Night time is right time for Ozark trout?

Aug 3 2010 - 9:12pm

BRANSON, Mo. -- Phil Lilley was working the night shift at Lake Taneycomo.

About the time many tourists were going to bed, he was just heading out in his boat into the fog and darkness. His mission? To catch some of the big, nocturnal trout that call the Ozarks home.

The oppressive heat that has dominated weather patterns in recent weeks was nowhere to be found. Instead, the cold water of one of the best trout lakes in the nation was producing some air conditioning.

Moments after he had cast a black marabou jig into a bank of fog, Lilley felt a tap at the end of his line. He set the hook and listened as a big rainbow splashed out of the water in a rage.

The fish pulled out line as it strained to get free. But in a matter of minutes, Lilley had his trophy catch to the boat and into the beam of a flashlight.

"I'll guarantee you that fish wouldn't have been here during the day," he said as he lifted the rainbow trout into the boat.

"This is a shallow flat, and in the bright sun we've had, that fish wouldn't have been up here. But at night, I suppose it was out roaming, looking for something to eat."

Lilley placed the rainbow on a measuring board and said, "Twenty-two inches." Then he eased his catch back into the water and began casting for more.

Welcome to Lilley's idea of the night life in Branson, the country music capital of the Ozarks.

Lilley, who has run a resort on Lake Taneycomo for 28 years, knows that the cold water of the scenic river-like body of water can be crowded with tourists during the day at this time of the year, even in the heat. But he also knows that it can be deserted at night.

"I think a lot of people feel intimidated," he said. "With this fog, it gets to where you can't see a thing.

"For people who aren't familiar with the lake, it's hard to even know where you are. But the fish will bite at night, I know that."

Lilley proved it on a trip last week. Casting 1/8 -ounce marabou jigs, he and I caught and released 27 rainbows in a variety of sizes.

Very few were the small ones that indicated they had been stocked recently. Instead, most were thick and had brilliant colors, signs that they had been in the lake for a while.

Lilley started in the Trophy Area, a stretch of water where rainbows have flourished under restrictive regulations by the Missouri Department of Conservation and a big comeback of their food source, freshwater shrimp.

He targeted the channel slide of the water, positioning his boat so that his casts could reach the lip of a drop-off. But in the fog and darkness, it was all guesswork.

"We're pretty much casting blind," said Lilley, who runs Lilley's Landing resort and boat dock. "But as long as we're hitting water, we're fine.

"You should see this stretch during the day. There are trout everywhere."

The fishing has been outstanding early and late during the day. In fact, Lilley said the rainbow fishing has been the best he can remember in his 28 years on Taneycomo.

He credits much of that to the high water the last several years, which has resulted in a bumper crop of freshwater shrimp.

"The number of big rainbows we're seeing is impressive," he said. "A 16- to 17-inch fish is common. And we're seeing a lot more fish over 20 inches than we ever used to."

Lilley talks about the 27 1/2 -inch rainbow that was caught two weeks ago by a fly fisherman. "That fish weighed 8 3/4 pounds," he said.

Those were daytime catches. But Lilley knows the trout also will bite at night.

"I believe they can see at night," Lilley said. "They're looking up, and I think they will silhouette our baits.

"I think they're going off more than just vibration when they strike."

Lilley tries to slow his retrieve at night, working his baits with a jigging motion. He snaps the jigs upward, then lets them fall. It is on that descent that most of the trout hit. That strategy worked last week, when he enjoyed trophy fishing.

But it was more than just the fishing that captivated Lilley. He also enjoyed the solitude in a place that can get hectic during the day.

"To be out on Taneycomo in the summer and be the only boat on this stretch of the lake, that's unusual," he said. "It's nice and cool, the trout are hitting, and we have the lake to ourselves.

"Can't ask for more than that."

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