— This is the companion chapter to The Shallows Above, published a few days ago.
… I’ve done this nighttime thunderstorm thing before. Two summers ago, on a dark night in July, I was surprised by another thunderstorm. And once again, it was one of the most memorable nights I’ve had.
Everywhere, the fish were moving. The network of river life seemed to be in motion: minnows, sculpins and crayfish scattered through the shallows when I scanned with my light; I saw a pair of muskrats scamper off as the light hit the bank, and something large and living bumped my ankle in the dark, shallow water. Everything alive was moving during the thunderstorm.
The wind pushed through the treetops with enough force that fallen branches floated in the river. I had little hope for good fishing that night, but I stayed on through the storm. I landed a foot-long brown trout within my first few casts, so I decided to stick with it and see what could happen. I’m glad I did.
I caught a few more trout through the heavy rain, and when the storm passed, the rain tapered into a steady sprinkle. I was wet and cold but convinced that this was the night for fishing. So I walked upstream through the shallows until I saw a rock in the creek. Behind it was a calm pocket the size of a large truck tire.
It’s really not dark at night. There’s always light from somewhere, and on this night the light came from distant clouds. The electric lights of civilization glowed on the horizon. Photons travel from backyards and porch lights; they were thrown into the clouds; they traveled two miles, entered the water and then reflected into my eyes to reveal the space before me. That’s downright amazing.
Still, it was what I would call a darker night than most. There were just enough of the civilized photons to indicate a shape in the pocket five feet in front of me. The shape was narrow, long and muscular, and its back bulged just above the surface — a damn big trout sat there in ten inches of water. I’m still not sure if I saw it first, or if the fish moved and then I saw it. The powerful specter drove forward, swirled and half-circled with aggression toward something. It struck fast (the slow motion was only in my mind), and it seemed to trap its target against the downstream side of the rock. The predator’s intensity was startling, and my heart stopped for a moment. I felt uneasy, standing in the dark, sharing the same water.
A second later, the legendary fish was gone. I assumed that it sunk behind the rock, so I gathered my wits and crept with slow caution to the far side of the narrow channel, under a few low-hanging hemlock limbs. I fished the spot hard for the what seemed like an hour, trying every reasonable (and unreasonable) fly in my box. Nothing took my flies. I’ve been back many times in the darkness, carefully fishing the spot before finally giving up, shining my light and finding … vacancy. Maybe he doesn’t exist anymore. All I know is, on that stormy night, he did.
I encountered more fish in the shallows that night, but nothing close in size to the first one. The predator remains one of the most exciting encounters I’ve had out there in the dark. That fish has given me a lot to think about.
You can’t fish every piece of dark water at night. And some places get overlooked. When I find a fish like that, I mark it down. It’s mentally burned in. Permanently. A fisherman never forgets.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
Enjoyed your article. It is however, based on the premise that brown trout, especially big brown trout are territorial and stay in one place for years. Dr. Bob Bachman’s study on Spruce Creek in the early ’80s has often been cited to support this belief. He tracked wild SC browns for 3 years and found that they returned to the same rock in the pool year after year. I do not doubt Dr. Bachman’s conclusions regarding Spruce Creek, but they can not be applied to the Little Juniata River trout. As you know, LJRA and Juniata College conducted a brown trout behavior study using telemetry on the Little j last year. While our primary goal of determining where the trout go for refuge during periods of high water temperatures was not achieved (water temps never got warm enough), we can draw the conclusion that wild brown trout do not stay put. Instead the trout in our study used the entire river! They moved far ( some times many miles) and often. And note that the larger trout moved the most and the farthest both up stream and down! We hope to continue our study next season, building on what we have learned.
Bill, this is excellent. I love it.
THIS summer certainly would have been hot enough to force relocation, right? Are the tags no longer trackable?
In the story above, I went back (and still do) to the same location because I believe if that trout doesn’t live there anymore, it’s likely that another large trout does.
My Troutbitten friends and I have tracked many large wild browns by catching and taking pictures of them. We were honestly shocked to discover how often the same big fish was in the same spot … season after season and year after year. No, not always, but dozens of top tier fish seemed to stake their claim and sit on it.
We continue to take pics of the biggest browns and “track” them in that way. So far, it’s been the same in almost every water that we fish.
I do recognize that there are also many fish that are moving a lot. There are plenty of big trout that we catch and then can’t find again. That’s why I find your telemetry studies so interesting.
I agree that info gathered from Spruce can’t be applied elsewhere. I think the Spruce Creek set up is too artificial to be trying to determine wild trout behavior. Too many stocked fish. Too much feeding from the bank. Tough, then, to determine what an honest, wild behavior would be.
We gotta get together soon.
Unfortunately all our transmitters died in June/July. They had a 500 day life and were placed beginning in early spring 2015. Of the 24 trout we tagged all were over 14 inches (mature and over 3 years old). A few did stay put, some time for months. Others left and were MIA (i.e. not in the 20 mile stretch of main river we were survailing) for many weeks. There were 6 trout we could not locate from August 2015 until spring 2016 and then they showed back up near where they were originally caught! The other factor in the Little J that differs from most trout streams is that the j gets too warm for trout in its upper 15 miles while it stays cool enough from the middle river downstream. Those wild browns living in the upper river have to move or die during summers like the one we are currently experiencing (last summer was an exception but the trout still moved by mid August). I look forward to sharing knowledge and experience with you on this subject. See you on the 30th.
Excellent, Bill. Just excellent!
“I agree that info gathered from Spruce can’t be applied elsewhere. I think the Spruce Creek set up is too artificial to be trying to determine wild trout behavior. Too many stocked fish. Too much feeding from the bank. Tough, then, to determine what an honest, wild behavior would be.”
Note that Dr. Bachman’s study was conducted on the Penn State or George Harvey stretch and he only watched wild trout that were never fed. One very interesting aspect of his study was his observations as to what happened when hatchery rainbows were inadvertently stocked in his watched pools. The wild browns immediately began chasing the rainbows as the hatchery fish wandered aimlessly crossing repeatedly into the brown’s “territories”. Soon the wild trout were seen floating belly up out of the pool, exhausted from the constant chasing! Dr. Bachman’s observations serve as solid evidence as to the detrimental effect the stocking of hatchery trout into a wild population can have.
Bill Anderson – President- Little Juniata River Association
Right on, Bill.
Enjoyed reading of your night-fishing experiences and agree that “anything can and will change any time,” but on the other hand I find it useful to be wary of dangers on the water such as unexpected t’storms. Less than a month ago an unexpected storm blew down a couple of 100-foot yard trees that struck the house just above my head. I’m glad I had the sense to be inside at that point and not out in the yard. I always want to be open to adventure but I also respect the unknown powers of the natural world. I’m not suggesting that you flaunt those powers, just that I’m a little more chicken-hearted when it comes to night fishing, especially in the face of storms.
🙂 Thanks, man.