The question asked by many fledgling anglers. The conundrum faced by many who would consider themselves well versed in the art and science of catching a fish. When is the best time to fish?
I am sure we all have that one crazy uncle who insists that the best time to fish is on the morning after a full moon, when Mercury is in retrograde, three days after it rained, between 7:00 am and 8:15 am.
While hard and fast rules like that would be great, it’s not that clear-cut.
Much of what time is productive depends on the area, body of water, time of year, and species you are after. Then there are tides to consider and other meteorological factors.
With all of those complications in mind, let’s look at each time of day and break this down.
Universally the most well regarded time to go fishing is the wee hours of the morning when the sun is first breaking over the horizon.
As its rays hit the water, so do the lures and baits of many fishermen. There is no arguing that this can be a great time to fish for most species but not all.
This morning time is generally the best time for more predatory species that like shallower water. If they do not reside in shallower water, they will soon move into shallow water after prey.
They will also be after some of that early morning warmth after the waters chilled overnight.
For species like bass, pike, musky, speckled sea trout, mahi-mahi, cobia, and salmon this is perhaps the best time of day to fish. What you are looking for are fish that generally eat larger food items less frequently. These are the fish species most likely to be after the take when the sun breaks.
Some factors may make mornings more or less productive than usual. If a cold front has passed through the night before you may find you need to switch tactics because the usual fish may not be biting. If they are biting, they will be biting at a different depth.
In the summer when nights are shorter, the morning feeding may start later. In the early spring and late fall with shorter days and longer nights, the fish will be more ravenous when that first light comes. They may hit harder and faster.
All things considered, I would rate mornings as the single most productive time to fish if all other factors are equal but they usually aren’t. Still, consider this the number one time to fish for most fishermen.
As the sun moves higher, most fish go deeper and seek cover. Some may stop feeding all together but this doesn’t mean that you can’t catch fish during the day. You just have to be selective about what you fish for and where you fish. Done right, this can be a productive time.
The most common fish caught are panfish species and other schooling fish. Sometimes these fish will seek cover and be extra cautious about revealing themselves to predators. This is generally true of both salt and freshwater species.
If you are going to go after these fish, you need to get them in the cover where they feel safe. For freshwater, this means areas of dense cover where the fish feel safe enough to feed. Areas like downed trees, docks, and overhanging rocks can be effective.
For saltwater, piers and jetties are the number one place to go. You may also find areas around mangroves and bridge pilings that will be effective when the heat is on. Either salt or freshwater, the more shade the better.
Deeper potholes can also pay off big. This is especially true for inshore angling for species like speckled trout, snook and redfish. Deep holes off grass flats can be great places to find fish seeking cooler waters and ambush sites.
Other species of fish to consider for daytime trips are the ambush predators. Fish like larger bass, pike, musky, and grouper are notorious for hanging in cover and going after food when it presents itself. The time of day generally won’t matter for when they feed but stay near cover that protects them from the sun.
In saltwater, any of the deeper dwelling species are just fine for daytime fishing. This could be tuna, sailfin, marlin, and shark. Some schooling fish like king mackerel are also good around cover that is at least 30 feet down.
If the day is overcast or rainy, change your tactics because some of those morning fish may be making an appearance. On cooler, overcast, late spring days, bass fishing can be especially good. So can fishing for a number of the more common saltwater species.
Generally speaking, fishing during the midday is the most difficult and least productive. Especially if overall volume of fish is your priority.
As morning has its dedicated followers, so does evening. There are many bass fishermen who swear by evening fishing as well as those after salmon, lake trout, and predatory catfish. This is also the time of the schooling fish and panfish.
Crappie are notorious for being best in the evenings, especially in the southern parts of the U.S. The same can be true with bluegill and sunfish. These smaller, voracious fish will feed off anything but really enjoy a good bug which are much more common as evening moves on.
Bass fishing, especially in the summer and fall can be very good in the early to mid-evening. Bass may seek out those fish species who are just now starting to hunt. The same can be true of musky, pike, and walleye. This probably won’t be anything like morning for these fish but effective enough to plan a trip.
For saltwater in the warmer areas, there may be fewer bugs in general but the ocean has its own invertebrates. Crabs and other smaller organisms come out to play when the sun starts to sink down. This will draw in many fish of various sizes to feed on this buffet.
Some of these fish will also become a food source. This is a great time for bluefish and speckled trout if the time of year is right.
Action around the docks and jetties will pick up for much the same reason. This plethora of small crustaceans and the fish that feed on them starts a chain reaction that can bring in some big-time predators. Most any cruising fish species that hunt in large areas may be caught off a pier on a good night.
The action in the mangroves also picks up in the evenings. Fish like snook, tarpon, and redfish will move around the edges and deeper channels seeking more abundant food sources. Arguably, this is the best time for mangrove fishing.
All around, the evening can be a great time to fish. Depending on the species you are after, it can beat the morning for productivity. If it has been a rainy, overcast day things may be even better as the last decent chance to feed before nightfall.
Night time fishing is a specialist sort of fishing. Not in the respect that it takes any special gear, it just takes a desire to catch a specific type of fish. Most fish have poor eyesight and without some other method of detecting the exact location of prey, night bites can be tricky.
Catfish are the big target for freshwater fishing after the sun is gone. These are more akin to filter feeders than other more predatory fish. They use a sense of smell to locate an area and sift mud up until they get a taste they like.
Fishing smellier baits are always more effective in fresh water after dark. Not only for catfish but the occasional white or hybrid bass which will readily feed on most baits that are intended for catfish. This type of fishing takes patience more than any other to just let your bait lie there and be found.
Crappie can also be active at night. But you’ll probably want to use special lights to attract them.
When it comes to saltwater, sharks are notorious nighttime feeders that use their Ampullae of Lorenzini to detect prey. Some have better eyesight and sense of smell than most fish but their detector organs will be the number one go to. Night time fishing for sharks is very exciting.
On warm nights with a full moon, you can also get some decent action in bass fishing. They will use that extra light in the cooler, shallow water to go after any available prey. They will not bite as well as in the morning hours but they will feed none the less.
The exception to this rule would be with the use of artificial lighting. Smaller creatures are brought in by the light like insects and small crustaceans. This starts that stair step effect that brings in larger and larger fish to feed. The larger species worth catching are often just outside the light, waiting.
For targeting some species night is absolutely the best time to fish. Off piers, it can also be unusually productive. For the avid angler, night fishing is a great time to get some action that you will never encounter during the day.
When it comes to fishing in the ocean, all that said above will also have to coincide with the tides. Even areas of freshwater near enough to the ocean can have their entire feeding schedule interrupted by tidal movement. You will need to consider this.
When fishing tides, if there were one rule to follow it would be that fish are lazy and avoid swimming against the current. Tides moving out can cause fish to move away from shore.
The opposite can happen when the tide is coming in. Predatory fish can rush in to feed on shallow prey.
This affects both inshore and offshore fishing but the farther away from land you get, the less the effect. The highest areas of effect will be mangroves, inshore flats, and beach fishing. Areas that are productive at one tidal stage may be barren at other stages.
Simply put, as tides move out, you want to get farther from shore but when tides move in, start fishing the areas that are closer. This is not universal and will typically only affect fish that feed in shallower water or near the surface.
An additional consideration when fishing the tides is that low tide may leave areas of water without an outlet to the sea. This makes a great fishing spot for species like redfish that are often caught in these areas.
Predicting the species you may find in these isolated areas is impossible. It is not unheard of for sharks to be stranded by a low tide. In California, this happened to a whale.
On the converse side of this, high tide offers fish access to habitat that is not predated at lower water levels. Areas at the backs of sandy flats and near rivers are great on higher tides that flood marsh grasses. The food sources provided will draw in a plethora of species.
The greater the tide, the more pronounced these two extremes of fishing will be and the greater effect offshore. During the strongest tidal movements, fish will tend to go deeper where the current is less pronounced.
Inshore, fishing on the lee side of structure that protects fish from the current and brings them food is an amazing opportunity. A bridge piling can become its own habitat full of opportunity as the tide pulls the water out. The reverse is true as the tide comes in.
You can get free tide data at USHarbors.
Rather than looking at specific times of day, it may be more helpful to look at fishing in terms of light levels and temperature. There are a number of other factors that can affect these two criteria.
Weather can make water temperatures drop. An overcast or rainy day can lower temperatures and cause fish to feed out of their normal cycle. During rain, fish that feed on the surface will stop feeding but those that feed deeper may be perfect for targeting.
Lower light levels from overcast days can change fish activity levels. They may feed later in the day and make their evening move earlier than expected. For night fishing, a new moon is a great time to fish as those species will be more reliant on their sense of smell.
In freshwater, moving water and cover can greatly change fish behavior. A slowing, woody stream or even a shallow wooded pond may have activity levels from all species at any time of day. Deep pools in flowing streams or on the lee side of cover are great all day long.
Ocean fishing is far more consistent with things like rain and overcast conditions. Storms are another matter. A storm moving in will drive some fish into shelter while others are driven deeper. Unless the storm is early in the morning, it is unlikely to make fishing any better.
The goal of this article is to answer a complex question. One that has many angles and aspects to consider and the most that can be offered is an opinion. One that I hope is an informed, researched, and tested opinion. Check out fishingpicks.com if you need some additional tips on gear. They have many informative articles on fishing tactics and gear.
For freshwater, the time depends on the species more than anything else. I will go after bass first thing in the morning, panfish in the evening, and catfish at night. I don’t fish midday unless we have had overcast conditions for several days. If I had to pick a time, it would be morning for productive fishing.
In saltwater, things are much more forgiving than in freshwater. If I had to pick a time it would be mid-evening when the tides are about halfway in. This is mostly for inshore fishing which seems to be far more productive at this time.
If I am after a deeper saltwater species on structure, I prefer late morning into the early part of the day. This is the time that most other species are seeking cover in deeper water and the ambush predators are waiting.
If you are just fishing and don’t care what you catch, stick with the late morning. Universally this tends to be most productive. If you are after specific species, you will have to plan it around that particular fish.