By Doug Olander / Updated: September 26, 2019
Talk to enough guys who make their living connecting anglers to fish about the effect of moon phase on fishing, and a clear pattern emerges: There is no pattern.
The Perplexing Moon Mystery
Yet one might conclude that the moon, more than anything else, dictates fishing success or lack thereof. I can’t begin to count the times I’ve spent tough if not fruitless days on the water in this or that fishing paradise only to be told, “Well, I’m not surprised, since we have a full moon” or, conversely, “Well, I’m not surprised, since it’s a new moon now. Too bad you couldn’t have come on the full moon.”
Capt. Kevin Nakamura hears the same sort of reasoning around Hawaii’s Big Island, where he charters for big-game pelagics. “It can’t be that our anglers just had bad luck, and they weren’t going to catch even if it was on fire. So it has to be the moon,” he says.
While the moon can rise, it can't rise to its own defense. So I set out to try to get a handle on this perplexing moon mystery. After all, by knowing the truth about the effect of the lunar condition on fish behavior, I could schedule all my future fishing when it has to be hot. Then never again will I be told that if I'd just come on the right moon phase, I'd have caught fish all day long.
After reviewing studies and interviewing more than 35 professional captains and scientists, I have gained some real insight into how and where lunar phase often does and doesn’t matter, and I reached one take-away (but more on that later).
Of course there’s no shortage of old wives’ tales and unfounded superstitious beliefs, as the “knowledge” of many weekend anglers confirms. Still, there are some specific fisheries where a clear empirical or scientific cause-and-result links moon phase to the behavior of certain fishes.
Some veteran skippers offer strong conclusions based on years and often decades of taking folks fishing. In some specific fisheries, the full moon is clearly key. In fact, quite a few species seem to bite best (during the day) on either side of a full moon.
"Big fish seem to like to bite for a few days before full and a few days after," says Nakamura, who runs Northern Lights out of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. "I've caught the majority of my granders during the full-moon phase," he says, noting that includes other areas he's fished marlin, not just off Kona." But he hastens to add that big fish are caught anytime, and for action, dark nights might produce the best fishing days: "I've had some record-setting days for numbers fishing Northern Lights during the new moon."
Similarly, Damon Olsen with Nomad Sportfishing out of Cairns, Australia, says fishing for big black marlin off the Great Barrier Reef is “exceptionally good” from seven to two days before a full moon. However, he adds, “on the actual day of the full moon, the bite is usually terrible.”
That, in fact, is a refrain I heard from a number of experts such as Olsen and Nakamura — that is, good either side of the full, but on the day of the full moon? Forget it.
But that’s hardly universal either. “I’ve found the day of the full moon and the whole week after to be the best time to get more bites, and more-aggressive bites, from blue marlin [around Bermuda],” says Capt. Allen DeSilva. “That’s the time to be dragging some plastic!” But, he adds, for big fish, go dark: “My years of fishing in Bermuda show that most of my big marlin (800-plus pounds) are caught on the new moon.”
Do Tuna and Mahi Feed Heavily on Bright Moonlit Nights?
Some billfish experts eschew the full-moon period because, they insist, marlin feed all night when it’s bright, and siesta during the day. “Avoid the full moon!” for that reason, says Navionics’ Paul Michele, who says ditto for tuna. “The new moon always seems better, with the fish not feeding at night.”
The same goes for mahi, says Capt. Dean Panos, who runs Double-D Charters out of North Miami. The mahi feed at night and are simply less hungry and aggressive during the day. “I’ve seen lousy mahi fishing time and again around a full moon. We see them on the surface, but they’re very hesitant to eat anything. They eventually start eating in the afternoon.” Key West’s Capt. R.T. Trosset and New York’s Capt. John Raguso both echo Panos: Mahi are tough on full-moon days after feeding all night.
Not all skippers agree. Capt. Bouncer Smith, who fishes off Miami in Bouncer's Dusky 33, says he does not believe mahi feed much at night, whatever the moon state. "But king mackerel do," he says, and they are likely to have lockjaw on full-moon days.
That’s borne out by Dr. Ray Waldner, a fisheries scientist at Florida’s Palm Beach Atlantic University, who recounts his time on a rod-and-reel commercial kingfish boat. “On nights around full moons, the mackerel bite could be outstanding, but then the daytime bite would be poor to nonexistent. The daytime bite was best during the new moon.”
When it comes to swordfishing, the consensus suggests an angler’s best shot will be dark-moon periods. The reasoning mostly hinges around the swords feeding higher and more actively in the water column in those dim conditions, and as Panos points out, homing in much more certainly on light sticks than in bright moonlight. He’s joined by Michele and Panos in emphasizing that full moons still offer sword action, but those fishing at night need to put baits deeper and use more light. (And, Panos says, while the swording might be tougher on a full moon, the fish one does hook then will likely run larger.)
But here again, we see a flip side; Scott Aalbers, a research biologist with the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research in Oceanside, California, reports that although eastern Pacific swordfish catches seemed to be highest during the new moon, Atlantic longliners had the greatest success during full moons — which would seem to suggest, Aalbers says, that Atlantic swords are feeding heavily during the full.
Trosset says wahoo school up during the full moons in winter, making that a good time to target them. And the same is true of wahoo off South Florida spring through fall, says Smith: “Spring through fall, if a charter has a desire to catch a wahoo, we’ll tell him to plan on fishing a full-moon period” (both sides of the full).
Moon Dance for Tarpon
Smith is a true believer in the moon’s effect on fish and fishing. “The moon rules everything!” he says. “Tarpon fishing gets better and better leading up to the full moon.” That same moon shuts off the action April through June, when the tarpon move offshore to spawn, “but they generally return within a few days,” he adds.
On the other side of the Sunshine State, Capt. Ed Walker, who charters out of Tarpon Springs, sees the same offshore migration but suggests once they leave, tarpon action off Gulf Coast beaches gets harder to come by.
Capt. Greg Hildreth, who runs charters from Georgia’s St. Simons Island, is all about the full moon when fishing tarpon during summer, citing bigger pods of the fish then. Ditto Michele, who says a full moon is “absolutely” the best time for tarpon (though at low tides, the fish might want only crabs).
Some shallow-water skippers are big on full moons. In Texas’ Galveston Bay complex, where Capt. Steve Hillman fishes, four to two days before a full moon proves to be a particularly reliable time to fish speckled trout, for both numbers and a shot at trophies (but just after the full, the bite wanes).
Snapper enthusiasts also tend to favor the full moon, when the fish congregate for spawning. Look for muttons during May and June moons off Key West, says Trosset. The same is true of cubera off Miami, says Smith. The big, prized snapper are taken throughout the year but are much easier to target during full moons of summer. Describing Bermuda, DeSilva says, “the full moon is the best time to catch all species of snapper.”
Moon Tides Matter
Whether the light of the moon is a factor or not in various fisheries, tide most likely is. And tidal flow is influenced by moon phase. Taken in that context, most pros agree that moon phase becomes critical. Stronger currents around big tides turn on the feeding switch for most game fish. And the biggest (spring) tides occur around full and new moons.
Capt. John Luchka, who charters out of Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, says stripers follow rising water into estuaries during “moon tides.”
Olsen says giant trevally concentrate around “pressure edges” (points) on the Great Barrier Reef to prey on baitfish stacked up there by the heavy tidal flow just before new and full moons.
In Florida’s southern Indian River Lagoon, “it’s all about tides and the moon phase,” says Capt. Ed Zyak, out of Stuart. He cites snook that stack up in the inlets on full and new moons, when tides are strongest, from May through September. Such concentrations of fish “make for lots of action-packed days.”
Even offshore, says Capt. Brad Philipps, with Guatemala Billfishing Adventures, tides affect the feeding of marlin, particularly where the bottom rises to shallow waters (he cites the famed North Drop off St. Thomas as an example).
Trosset likes the big tides around big moons for Keys bonefish, permit and tarpon; on Florida’s Nature Coast, Capt. William Toney says the heavy currents help keep snook feeding.
All this said, when it comes to the moon phase being a critical factor in fishing success, skeptics abound.
“I think there is little empirical evidence from statistical analyses to support the many hypotheses put forth [regarding fishing success and moon phase],” says Kurt Schaefer, a scientist with the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission. Regarding tuna specifically, “Tunas feed day and night during all phases of the moon. They don’t need additional lighting from a full moon to capture their prey.”
Good captains adapt to accommodate the lunar situation, says Capt. Luke Fallon, out of Cairns, who specializes in Australia’s giant marlin. “If the fish are there, you’ll catch them no matter the moon phase.”
In a 2003 study on striped marlin catch success versus lunar phase out of Los Cabos, Baja, lead author G. Ponze-Diaz, wrote: “No significant difference [in fishing success] during the full moon [versus] other lunar phases was found.”
“I haven’t seen any correlations with moon phase that made sense” to explain striped bass success, says longtime Chesapeake Bay guide Capt. Richie Gaines.
I don’t worry about moon phase when swordfishing,” says one of the world’s best-known swordfish captains, Nick Stanczyk, out of Bud ‘n Mary’s Fishing Marina in the Florida Keys. “I’ve had good and bad trips on every moon phase.”
Australia’s Laurie Wright suggests that rather than worrying about the state of the moon, “I would rely more on fishing with the best captain/guide I could afford.”
So, back to that promised take-away. For me, it’s pretty simple. While it’s great to know what the moon phase is doing and in many cases understand how that might affect the behavior of fish I’m targeting, when all is said and done, I’ll go fishing whenever I have the time and opportunity, moon be damned.
Title image by Guy Harvey