Surfcasting at Night

Conger eel caught at night in Nelson.
Conger eel caught fishing at at night off Rocks Road, in Nelson.

Conger eel caught at night at Rocks Road in Nelson. Congers are a species that come out to hunt at night.
Conger eel caught at night at Rocks Road in Nelson. Congers are a species that come out to hunt at night.

Surfcasting at Night

with Allan Burgess

There is something vaguely spooky about ­fishing in the dark. You can’t see what you have caught until you switch on your torch, by which time the fish may already be clear of the surf and jumping around under your feet.

To many surfcasters sunset signals time to pack up after a day at the beach and head for home. Only the most dedicated anglers carry on fishing late into the night: However, for those prepared to make the extra effort, fishing at night can be very rewarding.

A beach which may appear devoid of fish by day often becomes productive after sunset. This is the case along parts of the Canterbury coast. At North Canterbury beaches, like Amberley and Nape Nape, I have often found fishing during the day to be a dead loss. After dark it is a different story: red cod, in particular, seem to move in close to shore at night.

Big conger eels that shelter in the rocks during the day become active hunters at night. In the dark they will grab a hooked red cod and attempt to swim off with it. A spirited tug of war ensues. Unfortunately the eel soon tires of the game and lets go before it can be stranded on the beach. After reeling in your line you are left with a rather unhealthy looking red cod.

It is best to start a night fishing session in late afternoon or early evening: This leaves plenty of time to carry your gear into position and set up your tackle before the light fades. It also enables you to fish the productive light change period at dusk.

The most important item on any night fishing trip is a reliable torch. It is a good idea to take along a spare or at least a spare bulb: The damn things always seem to go on the blink when you have no backup.

A more effective means of providing illumination can be had from a Tilley lamp, which -runs on kerosene. Even better still is a gas powered lantern. These throw out a constant bright white light for up to eight hours making them ideal for baiting hooks, tying on terminal tackle, and generally seeing what you are doing. On the darkest nights, when there is no moon, they also act as a beacon from which to take your bearings.

Still others don’t bother with all this fancy gear. They simply light a fire from the copious amount of driftwood lying on most beaches – the flames serving as their only light source.

Just south of Christchurch, at Birdlings Flat, is my favourite surfcasting beach – especially at night. Anglers can be found fishing there almost every night of the year. Even on the coldest winter nights there are usually a few willing to give it a go.

Although there are a few blue moki and rock cod caught here, the most prevalent species is red cod. I wish that I could say they fight like black marlin. But sadly the fighting qualities of red cod have more in common with a soggy wet noodle. Different species of shark make up the remainder of the catch after dark. Of these the spiny dogfish is the most common. During the colder months of the year, they can be so numerous in the Canterbury Bight, both day and night, that it is almost impossible to catch anything else. They will take any baited hook almost the moment it hits the water. At a surfcasting contest, held at Birdlings Flat, my son and I caught 23 spiney dogfish in less than four hours. No big deal you might say. But when you consider that all the other contestants were catching them in similar numbers you can get an idea of how prevalent this species can be. Glamorous they are not. But when transformed by the more palatable name of snow fillets, they, like the humble red cod, make good eating.

Before you can fish confidently in the dark you must be conversant with your rod and reel. The dark is no time to learn to cast. At night there are new casting problems. Firstly, it is all too easy to get your line inadvertently wrapped around the rod tip. The next cast resulting in a bust-off. Always double check that the line is free before casting.

Secondly, you can’t see the flight of the sinker so you don’t know where it has gone. Not a good look if it goes straight up!

Thirdly, depending on the type of reel you fish with, it’s not difficult to end up with a “birds nest” from loose coils, or from not laying line evenly on the spool. These problems are all overcome with practice. Under cover of darkness the fish will come in close so there is no need for long distance casting.

At night I am inclined to fish with a two hook rig as it is impossible to see bait fly off under casting pressure. The second hook offers some protection against fishing without bait.

In the dark you can’t see your rod tip therefore, it is hard to tell when you have a customer nibbling your bait. The answer is to fish with long-line hooks. These are self-setting and take away the need to strike.

There are a number of other things you can do in order to make fishing the beach after dark a little easier. Spray your rod spike and rod tip with fluorescent paint to make it easier to see; keep all your gear in one neat pile, it saves leaving a valuable item behind when you set off for home in the dark. Also, take along more warm clothes than you think you will need.

When fishing the beach after dark you avoid the crowds and the midday heat; the fish are often easier to catch; and it greatly extends your available fishing time. If you haven’t tried it yet, give it a go.

In may like night fishing for trout in the rivers flowing into Lake Ellesmere.

Conger eel caught at night in Nelson.
Conger eel caught fishing at night off Rocks Road, Nelson.

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