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That brief window of opportunity at the dawn of a new day holds a special place in the hearts of surfcasters.
By William Muller
Tags: surf
The twilight of dawn can provide a brief but exciting window of productivity.

There’s no doubt that the thin light of twilight can be a magical time. A pastel time of day when the world is quiet and the relationship between predator fish and their prey shifts gears from the stealth of the night to the aggressive pursuit of the day.

So, why is the twilight such a powerful factor in angling? Well, let’s get the research out of the way first. Science tells us that some predators such as bluefish are most active in low light. But we all know that blues and other predators feed at all times of the day and night. So, although it may factor in, it can’t be the biggest element.

As long as we’re dispelling myths, some anglers habitually fish at dawn regardless of the tide and I think they’re making a big mistake. Twilight only works best when the best stage of a tide coincides with the low light. Again, a bad tide is a bad tide regardless of what part of the 24-hour cycle we’re talking about. I’ve learned this lesson many times over during my angling career and I admit I was once a bit dense about it. So, it took me longer to learn this lesson than I’d otherwise like to admit.

So, what makes this time of day special when the right tidal segment is in play? I’ve never seen research about this so what you’re about to read is based solely on my experience and opinion after decades of surf fishing. Yes, unfortunately, I am that old. I think it’s a process that involves a pendulum of behavior in which the fish respond alternatively to the differences between night and day. Thus, under the right conditions, schools of bait that had been chased and dispersed in the waning daylight of the previous day coalesce through the night and move as shallow as possible to avoid detection.

Often, these bait schools will remain for hours along the same small part of the beachfront making as little noise as possible. Small tail beats are much more stealthy than rapid big ones and the gentle vibrations created by ripples and waves at the interface of water and sand is enough to cover the small noises where flagrant tail beats would be detected. However, the process is imperfect. Some predators may wander closer to the beach than the others and detect the vibrations, but we also need to remember that fish give off odors and these oil based globs of chemical scent gradually work their way into deeper water. In short, even the best strategy can fail and stealth can be detected even if by accident.

The arrival of the first tidbits of light in the eastern sky changes everything because there are more stimuli to respond to. Perhaps instinctively, baitfish will want to leave the shallows because their innate experience has taught them that daylight shallows and predators don’t mix well. Although the bait may hide from fish in inches of water at the beach front, once the light comes the birds can easily get at them. At this point, the bait “gets nervous” and wants to leave. Their tails beat a little harder and they move a little more. More scent molecules are left behind and more vibrations travel into deeper water attracting the attention of predators that spent the predawn hours hunting leisurely in somewhat deeper water.

Okay, now all the forces of the universe have begun to shift in a new direction: a direction in which light becomes a key player in the predator-prey dance of life and death. Predators move towards shore with an ongoing sense of security that won’t last much longer. Baitfish begin to move into deeper and safer water. If they succeed in gaining deeper water they may escape and their lives might continue for at least a little while longer, but if they wait just seconds too long the stripers, blues, and weakfish will pin them in a place where they cannot escape.

Not only will they be forced against the sand but against the sky too: they will have very little water to work with and the predators will have their breakfast.

What about dusk you ask? After all, dusk is twilight too, so how does that work. Actually, I have a seemingly confusing answer for you. That is, I think it works in similar ways and in different ways. Do you like that? Yeah, I don’t blame you, but I was just playing with you.

Seriously, anytime bait accumulates along the beach there is a chance some fish will be feeding on that bait, but a bright sun and deep blue sky may inhibit a big feed. The lack of a push from the fish may encourage more bait to gather along the surf line, but as the sun reaches the horizon the inhibitions of light are removed from the equation. Predators often gather just outside the bait becoming more and more aggressive in anticipation of the coming low light. Then, when the last rays of sun no longer streak across the surface of the water, the serious feeding begins. The dusk window can be every bit as short as the dawn period, but if there’s some tide left the feeding may extend well into the dark.

Still, dusk is rarely as magical as the dawn because the world is alive and busy in the evening, the noise level higher, there’s usually a breeze or wind to disturb the surface of the water, and the birds are returning to their roosts rather than being roused to activity. Dusk is pretty too, but not as magical. Dusk offers a selling point that the dawn cannot as it is typically a lot more convenient.

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