You can’t stand up to the night until you understand what’s hiding in its shadows. — Charles De Lint
Last June I made a commitment. I promised myself that I would go deep into the night game and learn to catch the wildest trout in the darkest hours.
Having spent a decade of summers swinging a fly rod on a few random, dewy nights each season, and hooking the occasional fortuitous fish, I presumed that with real time invested wading in the shadows of moonlight, I would quickly find my net full of fish.
Not so much.
My journey into the dark has been a bewildering maze of inconsistency, dashed hopes and reconfigured plans. Good night fishing in this region is a paradox, and the darkness itself is a perfect metaphor for this disquieting process.
In fourteen months now, I’ve night fished through all four seasons, mostly putting in a trip or two each week, and I’m now back to the transitional season that seemed to kick off some discoveries for me last year. As summer transformed into fall, I learned the benefits of swinging smaller patterns underneath the water, instead of moving larger patterns on the surface, and my hookup rate improved dramatically. It was so good at times, that I foolishly believed that I’d found the method for fishing through the twilight.
But then winter arrived …..
I keep records of the night shifts, and the January deep freeze of 2015 started a long chain of fishing reports with the skunk. One after the other, night after night, nothing moved a fish….. but it made me even more curious, and by adapting rigs and strategies to get low and fish slow, I started turning a few more fish as my boots crunched through the dry snow of mid-winter.
It was in those coldest months where I finally became comfortable drifting flies at night instead of swinging them. The upstream approach allowed me to get the flies low and keep them there (in the faces of cold, lethargic trout), and although my numbers were still low, each trout seemed like a huge success because I was building a set of skills for the night game.
The difficult fishing held out even with the breakthrough of spring, and it wasn’t until June that things started to pick up on my home stream.
It’s full of fish — loaded. In every likely spot there is not just one, but probably two or more wild browns looking at what you are offering; so there was no better training ground than the water I know best, and I spent that whole first year mostly fishing the night shift at home.
And so it was early this summer when I shifted my focus to bigger waters for bigger fish. Honestly, though, it’s been a pretty slow summer of night fishing. I’ve come to believe that some of the tactics and rigs that I was working with on my home waters don’t translate quite as well to these other rivers, especially if I’m targeting larger fish.
With some regularity, I’ve started spooking big fish in the shallows. Often, I’m only a rod’s length away when these monsters erupt from the water, leaving my nerves frayed and my head shaking with disappointment, because these are the fish that I’m after.
For a while I focused on these shallow areas exclusively. The theory is that the largest predatory fish live by day in the pockets, guts, log jams, undercut banks — whatever prime location they’ve decided to call home — then move out into the shallows to pick off a few baitfish under the cover of darkness before returning to their honey hole in the morning. In a year of night fishing, I had never experienced this on my home water, but now it happens with some frequency on these bigger waters.
Trouble is, they aren’t in the shallows every night. And how many snacks do you think they actually gulp down in one evening? Not many. How many large, predatory fish are in one area, anyway? Not many. The odds are low ….. but the payoff …. is spectacular.
Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to land a few nice fish, and because I’ve gone so many fish-less night hours in the last year, the feeling of satisfaction is unmatched. I’m catching night feeders in a bunch of different ways now and in many different water types. The decision to switch from drifting a small nymph in pocket water to swinging a large surface pattern against a skinny bank is starting to become instinctual. It’s a necessary dynamic approach that results from my tendency to move on; even at night, I like to work large sections of river, so I need to regularly adjust my methods for the next piece of water that I face.
I won’t be foolish enough again to believe that I have much of anything figured out; I’m sure that many nights with the skunk are waiting for me just around the corner, and I fully expect next winter to beat me back down, but for right now, I’m enjoying the increase in hookups and the stronger pulls on the end of the line.
When the sun set, I drove far then walked further for a fish. While standing beneath a brilliant canopy of unimaginable galaxies I felt small, but powerful. I inhaled crisp, foggy air and returned it as heat. My footsteps pushed waves to the far edges of a pool, and life scattered in the shallows upon my approach. Then, as I walked the grassy banks, navigating around fallen timber, miles from any pavement or porch lamp, I stopped fighting against an oppressive force, and I let the darkness envelope me.
The things of night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist. — Ernest Hemingway
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
*** Thanks to those who have recently gotten in touch through the blog about the night shift. I’ve learned a lot by throwing ideas around with other crazy people. If you are interested in doing the same, please feel free to email me. We are assembling a night fishing army ……