Let’s get nostalgic for a minute. It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s a late spring Saturday morning. You’re groggy and tired, but your dad is still dragging you out of bed. You put on your kid-sized life jacket and slide the boat onto the lake. The sky is just starting to shift from black to purple behind the oaks across the pond. You’re about to make a memory you’ll probably think about forever. But all you can think right now is “Why is he making me do this!?”
It’s a good question to ask. What was old dad really on about? Do the fish bite more when we’d all rather be in bed, or was he just trying to make you build some character [https://fishmyspot.com/why-fish-the-perks-and-benefits-of-fishing/]?
Like with most big questions in fishing, the answer is a little complicated. What you’re fishing for, where you are, the weather, the time of year, even the moon can have an impact on when fish will bite. So, let’s dive in and figure out if dear old dad was on to something with the 4 AM rise-and-shine routine.
Some Like It Cool
Long story short, fish are cold-blooded. That means they can’t regulate their own body temperatures, so they have to move to the coziest spot in the water. “Cozy” for a fish is (very broadly) between lukewarm and freezing. Water in this happy medium also contains the most oxygen, meaning fish have to work less to breathe.
But different species have different preferences. For example, trout generally like it slightly colder, feeding more when water is between 45° and 65 °F. On the other hand, sunfish like bluegill prefer warmer water. For them, the sweet spot is between 65° and 80 °F. Bass are some of the most tolerant freshwater fish, behaving pretty much the same from 55° to 85 °F.
In terms of what time is best, the surface of a lake or pond in the summer will warm as the sun rises. The heat drives fish up from the bottom to feed. As the sun gets higher and temperatures rise, fish will chase cooler water back into the depths. At dusk when the water starts to cool, fish will take the opportunity to gobble up lazy prey on the surface.
Consider The Weather
There are a few problems with the scenario we’ve painted. The first is that we’re assuming that the weather during the day is sunny and clear. When this isn’t the case, things can be a bit tricky.
For example, if the sky is cloudy, the water’s surface may not get as hot in the afternoon. This means fish will be feeding steadily throughout the day. So when it gets dark, you probably won’t see a major bubble of activity like you would on a sunny day.
On the other hand, high winds can dredge up sediment and muck from the bottom of the lake. This reduces clarity in the water, and by extension, feeding activity. So the way the weather looks may make the morning and evening better, or it may make them both worse for fishing.
Rain (and even snow) can improve fishing by a lot. Some fish, like pike, trout, and bass, will venture out more to hunt before rain. They will chase lures more aggressively, sometimes even as it rains. Another bonus of rain is that the surface of the water is disturbed. This means fish won’t be able to see you as well and will drop their guard more.
The key takeaway here is that you have to think about the conditions when you go out. Consider what’s going on under the water, based on what’s going on overhead. Don’t be deterred by a little rain or cloud cover. Plan around what the weather’s doing, and you’ll be set up for success.
The Power of The Moon
More than weather, the cycles of the moon and the seasons have a huge effect on when fish will bite. One reason for this is lake turnover [https://www.cleanlakesalliance.org/lake-turnover/ ], a process that happens in the spring and fall. In the spring, cool water cycles up from the bottom of the pond, and warm water spreads into deeper water. In the fall, the opposite happens. By the summer and winter, the water becomes “stratified,” or arranged in layers from warm to cold, and vice versa.
The process of turnover changes where the “cozy” spots in the water are, and when. Because of this, you can expect the best time of day to fish to change as well. In the spring, fish tend to be active during mid-morning and early afternoon, before dusk. In the fall, fish feed a lot in preparation for the winter. They tend to be most active at dawn and dusk during this time, but can also have bubbles of activity in the mid-morning and late afternoon.
The phase of the moon can also throw you for a loop. On the ocean, rising and falling tides will change fish habits completely. In freshwater, fish are also affected, though not as strongly. The Farmers’ Almanac produces a calendar every month [ https://www.farmersalmanac.com/calendar/fishing ] that predicts whether fishing will be good, based on lunar phases and other factors.
On full moon nights, some sport species like largemouth bass have been documented to go into a feeding frenzy. This is partly because of the light the moon gives off. But it’s also because bass prey, like crawfish and other crustaceans, increase their activity when the moon is full. So in some cases, the best time of day to fish might not even be during the day!
Early Birds and Night Owls
On top of all this variation based on the conditions, different fish species are active at different times. This has to do with differences in their biology. Some detect their prey through sight, while others, like the channel catfish [https://fishmyspot.com/fish-fact-friday-channel-catfish/] use smell and taste to find their prey. For these fish, having daylight is more or less optional.
As any angler knows, fish are far from easy to predict. But in general, you can make a pretty good guess as to when your target species is going to be active at the pond. Bass are dawn and dusk lovers. Trout and pike also tend to go with the first and last light of day, with a little more wiggle room. Catfish (as we mentioned) and walleye are most easily caught at night.
This is yet another reason to try night fishing. Especially when angling for walleye, which are notoriously tough to get the hang of, it’s a great idea to shake things up and try after dark. Walleye activity tends to peak a few hours before sunrise and after sundown. Catfishing, as you may know, is its own game entirely, but works best on hot nights in warm water.
The Long and Short of It
Do you really have to get up at dawn? As we’ve seen it depends on what you’re fishing for. With some fish you may be better off going at night. But it depends on the weather, too. If it’s raining lightly you’d probably be just as well-off in the middle of the day. If the moon is full, you could have just as much luck bass fishing after dark as you would at first light.
Though if you have been paying close attention, you may have noticed something; almost all fish feed at dawn, regardless of the season, the weather, even the moon. So as far as picking the one best time to go, it turns out the old adage of “early to bed, early to rise” was spot on.
Any veteran angler knows the best sport fishing happens at dawn; plus, the views can be pretty incredible. So next time you feel like hitting snooze on the alarm clock, just remember how amazing it is when you get on a glassy pond at first light. Nonetheless, don’t be afraid to try different things too. Now that you know what drives fish to feed, you’ve got all the tools you need. Happy fishing!
A note from the author: Conrad Lucas is a biologist, naturalist, and writer from Salt Lake City, UT. He specializes in bat ecology, and loves skiing, caving, canyoneering, climbing, and fishing. You can follow him on IG @drinkfluoride and find his creative work at www.jconradlucas.com