by Jeff Herman
first appeared in Canoe and Kayak, July 2006
There is silence on the water.
A silence void of all things man-made. Yet listen closely and you'll detect a subtle richness of sound: the whisper of a southwest wind rippling the bay's surface, the gentle rustle of salt grass, the soft lap of waves against your kayak. This orchestra of silence often brings me to the water at night, and tonight's destination is Upper Laguna Madre.
My fishing partner, Captain Filip Spencer, and I launch our kayaks from North Padre Island, Texas, at 11:30 p.m. After a brief paddle, Filip suggests that we dismount to better locate a deep channel to fish. Stingrays spend the night on such sandy bay bottoms, and we shuffle along in three feet of water, hoping to feel the slope of channel's edge underfoot rather than the business end of a sleeping stingray.
The water depth increases abruptly as we reach the edge of the channel. Relieved, we get back on our kayaks and begin drifting westward, casting into the deeper water.
The bay is coal black. The only light is the faint orange glow of Corpus Christi to the west. Our reels whir as we cast and retrieve. Soon we are rewarded by speckled trout bending our rod tips. The fish are brought to hand and released unharmed.
Most people think of kayak fishing as an adventure reserved for daytime, and for the beginner, it is certainly the best way to learn. However, after gaining a little experience, you too may be lured by the challenges and rewards of night fishing. It has become my preferred method of angling.
The first consideration for any successful kayak outing is always safety, and night trips require extra diligence. Navigation, illumination, and communication should be your watchwords when heading out into coastal waters after dark. It is much easier to lose your bearings at night, much like paddling in a fog bank. Likewise, the decreased visibility demands better illumination, not for your vision, but so that others can see you. Finally, communication on any paddling trip is important. At night, when waterways have far less traffic to render assistance if needed, it is even more critical.
In Texas, some of the best coastal fishing is found in areas that are marshy or hemmed in by mangroves. A few of my friends have spent a mosquito-infested night in a marshy maze after losing their way. In these conditions, a compass and/or GPS is critical to supplement your limited visibility. Most landmarks that one can use as navigation aids in daylight disappear after sunset. It is always a good idea to paddle areas that are familiar from daytime trips, but even home waters can become confusing after dark. Regardless of how well you know the area you are paddling, I recommend
periodically recording waypoints on your GPS while paddling at night.
It is essential that you remain visible to other boat traffic. Powerboats and Jet Skis are mercifully less common after dark, but you may still encounter motorized craft at night. The Coast Guard mandates a working 360-degree light for all vessels. Several companies make lights that can be easily mounted on your kayak. In addition, you should wear a bright LED headlamp and carry a reserve flashlight. If another watercraft approaches, you can turn your headlamp in that direction to alert the other boat to your presence. 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 your paddles. Remember, if you can't be seen, you can't be safe.
In the event of an emergency, it is critical to have a reliable means of communication. Nighttime paddlers should at least carry a cell phone. An even better choice is a submersible VHF radio. Handheld VHFs are very affordable and easy to use. Look for a model that has at least three to five watts of broadcast power. Also, make sure it has Weather Band (WB) to keep you apprised of changing atmospheric conditions. If you are unfamiliar with handheld VHF radios, be sure to spend some time with the instruction manual before heading out on the water. A paddler in distress has enough to worry about without trying to figure out how the squelch control works.
Don't forget, it's also important to share the details of your float plan with someone back on land before your departure. It should include the time and location of departure, the general area where you intend to paddle, and your expected return time. Verbally communicating this information is okay, but writing it down is infinitely more reliable.
Now you're ready for some night fishing. When you're packing fishing gear for your trip, I recommend adhering to the axiom "Less is more." Two rods and a small tray for tackle is plenty. Keep your deck clean and uncluttered. This will improve your angling efficiency by increasing your fishing time and minimizing gear-management time.
I prefer fishing channels and cuts that provide access to flats and marshy areas. These tend to be freeways for baitfish and predators alike. Time your trip with the tide and position yourself accordingly. On an outgoing tide, work a channel from the outside, casting into shallow water and working your lure into the channel as if it is moving toward deeper water with the tide. Reverse this scenario for an incoming tide.
Enjoy the solitude of your nighttime 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 snapping at your lure and the subsequent hum of line peeling off your reel.