The allure of night fishing arises from a mystery. We pursue unknowable things into the darkness and sort through the unpredictable behaviors of trout to catch them after the sun goes down. There are no experts in the night game, and that itself is what secures the puzzle — a simple lack of information. There’s no treasure map after dark.
In large part, we fish because of what might happen. While night fishing, we begin to realize that anything can happen.
The best night anglers harbor a deep humility that black water and shadowed trout have forced upon them. Night fishing is full of failure, and any effort to spin it otherwise is foolish and transparent.
Most often, it takes an angler who cares more about the journey, about discovery and learning, than tangible results. Night fishing beats down even the most ambitious among us. The empty net grinds on you. The bleak loneliness takes a toll. It’s the anticipation — the anxiety. You’re left exhausted from forever pushing a natural fear of the dark to the back of your mind. The late hours and early mornings make you feel thin — because the rest of life doesn’t wait for you to catch up. Night fishing trips are the only times I drink coffee after 9:00 pm.
Truth is, there are so few dedicated night anglers out there that good first-hand information is scarce. Second-hand information and hearsay, however, is rampant. Mousing, big black streamers, new moon and low water: these are the oft-repeated expressions and tactics that are supposed to work. But do they?
Night fishing for trout is accompanied by legend. Tall tales are easily masked in shadow, and the truth is dimmed once the sun sets over the horizon.
Some say night fishers are a super-secretive bunch, accounting that for the lack of good information. I argue that the dearth of usable info is a simple result of no one else being out there. And those of us who do night fish frequently are skunked often enough to keep shrugging our shoulders.
So I’ve night fished for a long time now, all the while seeking to develop and improve upon a system — because having a plan, having categories, and a range of optional tactics is in my nature. I daresay I’ve put in more night hours than most, and I’ve been willing, night after night, to sacrifice what should work to learn about what doesn’t work. I experiment so much that I often wonder if I would do better just swinging wet flies the whole time. Maybe I would.
I’ve shared much of what I learned with a few others who care about trout rivers after dark (and many who probably don’t but were kind enough to nod their heads and listen). Publishing Troutbitten has put me in touch with other night fishers across the country and beyond, and I’ve learned from their friendships. I’ve grown from their ideas. But what surprises me most is that no one else has it all figured out either, and every region — every watershed — is different.
Over the last few years, in particular, I’ve experienced some breakthroughs and had some very consistent night fishing. I’ve begun to form a system around the things that work for me. While night fishing in every season (spring through winter) I’m routinely amazed by what I discover. I’ve focused mostly on my Central Pennsylvania waters, but I find that at least one of these tactics works no matter where I fish — usually.
So I’ve scattered much of what I know about night fishing over dozens of articles here on Troutbitten. The tactics, gear and methods are mixed in with stories and various musings about trout after dark. And a lot of what I’ve written comes with another shoulder shrug — hands out, palms up, and eyebrows raised in an expressions that signals, “Hey, who really knows?” But it’s time to put it all together now, to make a map and plot a course, because I think it’s worth sharing.
This is the first in a series of articles that should be read as chapters in a book — a book about night fishing for trout with a fly rod.
I particularly enjoy publishing this series (and all of the Troutbitten tips and tactics) online, because fly fishing is a game of perpetual learning. And as the seasons pass, I’m certain that I’ll update these chapters to reflect my changing opinions and my growing understanding of trout habits after the fading light.
This series is about fly fishing for trout in rivers — most often wild trout and wild rivers. I’m not talking about fishing private water or an easy setup in a trout pond either. This is a game about chasing large, natural fish in wild places. It’s not about fishing over spawning trout at night, and it’s not about setting up over a pod of thermally stressed fish with their noses at the mouth of a cold tributary for refuge. There should be no gimmes. If night fishing is easy, then something is wrong.
Of course, they don’t all have to be wild trout. If stocked rivers are what you have, then fish them at night and see what happens. Enjoy it.
My own night fishing experience is centered around wading wild trout rivers. I’ve done night floats, but I prefer to wade. Floating requires an even longer time commitment — one that you can’t get out of. When the night bite is off (and it often is), a dark boat ride to the takeout seems eternal.
I’m talking about hitting the same local rivers that you frequent during the day — catching those same trout and perhaps larger ones. It’s about learning your favorite river at night, discovering it’s alter-ego and uncovering the unseen habits of the largest trout in the system.
But night fishing isn’t all about big trout, either. I believe that’s the biggest lie in night fishing. If large trout are your primary motivation, then night fishing will be a passing fad. However, if you learn to love the dark woods for the peace, for the mystery and the challenge of a black river, it will pull you back to its banks time and again.
Without a doubt, there are regions across these United States where night fishing produces better than others. Some Michigan rivers are legendary for their night fishing because they’re set up for it — low gradient waters with deep bends, undercut banks and river bottoms lined with logs and tree parts that don’t wash out.
Swinging mouse patterns in Michigan is a nighttime staple that has spread across the country. And no trout-take is more heart stopping than a surface slash-and-gulp from a huge brown trout after dark. So, mousing has been tried nationwide. But just like the large articulated streamer craze, it’s helpful to realize that every river is unique. And the trout of your own watershed may not respond to the same night patterns and presentations that they do on the White River in Arkansas.
Those rivers and others from Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania have garnered a reputation for night fishing. They’ve attracted attention and curious anglers willing to rig up after the sun goes down, men and women brave enough to stand against the sights and sounds of the darkness.
Night fishing, in truth, is an option anywhere you find trout. And once the sun sets, the river, the trout and the way you fly fish changes.
Here I will argue that having a full range of tactics is the best way to approach the night game. Just like the daylight hours, if you set out with only dry flies in your box, you’re essentially casting your line into a river and hoping, with luck as your only ally.
You will have moments with mouse flies — stunning, thrilling instants that pump adrenaline through your veins. But if your tactics are one-dimensional, you will also strike out far more than you hit a home run. Sure, you can pass that off as a man on the hunt for a trophy. Or you can get down to business, adapt to the fish and to your river, and discover what the trout really want.
This series, Night Fishing for Trout, will cover the gear: lamps, rods, lines, leaders, night-sighters, flies, etc.
It will cover methods: surface tactics, mid-column and deep water, drifting and swinging, wet flies, streamers, dry flies, night nymphing and more.
It will cover locations and conditions: the shallows, backwater, deep water, moonlight, peak hours, seasons, etc.
And it will cover a range of other topics and tactics such as the hang and wiggle, scouting, and upstream vs downstream presentations.
I’m really not sure how many parts will complete the series or where we’ll end up . . . and that’s a good thing.
Honestly, for the night fisher, uncertainty is our inspiration. Any angler who ventures out at night to catch trout is a pioneer with a chance to uncover something new — to discover more than he may ever find in the daylight.
What you read here may not work for the trout in your river. Your own success may require variations or something completely new. So drop me a line and share those experiences with me.
And if you’d like to learn what I know about night fishing, on-stream and first-hand, get in touch about a four-hour guided night fishing trip in Central Pennsylvania.
If you’re past the stage of the casual angler and you’re looking for the next challenge, wader-up after dark.
To be continued . . .
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N