to switch sets without having to re-tie your rigs very often in the dark.

Try to keep the deck of your kayak clean and uncluttered so you minimise the amount of time spent managing your gear and maximise your angling time.

Fishfinders sometimes have a night function that utilises dark colouring instead of the usual white background.

Choosing the Spot - When picking a spot for your night fish, stick to areas that you are familiar with; places you have fished during daylight hours, at least for your first few trips. An area that you know like the back of your hand during the day can be very different at night, especially in areas where there are few lights or on an evening with little or no moonlight. Using lights on shore as landmarks to mark your starting point is helpful to keep your orientation toward your fishing structure as well as getting you safely home. Be aware any lights on the land are not guaranteed to stay on throughout the night.

There are many areas of the coastline that are reasonably well lit from city lights and streetlights that make ideal spots for first time night fishing sessions.

A night time kayak fishing session doesn’t have to be a long-distance adventure, as fish often move right in to the shoreline at night so try in close before heading further out – you may just save yourself a long paddle.

Remember also that big fish are a lot less shy at night and will come right into the shallows looking for a feed - find some mangroves or shallow foul and see what you can catch. You will be surprised how shallow snapper will go to chase a feed such as crabs in the mangroves. It’s not uncommon to find snapper in water so shallow the dorsal fin on their back can be seen clear out of the water. During summer the higher water temperatures and bright sunshine drive fish deeper in the water column and into cover during the day. At night areas seemingly barren during the day come alive as predators come out to hunt in the darkness.

Reflective tape is handy for being seen and can be applied to paddles and other gear to improve visibility.

One last tip for night fishing: the best fishing usually occurs at least an hour after it gets dark. The evening bite often tapers off some as it gets dark, but you will find at some point, those fish get going again. So don’t get discouraged if you get out in the light to scope things out and don’t keep catching after darkness falls. Continue fishing for an hour or more and you should find the fish come back on the bite again. Bites will tend to be fewer, but bigger.

Enjoy the solitude of your night time kayak fishing trip. I think you’ll be surprised how attuned your hearing will become to the sounds of the night. The silence is calming, and there’s nothing like hearing it interrupted by a fish rolling or snapping at your lure and the subsequent sound of line peeling off your reel.

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