Most of us don’t get to spend as much time fishing as we’d like, and when we’re fortunate enough to hit the water, we want to maximize our success.
Knowing the right season, time of day, weather, moon phase, and even day of the week can go a long way toward increasing your chances of catching, not just fishing.
Especially if you’re new to the sport, you might know little more than it’s a good idea to start just before sunrise. The other elements may seem confusing, complicated, or just not worth your trouble.
You'd be wrong about that!
If you want to demystify the best times to fish and increase the excitement of the time you spend on the water, keep reading.
Table of Contents (clickable)
While fish can be caught year round, there are definitely better seasons than others.
For most species, spring and fall are the prime seasons, as water temperatures are comfortable for the fish. By contrast, summer’s heat can cause stress, driving fish deep and turning off their desire to feed. And chilly water temperatures in winter cause most species to enter a state of torpor, slowing down to conserve energy and reducing their need for food.
It’s not that you can’t catch fish in summer or winter - you most certainly can! - but rather that these seasons aren’t ideal.
Let’s take a closer look and really concentrate on the details.
Rocks to hold heat? Shallow water? That’s a great place to fish in early spring.
For most species, and certainly for largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, perch, bluegill, walleye, and other popular game fish, winter was a long, slow, sleepy season. To preserve their energy, fish were slow and inactive, and as cold blooded creatures, their body temperatures drops with the water temperature around them, leaving them very little energy to hunt and feed.
When the days start to lengthen and green buds appear on the trees, the water is getting warmer and warmer in the stronger - and longer - sun. As temperatures rise, two things happen that matter to you.
First, the fish start to wake up, gain energy, and get hungry. They’ll move from that slow winter torpor to greater energy and activity, and they’ll be starving after that long break from feeding.
Second, most game species spawn in the spring. The females especially need calories and nutrients to produce their eggs, and they’ll be actively feeding on high-nutrient prey items.
Bass, walleye, and crappie are probably at their most active in the spring, pre-spawn, as they fatten themselves up. But nearly every freshwater species is going to be actively feeding as the water warms up.
You can catch fish in bright sun in the summer, but it’s tough.
As spring gives way to summer, the water will warm up appreciably. This is especially true in the more southern parts of the US.
As temperatures continue to rise, three things work against you.
First, high water temperatures stress fish, causing them to stop feeding, lose weight, and even die. Temps above 81 F start stressing largemouth bass, for instance, and the bite will noticeably diminish with each degree above that.
Second, the warmer the water, the lower the oxygen saturation. Fish breathe oxygen, removing that life-giving gas from the water through their gills. When the oxygen levels drop, fish will move deeper, looking for more “air.”
Third, heat will drive fish deeper in search of cooler water, and they’ll look for deep holes and channels to wait out the heat.
Sunny fall days when the water is warm can be magic.
As the leaves change and the days grow shorter, water temperatures fall again. That triggers fish to begin feeding again as they’re relieved of any heat stress, oxygen levels rise, and they sense the coming winter.
Instinctively, they know they need to fatten up for that long period of relative inactivity, so they begin feeding aggressively again.
Don’t let the snow and ice keep you off the water.
Depending on your local climate, winter could just mean lower water temperatures or a complete ice-over.
If you live where the water dips into the 50s during the day, the fishing can remain active all winter.
If you’d like to known more about the best seasons - and seasonal techniques - check out these articles:
Time of day
Low-light conditions are the prime hunting times for predatory species like bass.
Most predatory species - and that includes virtually every game fish but carp - are most active in low-light conditions.
Blessed by nature with keen eyesight, sensitive lateral lines to detect vibrations, and stunning speed, most big predatory fish are ambush predators that take advantage of the low light offered in the 90 minutes surrounding sunrise and sunset.
Pike, musky, bass, trout, perch, and panfish of all kinds will be more actively feeding in the early morning and evening than any other time - for the most part.
But every rule has exceptions, and this one does, too.
When the summer heat is causing stress and depleting oxygen, bass and other large predators will switch to night feeding, moving shallow after dark to find frogs, lizards, insects, and anything else that ventures into the water.
This is especially pronounced in warm climates where daytime water temperatures exceed 81 F.
In the summer, fish switch to night-time feeding cycles.
Just ask Bernie Barringer. “My biggest muskie, 53 inches long and wide as a birch log, was caught 2 hours after dark. I am not alone in this; just ask a room full of serious muskie anglers and the ones who fish at night will have a story similar to mine. Big fish work the night shift.”
Walleye offer another exception to this rule.
Among the most keen-sighted hunters out there, they love to hunt all day when the water is choppy and the skies are cloudy. These conditions, nicknamed “walleye chop,” are prime times to hit the water in search of actively feeding wallies.
The final exception is in early spring and late fall.
When the water is very cool at night, many species of fish won’t have the energy to feed actively before sundown. They’ll wait till the sun has warmed the water, and they’ll tend to cluster around heat sinks like pilings or rocks, and they’ll hang on the south and west sides of lakes, where the sun warms the water first.
If you’d like to know more about this topic, check out these articles:
While sunny, bright-blue skies look appealing to anglers, they’re anything but to fish in most circumstances.
Let’s dig down into the details.
Warm, sunny days can be ideal time to fish when the weather turns cool.
In early spring, late fall, and winter, bright sun can be a blessing to anglers.
While most game fish are low-light predators, cold water temperatures make them sluggish, and just like the cold-blooded prey they feed on, they’ll head for warmer areas in a lake, river, or pond.
Sunny spots, especially around heat sinks like rocks or pilings, and shallows where the water warms quickly as the sun rises, are excellent areas to target.
But in warm weather - anything with water temperatures over 80 F - fish are going to start moving into shade, dropping lower in the water column, or just sitting out the heat until dark.
If it’s pleasant weather for you to fish, and the sun is bright blue, chances are the bite won’t be at its peak.
Clouds can save a hot summer day.
Cloudy days can be ideal for fishing, especially in late spring, summer, and early fall.
Less sun means cooler water temperatures, and the diffuse light gives predatory species like bass, crappie, and pike an advantage.
Walleye chop is a real thing.
Walleye are well-known to prefer overcast, windy days that create choppy, unpleasant conditions for anglers. The shadows and dim light these conditions create below the surface are ideal for hunting, and they take full advantage of it.
And when the weather changes from sunny to overcast, the wind picks up, and a storm rolls in with a cold front, the fishing can be excellent. Especially when the weather has been hot and sunny, the fish will turn on, get active, and start feeding voraciously.
A sudden storm can really turn on the bite in summer!
Don’t let rain drive you off the water!
Remember that high water temperatures stress fish and reduce dissolved oxygen levels. Both lead to sluggish behavior and a cessation in active predation.
As the clouds roll in and the temp drops, water temperatures will fall as well. And wind speeds this process, churning the water from the depth and improving oxygen levels.
That magic combination can signal some of the best fishing all summer, and it’s definitely something to watch for.
Barometric pressure changes probably have something to do with this increase in activity, but the relationship between pressure changes and fish behavior is poorly understood.
If you’d like to know more about how the weather affects fishing, check out these articles:
The next morning, fishing isn’t going to be great, guaranteed.
For reasons that are not well understood, lunar cycles affect fish behavior - and not just at night.
Pros on the tournament trail, like the legendary Kevin Van Dam, pay close attention to lunar cycles, but not in isolation.
“Don’t get me wrong. I pay attention to moon phases,” he explains. “I just don’t rely on them to tell me everything. Understanding what phase the moon is in at any given point, as well as current whether [sic] and water temperature patterns, available forage and any other subtle signs is how I start putting an early season pattern together.”
One thing you absolutely understand is that when the moon is full, fishing in the day is weak sauce.
With a bright moon overhead providing excellent hunting conditions for keen-eyed predators like bass, pike, musky, and walleye, they’ll switch to a nocturnal pattern. They’ll hunt and feed all night and then take the day off, resting until sundown.
When the moon is full, hit the water at night.
When you hit the water that morning, you’re coming in when the fish are exhausted, full, and ready to rest.
So keep in mind that the new moon means great day fishing, especially if the weather cooperates.
If you want to know more about how the moon affects fishing, check out this article:
Day of the week
Not an ideal time to fish.
Fish can’t tell if it’s Saturday or Tuesday, but anglers can.
Fishing pressure can turn off the bite faster than anything else, and especially among species like bass, they’ll become wary, cautious, and downright particular.
Most lakes, ponds, and rivers are busiest over holidays and weekends, when anglers have time off from work.
If you can hit the water a few days after that, giving time for the fish to relax and recover from that pressure, your odds skyrocket.
It’s also important to offer the fish something they’re not seeing all the time, and it can really improve your chances if you switch to finesse techniques that offer subtle presentations.
Knowing when to fish is as important as knowing how to fish.
That may sound foolish, but even pros will get skunked if the conditions aren’t right.
We hope that you've learned something from his article, and we’d love to hear from you if you did.
Please leave a comment or question below, and we’ll be in touch.