This Is the Absolute Best Time to Fish 

Early morning is often the best time of the day to fish.
© iStock.com/William Reagan

Written by Mike Edmisten

Updated: August 9, 2023

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Fishing continues to be a favorite pastime in the United States. According to their 2022 Special Report on Fishing, the Outdoor Foundation reports that, while overall numbers are down from the COVID-induced participation numbers of 2020, the number of Americans who fished in 2021 is still significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels. 52.4 million Americans (ages six and up) went fishing in 2021. This means that ​​17 percent of the U.S. population over age six went fishing at least once in 2021.

With so many American anglers, including 11.7 million who joined or returned to the sport in 2021, the questions about fishing are certainly many. One of the more common questions is, when is the best time to fish? It is a broad question with countless variables, but some general principles hold true in the majority of fishing situations. 

Side view portrait of father and son sitting together on rocks fishing with rods in calm lake waters with landscape of setting sun, both wearing checkered shirts, shot from behind tree

Over 53 million Americans went fishing in 2021.

©iStock.com/shironosov

Note: since 70 percent of U.S. fishing excursions are freshwater outings, that is where we will focus. Saltwater fishing is a sport all its own, complete with its own set of best practices.

When Is the Best Time to Fish?

While almost any time is a good time to be out on the water, most anglers actually want to catch fish! So when is the optimum time to reel them in?

What Time of Day Is Best?

For most freshwater fish, the best time to catch them is early morning or late evening, especially in warm weather months. More on that in a moment.

Fish are ectothermic (cold-blooded), meaning their environment influences their body temperatures. As the temperature near the surface rises at midday, fish will dive deeper to find cooler water. 

Bodies of water, such as lakes and ponds, are stratified. In the summer, the warmer water temperatures are near the surface, with colder water down deeper. Fish tend to be found more active near the surface, thus easier to catch, in the early mornings and late evenings.

Silhouette of angler during sunrise

Early morning is often the best time of the day to fish.

©iStock.com/Marek Trawczynski

What Time of Year Is Best?

Typically, spring and fall are the best seasons for fishing. Again, this is directly tied to fish biology. Because fish are cold-blooded and less active in very warm or cold water, that makes spring and fall the sweet spots for many freshwater fish.

Spring

Spring is the spawning season, which means fish are extremely active. In clear water, the spawn can make sight fishing easier since anglers can see the spawning beds.

Fish are also coming out of the winter season, the time of year when they feed the least. The warming weather raises their body temperature and increases their metabolism, which, in turn, increases their need for food.

woman fishing in pond in spring

Springtime fishing is some of the best fishing of the entire year.

©iStock.com/phbcz

Fall

After a long, hot summer, the cooler fall weather brings the water temperatures back down, which is welcomed by cold-blooded fish. The oxygen levels in the water increase, allowing fish to be more active. Fish are also looking to fatten up so they can endure the lean winter months.

Although spring and fall are best, that doesn’t mean fish can’t be caught during summer and winter, though. 

Summer

Summer can be a great time to fish if anglers avoid the heat of the day. Early mornings and late evenings can yield big results for popular freshwater fish such as bass.

Overnight fishing is also highly effective for some species during the summer. Catfish, for example, are notoriously lethargic during the heat of the day. They come to life at night, though. The best catfishing during the summer often begins an hour before sunset and continues until two hours after sunrise. These “whiskers” love the nightlife!

Catch and release fishing is a common practice among fishermen in Maryland. A catfish just caught is seen on a hook painfully struggling to escape with water dripping. Sunset sky is in background.

Catfish activity picks up at dusk and carries on through the overnight hours during the summer.

©iStock.com/Grandbrothers

Winter

Winter is the slowest time of the year for fishing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have success on a winter fishing trip. You simply need to reverse some of the best practices from the summer to find wintertime fish.

For example, fishing in the warmest part of the day is not a great idea in the summer, but it may lead to better results in the winter. Even if the water only warms slightly during midday, that can make a big difference for cold-blooded fish during the winter months.

Also, the temperature pattern in the lake is inverted during the winter. In the summer, the coolest water is found in the depths. During the winter, that is where the warmest water is found. The surface water is cooled by the winter air, while the deeper water remains a bit warmer. Successful winter fishing often involves fishing deeper and slower to entice lethargic fish to bite.

Boy catches a fish

Wintertime fishing can still yield results, even if that means cutting a hole in the ice!

©kadetfoto/Shutterstock.com

What if It’s Really Hot? Or Really Cold?

Fish often don’t react well to weather extremes. Sudden changes in a weather pattern can shut them down. Also, extreme hot and cold can keep fish very tight-lipped. 

When the water is cold, fish limit their activity to conserve energy. Many species enter a state of torpor in the winter. It is not a true hibernation state, but it allows the fish’s heart rate, respiration, and metabolism slow. Many fish grow very little, if at all, during the winter months.

On the other hand, when the water heats up in the summer, it also makes fish lethargic. Warmer water holds less oxygen than cooler water. This is why fish are also inactive in times of extreme heat. This inactivity means they require less oxygen, allowing them to tolerate the water’s lower oxygen levels in the dog days of summer.

Fishing is usually best when the weather is moderate and stable. Avoiding big changes and temperature extremes will increase the number of bites you will get.

What About Fast Moving Water?

Water systems where there is a swift, consistent current require a different approach. Streams and rivers where the water flows rapidly don’t experience the same temperature stratification as a pond or lake. When the water is moving quickly, it is not as impacted by the air temperature as still water. The rules of early morning and late evening don’t apply as stringently to these waterways. The faster the current, the less important the air temperature becomes.

Fish in fast-moving water don’t have the luxury of diving deep and remaining motionless in extreme temperatures. For example, trout living in a swift-flowing stream must always navigate the current, which means they are always expending energy. These fish must keep feeding throughout the year to have the strength to contend with the currents. However, swift-moving water is more oxygen-rich than still water so these fish can remain active more easily even in extreme weather conditions such as heat and cold. In fact, winter is the prime fishing time for some stream and river fish species.

Man fly fishing in Autumn in a wild river in Ninilchik, Alaska during Autumn

Fish in swift-moving streams have to feed more throughout the year to endure the strong currents.

©iStock.com/flownaksala

Is Fishing Better When It’s Sunny or Cloudy?

Overcast conditions often yield better results than when the sun is shining. When the sun shines brightly, fish may retreat to deeper water or protective cover. Cloudy conditions can move fish from these areas into more accessible water. Another benefit of overcast skies is that it hides you from the fish. When the sun is shining brightly, it makes you more visible to the fish.

If you are casting lures on a sunny day, choose slow-moving, darker-colored lures. These lures cast the best silhouette against the bright sky.

Visibility lessens in the water when it is overcast, so you want to toss a lure that the fish can see. Cloudy days are the perfect times to break out those brightly-colored lures.

You can catch fish in both sunny and overcast conditions. But, between the two, cloudy conditions often yield better overall results.

Split shot of the man fishing on the pond with plastic floating bait

Partly to mostly cloudy skies are a great time for brighter-colored lures.

©Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock.com

Can I Fish When It’s Raining?

Yes! In fact, rain can trigger a flurry of fish activity. A rainy day very often beats a sunny day for fishermen and fisherwomen.

For one thing, rain washes more potential prey, such as insects, into the water. This increase can send fish into a feeding frenzy.

Additionally, the rain agitates the water’s surface. This choppiness distorts the fish’s view of anything outside the water. Fish can’t see you nearly as well when it is raining, so they are far less likely to be spooked. The sound of raindrops will also mask the sound of your lure or bait dropping into the water. In short, rain can help you sneak up on the fish much more easily.

Rainy conditions often mean cooler temperatures. That also can lead to better fishing.

Remember, the fish are already wet, so they really don’t mind the rain! If you can tolerate the conditions, it can make for some outstanding fishing. 

Fly-fisherman catching trout in river, under the rain

Rainy conditions often bring some of the best fishing.

©goodluz/Shutterstock.com

Note: fishing when lightning is in the area is dangerous and should never be attempted. 

There Are Many, Many Variables in Fishing

These principles determining the best time to fish can vary for many reasons. Geography, for instance, can influence the best times of year for fishing. 

The spring spawn normally comes earlier for fish in the southern U.S. than fish in the colder northerly regions. Largemouth bass in Florida, for example, typically begin to spawn in December or January. In Minnesota, that very same bass species doesn’t normally spawn until May.

Fishing pressure is another unknown variable. If a body of water is heavily fished, it will impact how the fish respond. In that scenario, the best time to fish might be the time when the fewest anglers are on the water.

The fish species and the type of fishing also play a huge role in determining the best time to fish. Some fish are more sensitive than others when it comes to timing and weather. 

smallmouth vs largemouth bass

The timing of the bass spawn can vary by five months or more in different regions of the United States.

©iStock.com/stammphoto

It’s Called Fishing, Not Catching!

Even if you keep all these general principles in mind, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll catch fish. As the old saying goes, it’s called fishing, not catching. Fish are finicky creatures, so there are no ironclad rules in fishing. How often have we seen professional anglers absolutely stymied by their quarry? If it can happen to the pros, it can certainly happen to the rest of us.

However, the success of a fishing trip isn’t completely dependent on the number of fish caught. Putting down your phone, getting outside, and connecting with friends and family are all “wins” that can happen on a fishing trip.

But catching fish is fun, too! The principles discussed above can give you the best chance of success, but they can’t guarantee it. If you’re looking for guarantees, then fishing may not be for you!

Cute curly Afro-American boy looking at the fish in his hands while his dad holding a fishing rod

Fishing is about more than just catching!

©AT Production/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Mike is a writer at A-Z Animals where his primary focus is on geography, agriculture, and marine life. A graduate of Cincinnati Christian University and a resident of Cincinnati, OH, Mike is deeply passionate about the natural world. In his free time, he, his wife, and their two sons love the outdoors, especially camping and exploring US National Parks.

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