** Note: This January 2015 post is rewritten and revisited here.
So many of our favorite waters are accompanied by railroad tracks, and walking the familiar but odd stride required by the spacing of the wooden ties has become instinctive to me. The tracks are a welcome companion and a clear route away from tangled streamside brush and briers. Rusty iron rails are nostalgic because, well . . . they’re still there. And even the small, ancient logging railroad beds scattered through the Pennsylvania forest are an invitation to take a walk — flowing water is inevitably nearby.
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It’s been a couple weeks since I did any afterhours fishing, and that’s too long, because I promised myself I’d keep night fishing all through the winter this season. Why? Because nobody else is, and because there’s a lot to learn out there.
Fishermen love to make plans about how a trip should go. We pass our off-water time with daydreams about drifts, swings and strips, chases, splashes and takes. So I’d mulled this over for days: I planned to use the railroad tracks as quick transportation in the dark, moving between three hot spots where I’ve done well on previous nights.
I’m in a years-long process of learning the night game. Although I’ve night fished for many years, the inconsistency I’ve experienced has me intrigued. So much is different at night: I usually fish downstream instead of wading upstream; much of the water I would stand in during the day is water that I’ve learned to focus on in the dark; and I usually swing flies instead of dead drifting them. Most of the media attention paid to night fishing these days seems to include a mouse in some way or another, and while mousin’ with big old surface patterns is great fun with heart-stopping hits, I often don’t have enough solid hookups to keep my frustration at bay. I’ve had nights with fifty or sixty hits on a mouse pattern and just a handful of good hook-ups (and that’s with patterns including a stinger hook). Around here, the mouse thing just doesn’t produce all that well for me. This ain’t Michigan.
That said, I still use mouse patterns enough to keep testing my theory. But I’ve found a better option in a lightweight streamer that sits a little deeper in the top-water. If the fish are willing to come to the surface, then I love fishing this pattern.
On a lot of nights, though, trout just won’t come to the surface. And after much experimentation, my go to tactic at night is (usually) swinging big wet flies. It’s more or less the Jim Bashline approach:
I also fish streamers of various sizes and shapes. And at one time or another I’ve drifted, swung and stripped streamers and wet flies in the dark at just about every angle, direction, and depth possible. Of course, the confounding thing is that all of it works . . . sometimes.
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Last night the wets didn’t work, no matter how I presented them. So after about an hour of stubbornly sticking with my confidence rig, I hopped back up on the tracks and laid some new plans as I hiked to the next spot. I decided to do something that I hadn’t really done before — I fished the Bad Mother with significant weight on the line, doing my best to get it at or near the bottom and then allowing it to swing out downstream. I’ve done similar things with other streamers, but not with the Bad Mother, which I usually reserve for action near the top.
It really didn’t take long. I hooked a happy brownie (it made me happy), and was glad to know I wouldn’t be shut out. This was my first nighttime fish with real snow on the ground.
A few minutes later, I landed another trout on an identical drift.
Both fish took in heavier and deeper water than I typically focus on in the winter, and I was surprised. So I started targeting the heavier stuff and trying to reproduce my success.
You may already know how the rest of this story goes — I didn’t hook up again. I fished for another couple hours, cycling back through confidence flies, alternating tactics and focusing on various water types. Nothing. Eventually, I packed it in and walked up to the tracks.
Any decent fisherman needs an arsenal of excuses to fall back on when things don’t work out, and I’m using this one: the wind got really heavy right after that second fish; it was clear that the latest cold front was quickly blowing in, therefore putting the fish off the bite. Not bad, huh?
As I walked the railroad tracks back to where I started, I found my feet stepping alongside another set of tracks . . .
Look like bear tracks to me.
He walked in between the rails ahead of me, until the light circumference of an overhead lamp lit up the snow. Then he turned right and headed straight up the steep mountain of broken hemlocks. I walked another fifty yards, turned left, crossed the river, and went home, leaving my own set of tracks in the shadowy snow.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N