It's a fact among fishermen that big bass prefer to feed under the cover of darkness, when water temperatures are cooler. For those who choose to forego sleep in search for these mythical monsters, the prospect of success - as well as some relative solitude - is irresistible.
Lake Jocassee, a pristine, 7,500-acre mountain reservoir in the northwestern part of South Carolina, is a big-bass hotspot and a natural choice to employ some nighttime bass tactics. It's the only lake in the state where you can catch both trophy smallmouth and largemouth bass on consecutive casts.
When Duke Power impounded the Keowee River in 1973, Lake Jocassee was created. It is deep and cool, with steep banks and very little shallow water. The lake is largely undeveloped, with rocky bluffs and heavy timber along its corrugated shorelines.
Jocassee is acknowledged by most anglers as a trophy trout fishery rather than a quality bass lake.
"Lake Jocassee, for most anglers, is best known for its trophy trout," said Ken Sloan, owner of the Jocassee Outdoor Center. "Bass, for the most part, are a mere afterthought."
Rob McComas, who guides bass fishermen on Lake Jocassee, said that much of the lake's allure is the chance at a trophy-of-a-lifetime.
"Lake Jocassee fish are bigger than average," McComas said. "I guide for bass (on) several other North Carolina mountain lakes, but when I put the boat in at Jocassee, I know there's always that big-fish potential - and maybe the chance of catching a state record."
McComas catches several double-digit bass each year at Jocassee, and that makes fishing and guiding an exciting proposition. There is always a chance that the next strike is going to be a monster bass, even if it means fewer strikes as a result.
"Jocassee is definitely a quality-over-quantity bass lake," McComas said. "What it lacks in sheer numbers, it more than makes up for in size."
Why? McComas defers to simple biology.
"Relatively speaking," he said, "Jocassee has a higher ratio of baitfish per bass compared to other lakes in the area."
A handful of South Carolina fishermen with their names in the record book would doubtless agree. In addition to the brown and rainbow trout, Lake Jocassee has produced three other state-record fish, all bass. The state-record smallmouth was caught at night on May 11, 2001; it weighed 9 pounds, 7 ounces. The state-record spotted bass, caught in 1990, weighed 8-2. The state-record redeye bass, caught in 2001, weighed 5-2.5.
The mountain scenery surrounding Lake Jocassee is nothing short of breathtaking. Several waterfalls drop from the high bluffs and hills down to the shoreline, supplying the lake with clean-water conditions that allow bass to flourish. Mountains seem to skyrocket upward right from the water's edge, and wildlife abounds. It's quite the sight to behold for those who fish Jocassee during daylight hours.
But the big boys play at night.
"Night fishing certainly isn't for everybody," said McComas. "But the chances of catching a really big bass certainly favor those who don't mind braving a little darkness."
McComas said there are two very good times to be on the water when targeting nighttime bass.
"I've found the best times for night fishing are 30 minutes or so before and after sunset -and then well after midnight," he said. "In fact, I've found the very best times to catch a real monster bass is between 1 and 5 a.m."
Since darkness doesn't fall until 8:30 or 9 during the summer months, the three of four hours of cooling after the sun sets allows the water temperature to drop sufficiently - creating optimal nighttime fishing conditions. The cooler temperatures trigger a feeding response with larger fish.
The cooler evenings of late spring and early summer lead to optimal fishing times that are earlier than midnight. Most anglers agree that May through September is the best time to target nocturnal bass, however.
There is simply no bigger thrill in fishing than having a big bass hit a topwater lure in the darkness of night. It also happens to be the most effective night fishing tactic.
"My favorite lure for night fishing, especially on Lake Jocassee, is the old classic Arbogast Magnum Jitterbug," McComas said.
This 4-inch, jumbo topwater plug might illicit fewer strikes than a smaller lure, but the payoff is larger fish. For decades, bass have been unable to resist the distinctive "clug-clug-clug" sound that a Jitterbug makes as it is retrieved across the water.
"This big plug will give you the best shot at one of those Jocassee monster bass," McComas said. "Sometimes, I will also fish a smaller buzzbait that will lead to more strikes, but that also means smaller fish."
McComas rationalizes the use of larger lures at the expense of fewer strikes.
"If I am going to put forward the effort of fishing at night, I want the chance of catching trophy fish," he said. "I can catch smaller fish any time of the day."
For subsurface techniques, McComas finds that the same daylight tactics work just as well at night, including bait size and color.
"I like fishing plastic worms at night," McComas said. "Conventional wisdom suggests using black-colored worms at night, but I have had more success using the same worm colors that are successful during the day."
McComas finds green-pumpkin, watermelon, and junebug colors work exceptionally well at Lake Jocassee. Fishing at night allows angers to use much heavier line and tackle than Jocassee normally calls for.
"When fishing during the day, the water clarity is a real disadvantage for most anglers," McComas said. "Not only can fish easily see you and your boat, but they can see your line. Fishing at night eliminates both of those disadvantages."
Fishing locations on the lake can contribute to success or failure at night. McComas prefers to find areas where there is a good chance of finding cooler water temperatures.
"At night, especially after a hot day, the backs of coves, creeks, and inlet springs are where the best fishing will be found," he said. "The water is slightly cooler in these areas, and that triggers greater feeding activity compared to the main body of the lake."
Fishing in small coves and creek inlets at night is also safer than the main section of the lake. In the summer, particularly on weekends, there can be some significant recreational boat traffic well after the sun goes down. Small, secluded areas protect anglers from most of this traffic.
Fishing at night for bass has three big advantages. First, you avoid competing with other anglers for the best spots. Obviously, there are far fewer anglers on the lake at night than during the day.
Second, you don't have to endure the scorching summer temperatures. At night, cool, refreshing breezes blow across the water, and you might even have to slip on a light jacket.
Third, night represents your best opportunity to tangle with a big bass.
It's important to remember that some sections of Lake Jocassee are in North Carolina, particularly the Horsepasture River arm of the lake. This is precisely the type of water that is effective for nocturnal bass fishing. You must have a valid North Carolina license to legally fish that section of the lake. Crossing from South Carolina into North Carolina unintentionally is easy to do, particularly at night.
Fishing in the dead of night is certainly not for everyone, but it's also not exclusively for insomniacs. Sleep? Who needs sleep? There will be plenty of time to sleep come morning. Until then, there are fish to catch.