Back in Black — The Night Shift

by | Jul 11, 2017 | 0 comments

Night fishing requires some sacrifice. High catch rates are exchanged for a couple fish large enough to fill out the net — a hopeful bargain. Visual excitement is traded for an adrenaline rush, sustained by roaming among the unseen. And sleeping hours are swapped for calm, reclusive minutes apart from the otherwise resting world. River hours pass unusually in the darkness. Time moves as if accelerated, and by early morning an angler might wonder if he dreamed a portion of his adventure.

In the end, all sacrifices are reckoned, and every night fisher estimates his worth with heavy eyes behind the headlights, wheels turning, confronting loneliness between the painted lines.

— — — — — —

I’ve learned for certain that night fishing is different here. It’s not like the stories I hear from authors and fishing guides in other parts. You can’t pull from the river a fish that it does not hold. And Pennsylvania, especially central Pennsylvania, does not have an abundance of Namers like the places where night legends are made.

So the reward for sacrifice is not in legendary fish caught, it’s in the details of learning the night game. The return on the sacrifice is catching any trout, and finding some of the largest fish in the system is a welcome reward.

It took a long time for me to make peace with all that, but I think I’m there. After fishing hundreds of nights in all seasons for too many years, I burned myself out on the night game, because what I wanted — what I was searching for — just wasn’t there. My goals at night are different now: to learn, to find fish and put a hook to them. Simple. And when the big ones come along, I enjoy that too.

Photo by Pat Burke

— — — — — —

About a month ago, our family life settled into a summer rhythm. I looked around after the boys went to bed and found fishing opportunities for the taking. Since then, the darkness has pulled me to the river, night after night, week after week. My tying desk is again cluttered with dense, dark hackle and over-sized hooks, and my vest is heavy with flashlight batteries. I’m back in black.


Last Night

The full moon, arcing high in the sky this week, changes things. Last night, I fished all the shade I could find — the high mountains and steep treelines helped. The moon was downstream of the fish, not directly in their upstream eyes, and that helped too. It’s an important difference.

The classic nighttime spot for feeding trout is the tailout of a good deep pool. I find fish there, but my better spots are the soft edges of a river, often near the banks and in good proximity to water that I know holds the best feeding fish in daylight hours. But they weren’t there last night. And they weren’t in the tailouts either. I fished the likely spots from dark until well after midnight, from all angles, with flies waking the surface and flies skimming the streambed, and only a handful of fish bumped my line — no aggression, just the kind of strikes that signal a vague, passing curiosity from bored fish that probably aren’t even trout.

On most nights like this, I keep fishing the likely spots, because eventually, trout move into the shallows, so I keep casting and waiting for the action to turn on. But last night, they never showed up for the date. I shined my lamp on the water after fishing each section, and I inspected the shallows near the banks while relocating numerous times. Nothing. Never a trout in the shallows, and that was unusual.

Stubbornly, I still couldn’t surrender to the facts. For three hours, I fished where the trout should be. I tossed mostly surface flies on the point, with a Bad Mother or a mouse, and always with a tag dropper of a mid-sized wet fly. I routinely swapped the point fly out for an underwater pattern like a Harvey Pusher or a large bugger, covering multiple levels, and fishing all the angles. In the last few years, I’ve grown very comfortable changing and adjusting presentations. It’s become a night routine, good for when things are slow. And following through with the process is a reward even when trout are not agreeable.

After more half-hearted strikes I finally realized that most hits were coming from faster water as I was passing through. I rarely focus on broken, rolling pocket water at night, but it was time for a change.

So, I was above the Big Hole around 12:45, river-right side, in the first thirty yards of the run — it’s a night hot-spot for me. But instead of fishing the edges, in the soft stuff, I decided to fish my two wet flies as nymphs, dead drifted at close range, right into the heart of the same water I would nymph in the daylight.

I caught my first fish around 1:00 am, as the flies drifted and stalled in a mid-stream slick with mixed, heavy water. A good fish too. And then another.

A little more of that with the fly line, then I quickly swapped out to the Mono Rig and a night sighter. It fished like a dream. After throwing fly line around for the last month, I forgot how much I love using the Mono Rig for night fishing. I had great control at even longer distances, and started nymphing the flies with precision. But I stayed with wet flies, small streamers and buggers, bigger than the average flies in my nymph box, but smaller than my favorite night patterns.

I hit something just right, and for the next hour or so, I picked up fish every time I found the right water type.

The night sighter and Mono Rig gave me excellent control over dead drifts and the option to fish in other ways too. I caught the next fish on a streamer presentation by floating the night sighter. It’s a two-foot piece of floating fly line, so I use it to guide the flies and establish a little bit of drag (the good kind). I settled into a system. For every likely spot, I started with casts far across stream, fishing flies on a swing and a hand-twist retrieve. Then I moved close, casting the flies up and across, using a streamer-style retrieve. Finally, I moved in close to dead drift my flies on a tight line. Often, I’d let the dead drift swing out below me, allowing the flies to swing up in the water column once the line tightened.

It was a good night but too short, as time passed … unusually. The reality of tomorrow forced me away from a great night bite, and I walked back only half-satisfied through the starlit forest. When I crossed the river in the shallows. I still spotted no trout within the circumference of my lamp.

So I learned some things, and I was reminded of others. To stay productive at night, it’s not good enough for me to simply tie on a big chunk of fur and foam and keep slugging away. Sure, I get into the trophy hunting mindset too (big fish eat big flies, and I’m looking to catch the biggest fish in the river). I can enjoy that for a while.

But most nights are too short for me to wait patiently. And I’ve turned up some damn good fish by switching things up too.

Burke … is also back in black

**Note**   The Night Sighter

I’ve gotten a number of questions about the night sighter.

It’s a one to two foot piece of a glow-in-the-dark fly line (the running line part of a weight-forward line). The diameter is about .028”. I nail knot 6 inch pieces of 15 pound Maxima Chameleon to each end, and then tippet rings to those Chameleon ends.

The Night Sighter

It’s really a fantastic, versatile solution, and a true game changer for night fishing. I use the night sighter on the Mono Rig, but you can also attach it after any fly line and before the leader, providing a highly visible section in a standard fly-line/leader setup.

I suspect that you don’t have a glow-in-the-dark fly line that you want to chop up into two-foot pieces. But if you want a night sighter, I’ll mail you one for $20.

As part of the deal, I’ll also need a good night fishing report from you in return.

Good luck out there.

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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