Mooneye are a blast to target on the fly, and it’s a shame they don’t get more attention from fly and spin anglers alike. They’re a hyperactive fish, and are strong fighters. The fight is comparable to a similar-sized smallmouth bass. The fact that Mooneye are hyperactive means that they’re relatively easy to catch, you just need to know when and how to fish for Mooneye.
What are Mooneye?
Mooneye (Hiodon tergisus) and their close relative’s Goldeye (Hiodon alosoides) are two species of shad-like fish that live in central North America. They are quite similar to shad and gaspereau in appearance and behavior, but are actually unrelated.
How to catch Mooneye?
I think by far the most fun way to target Mooneye (and Goldeye) is dry fly fishing. Mooneye will readily take not only the usual dry fly suspects (mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies), but terrestrial insects as well.
Using dry flies is most productive when the fish are actively rising. When mooneye are rising, you can easily see where they are feeding and cast to them. This will typically result in a fairly quick take. You can give the fly a few twitches to draw attention from the fish.
As for what patterns to use? Match the hatch. They’re very much like trout in that they’ll most readily take whatever is hatching at the moment. They differ from trout though in that they’re much less picky. While a perfect match to the hatch is ideal, you can have a successful fishing trip with oversized stimulators and foam hoppers regardless of what’s hatching.
Most common dry fly patterns I use for Mooneye (Typically in size 2-12, although they’ll take smaller):
- Standard mayfly patterns such as Adams and Royal Wulff
- Caddis fly patterns such as Goddard Caddis and Elk hair caddis.
- Foam hopper patterns such as Fat Albert and Morrish Hopper.
- Classic stimulator patterns.
Other patterns such as damselfly and flying ant patterns also work well.
Given that most of the fishing you’ll be doing is during low light conditions or night (I’ll come back to this later), darker fly patterns are a better choice. I also especially like foam patterns for night time fishing as there’s no question as to whether the fly is still floating or not.
Poppers are another fun way to target Mooneye. If the fish are only rising occasionally, it’s harder to pinpoint exactly where they are feeding. Poppers allow you to cover more water than you could with dry fly fishing. They also draw more attention than a dry fly.
An added bonus of using poppers is you’re more likely to catch other species as well. Leading up to sunset is the prime time for topwater fishing for smallmouth bass. If you’re fishing water with both bass and mooneye present, poppers are an option to ensure more hookups since you’re targeting multiple species.
I say poppers, but I actually use gurglers more often. panfish sized poppers or smallmouth sized gurglers are what I have the most success with.
I’m an extremely avid streamer enthusiast and stand by the fact that streamers can catch any fish that swims. Mooneye are no different, as they’ll readily chase down juvenile fish and minnows.
Specific streamer types don’t matter a whole lot with mooneye. Keep to streamers tied no trout/salmon hooks though. The hook gap on bass & pike hooks is too large in most cases for mooneye.
Dark wooly buggers and zonker patterns around size 2 have been most productive for me while streamer fishing for Mooneye. I typically use a floating line for mooneye fishing so the streamers I use are lightly weighted just enough to get below the surface, typically with just a simple brass bead head.
There’s typically no need to go deep, but I have caught mooneye accidentally on crayfish patterns before. This was while targeting walleye (which is another species that should get more attention from fly anglers), so they really can be caught on a wide range of fly patterns.
I tried nymphing for Mooneye once, and it was quite successful. I have so much success with the above methods though that I haven’t bothered nymphing aside from one time as a test.
The reason nymphing works so well, is mooneye are primarily planktivores. They are constantly cruising, gobbling up any invertebrates in the water column. A hares ear nymph suspended under an indicator rig will readily get gobbled up by a cruising mooneye.
When to Target Mooneye?
Time of day
Mooneye really are nocturnal/low light fish, even more so than Walleye. Catches during daylight hours are typically accidental/incidental. If you want to purposely target Mooneye, I recommend starting about a half hour before sunset.
In the locations I fish for Mooneye, the smallmouth bite will pick up as sunset approaches and then slowly switch to a Mooneye bite as it gets darker. The half-hour/forty-five minutes immediately after sunset is typically when I have the most success targeting mooneye.
Mooneye will continue to feed into the night for as long as you want to continue fishing. The waning hours of daylight just allow you to still see your fly, so you’ll have better hookups. As it gets darker, you’ll have to rely on sound(for topwater) & line tension to determine when you have a take.
While night fishing, a Headlamp (Amazon Link) is necessary for tying knots, switching flies, releasing fish, and dealing with any line issues (which always seem to crop up in low visibility). You don’t fish with the headlamp on (that would scare the fish), but you need it for everything else.
Unless absolutely necessary, try to always use the red light on the headlamp. The red light is less likely to scare the fish, and will help preserve your night vision.
Any time you turn on a light, it takes a few minutes for your vision to readjust to lowlight conditions. Regardless of what kind of light you use, face away from the water you’re fishing when you turn it on to minimize how much you spook the fish.
A workaround for the low visibility during night fishing, is to fish during a full moon on a clear night. The moon provides enough visibility that you can still see your fly & the takes, especially if you’re facing the moon so it can reflect off the water.
The exception to night time fishing is someone that is very knowledgeable about local mooneye movement patterns. You may be able to pinpoint a school during the day with enough research/time on the water. They’ll typically be in deeper water during the day, and day time fishing often requires a boat.
Time of Year
This is a bit region-specific, but generally holds true in most areas. In my area, mooneye hang out in deeper water for much of the year. They come in shallow starting in July, and it really starts to pick up in August into the first half of September. Late summer/early fall is the ideal time to target these fish from shore.
Where to Target Mooneye?
I target all my mooneye in mid to large sized rivers (mostly the Ottawa river), although they can be found in lakes as well. Most of my good Mooneye spots are calmer back bays off of the main river, or even right in the current. The Ottawa river and Mississippi River are the two main water bodies that I target these fish.
What Fly Fishing Equipment do I need?
A typical floating line set up intended for either smallmouth bass or trout will work for Mooneye just fine. I personally use my 7 weight smallmouth setup, as I like to be able to throw gurglers in addition to dry flies.
I also like to use a standard Trout Net (Amazon Link) while fishing for Mooneye. These fish are very active and if you want to actually land one, a net is necessary. Landing them by hand is an exercise in frustration as they are very energetic, slippery, and prone to throwing the hook.
Are Mooneye good to eat?
While not a choice eating fish in the same way that walleye or trout are, Mooneye can actually make decent table fare. I haven’t done it myself, but I hear they smoke quite well. If you’re intending on keeping them a net really is necessary, they’re slippery fish and need to be dispatched quickly if you want to retain them (otherwise they’ll escape).