Very small vibrations which are utterly undetectable to us are easily pin-pointed by stripers.
As it is with so many things in life, surf fishing success can be determined by the smallest of details. Sharpening hooks, meticulously checking line, properly maintaining gear, and keeping detailed logs of your trips can all integrate to make the difference between just catching a few fish every once in a while, and catching big fish, or lots of fish, with regularity. One detail sometimes ignored or downplayed is being quiet and stealthy in the surf, particularly during quiet nights, or perhaps even more important, in specific places that are either very calm or shallow.
Predator & Prey
When I think about being quiet and sneaky in the surf, it isn’t just the stripers I worry about, it is the prey too. I would argue not disrupting the prey in the immediate area is likely as important a factor as not spooking the striped bass themselves. If you go charging across a flat, stomping and splashing and shining a bright light as you go, you create an immense disturbance that can either send prey fleeing or into hiding. This results in several detrimental ramifications. First, prey scattering from your area gives the predator no reason to stay in the spot you’re fishing; there is a diminished feeding opportunity and prey is on the defensive. A worst-case scenario develops from this when spooked bait does not return for the rest of the tide. One night, several seasons ago, I was struggling to get a large hook out of a small fish’s jawbone. Worrying about the fish’s health, I decided I needed to turn on my red light. Except, I didn’t realize the filter on the light was broken and its bright white light burst onto the water at full power. Bait fish scattered everywhere, never to return, and my night ended with only that single fish landed and zero hits.
I hypothesize that when bait goes into a high-alert mood, it also triggers stripers to be on edge. Stripers may note that prey is hiding or in an anxious state and be less inclined to take a plug or fly because they can sense something is wrong. This comes from experience and instinct and therefore is particularly true of large, older fish. In my experience, it’s far easier to recover a bite with small fish than with large ones. For this reason, if you’re particularly interested in trophy hunting, you should pay attention to having as little impact on the natural surroundings as possible. Try to blend in, particularly on calm nights or when fishing quiet back bay waters. If you have spooked the bait in the area, I suggest you go into high-alert mode yourself and start focusing on what you’re doing with a renewed vigor. Stop casting, stand still, and just be motionless for a few minutes (or more). Let the area settle back down and then match your behavior to the general “vibe” of your surroundings. The more still, quiet, and calm the area, the more cognizant you should be of your impact.
I concede readily that surf-fisherman-derived-sound is likely not a huge factor on the vast majority of nights in the surf. Particularly if there is any wave action, or the water is deep, sound from an angler will not carry very far and will almost assuredly be lost in the overall din of the noisy ocean. Therefore, I do not worry about the sound of my voice or any splashing sounds I might be making in most places I fish. However, windless nights combined with the relatively quiet and shallow waters found in bays, coves, and backwaters can make it feel like opening a plug bag, whispering, and even normal breathing is too disruptive. However, these noises above the water are not what I focus on. Yes, it’s a good idea to not yell or laugh too loudly, but these are of less concern. Under these conditions, it’s the underwater sounds I am making that are my focus.
I make a conscious effort to move a little slower and put my feet down as softly as I can manage in these situations. I believe that sounds from heavy footfalls, the tumbling or dislodging of rocks, and the crunching of carbide spikes from wader boots or Korkers are the largest concerns in terms of actual auditory noise. These are not natural sounds and give away the size and nature of a fisherman. Particularly in rocky areas, I walk methodically and don’t stomp or drag my feet because I’m worried about tripping or stumbling and making splashing noises or big pushes of water. A small splash here or there is not of concern because even in the calmest places there is always some small measure of this happening caused by everything from ducks to bait fish. However, if you move quickly, push a large wake of water and put out a lot of vibration, this can certainly spook fish in the area, and tripping and making big splashes (or falling) can be a disaster. Remember, very small vibrations which are utterly undetectable to us are easily pin-pointed by stripers. A human stumbling and splashing around in three feet of water in the middle of night is very noisy under the water.
If there is one single point I want to stress in this article, it is the overuse and often times misuse of headlamps and lanyard lights. Particularly under calm conditions, a single momentary flash of light can kill a bite and end your chance at catching any more fish. This is a well-documented phenomena by many seasoned anglers, and I have had my own experiences with it. Case in point, one night I was fishing a particular spot with my friend and he caught a couple of solid cows in the mid-30-pound range, and I had one in the high-20s. We took a single photo of each of these largest catches from the night (which were lost when the camera was destroyed). This area has gin-clear water and is relatively shallow. Every time I’d take a photo, the bite would die for about 20 minutes. The following night, while we didn’t have any big fish, I noted the same effect when I took a photo of him casting because I was bored. While we were getting hit regularly up to that point, the single, relatively modest and very fast flash from a small point-and-shoot camera seemed to kill the bite for a full half-hour!
My thoughts on light are relatively simple, but I am entrenched in them. There are some locations in which a light from a headlamp or camera, even if it falls directly on the water, is relatively harmless. If you’re high up on a jetty and have a weak white light and are fishing water that is fast moving and 20-or-more-feet deep, there is probably not much of an issue. This likely goes for places like the Cape Cod Canal as well, where fish are in the deep water and not tight to the bank. Further, this is also a good example of a place that has a fair amount of light pollution from the pole lights and other sources—like the power plant at the east end—and in places that have a lot of ambient lighting. Additional small light sources from a fisherman make less of an impact. This also goes for extremely bright full moons which are brighter than a dim neck-light. I also accept that if you’re fishing a wide-open South Shore sand beach or rocky shoreline that has crashing waves, and again the fish aren’t right tight to shore, a weak amount of white light from a lanyard light or headlamp is likely to not spook fish that are feeding 50 or 80 yards from the beach.
However, I also feel words like “probably,” “most likely,” and “relatively harmless” say a lot about my thoughts on this subject. These arguments simply are not good enough when trying to catch trophy fish, or in the midst of a tough bite. This is one of the few things we can control in the surf. We cannot control when bait will show up, if the fish will hit our offerings, or what the weather is going to do, but we can easily not shine a light on the water. Further, note I keep using words like “weak” and “dim” since there is absolutely no need for an extremely bright headlamp in the surf, except as an emergency light.
Specifically, if you fish in a wetsuit and are out 100 feet or 100 yards in the surf, turning on a light can be disastrous. Fish close to shore are used to some light coming from all kinds of sources but if you’re far out into the water and turn on a light, that is extremely unnatural. This is on top of the fact that ambient light from shore is likely not reaching out this far into the ocean, so your light is much more intense at these distances. Even using one of those headlamps that requires quickly cycling through white light to get to a red bulb can destroy a bite. Remember, it is not just striped bass that you should be concerned about since scaring prey can end the night, too. This also goes for camera flashes, and I try to set-up my photo area in such a way that it isn’t flashing towards the spot I’m fishing. It takes a little more time to do this, but it ensures I can both document my catch while also not ending my night early.
For this reason, I use a tactical Princeton Tec headlamp with a physical, non-defeatable, red filter. This means the red light from my headlamp is not a setting or separate bulb, but rather a physical screen that is pulled over the existing white bulbs. There is no way for me to accidentally turn on the white light or have to cycle through other settings. This latter part is the most critical. There is no point in having a red light if you have to flash through bright whites, blues, and even greens to get to your red light; it’s too late at that point. The other thing I like about this particular headlamp is that it is very dim at the lowest setting. For the most part, there is no need to have a very bright light in the surf when changing plugs or even re-tying a leader. I rarely turn my light on while walking or changing my plugs. This takes practice, but if you have an organized plug bag and use a quick connecting clip like a Tactical Angler clip it is easy to change plugs with your eyes closed by feel. Getting used to being comfortable in the dark is just something that comes with practice, just like every other aspect of this pursuit. If you must use a white light for any reason, or your red light is particularly bright, simply turn back towards shore before turning it on and try to use the lowest setting possible.
Finally, don’t forget that turning on your light is a beacon to other fisherman. If you want to protect your spot, you should be trying to limit light as much as possible. Nothing draws my attention more than seeing a light continually turning on and off in the night as this often means the angler is unhooking fish. I’ve been known to go investigate if I see a light repeatedly turning on and off. I even discovered a bit of new information about how to fish a spot one night because I saw a light blinking on and off. I crept down the shore so I could watch from a distance. The angler never knew I was there, and he showed me a lot more than I imagine he ever would have done voluntarily.