Night Fishing for Trout — Moonlight, Starlight and City Light
Ironically, light is what defines night fishing. In the absence of natural daylight, it’s the moon and stars that provide the angler with sight. Of course, city lights, headlamps, flashlights, and glow-in-the-dark stuff are also factors in the night fishing experience. So in many natural and artificial forms, light draws the lines around night fishing.
Trout respond to changing light conditions in the daytime, and every good fisherman recognizes it. We look for shadows on sunny days. We fish at dusk, and we fish at dawn. All anglers are eager to search for trout on cloudy days. But when the daylight fades trout habits may shift dramatically — and that’s where this mystery begins.
How can you learn about something that you cannot see? Sure, we have our other senses to help us feel the fly line and hear a surface take. But without sight — without some light — we are blinded by darkness.
Light, therefore, is the principle element of night fishing. Nothing on our rivers exists in pure darkness, no matter how black the night. And this is the most surprising thing a new night fisherman learns: It’s really not all that dark out there.
In this chapter about night fishing for trout, we’ll consider natural and artificial light. We’ll think about how these light sources affect the trout, the angler and the fishing.
Night fishing should be done in the dark. That sounds obvious, right? But it’s an important point. Some anglers, curious about the night game, first choose to fish the bridge hole of their favorite river after dark. It’s safe and familiar, and it’s half-lit by road lights or the gas station across the street. Fair enough. It’s a start.
Likewise, some anglers stay on to continue fishing a river after dusk. They swap out a delicate dry fly with something big, black and meaty tied to the blunt end of stout 1X. They proceed to sling it through the oncoming darkness for an hour or so before packing it all in. That too, is not quite like the night fishing we’re considering here.
Again I say that night fishing should be done in the dark. Some nights and some locations are darker than others. And in general, the further I am from the artificial lights of town, the better night fishing I’ve come to expect.
Instead of fishing a section of river that rolls and meanders through a neighborhood on the edge of town, I travel downstream to a piece of water that’s surrounded by tall trees rather than street lights. In these dark, natural places I have more consistent (I hesitate to say predictable) night fishing. Certainly, I still fish the stretches that are partially illuminated by artificial light, but I often avoid them since I know less about how trout will respond there.
So look for natural, dark places for a natural night fishing experience. My own favorite night rivers are tucked far behind uninhabited mountains, with only the moon and stars as a companion light.
In these dark places our eyes adjust if given the time. (That’s probably the second thing a new night angler is surprised by.) With about ten minutes for our eyes to adjust, our range of vision expands significantly. And given a full hour with no light to corrupt the process, we can see even further out into the darkness.
How often in this modern life do we experience the same kind of darkness that we encounter on a wooded trout stream at midnight? For most of us, it’s uncomfortable to move without a source of light in front of our feet. But the night angler should resist the urge to bring out the flashlight until it’s really necessary.
Red headlamps are excellent for preserving night vision, and they’re a night fishing necessity. But even red light, if too direct and bright, defeats your night vision and reboots the process, leaving you blind again when the lamp is turned off.
Therefore, use your battery lights sparingly, and stay away from artificial lights wherever possible. If you fish an area with a floodlight in the distance, turn your back to the light, and fish the other side of the river.
(Chapter Three is dedicated to the lights that we bring with us: headlamps, flashlights, UV lights and glow-in-the-dark materials.)
You’ll learn that most towns glow from miles away. They illuminate the horizon, sometimes changing the experience of night fishing.
Recently, a local business upgraded the lights of their large parking space. Over a mile away, one of my favorite canyon stretches for night fishing is now lit up with new lights reflecting on the horizon. Photons from the modern LED bulbs in the parking lot travel across that distance and all the way down to the river’s surface. So the night fishing there has suffered. I rarely find trout in the shallows anymore, and they seem less willing to rise to the surface.
Make note of this: Cloudy nights are bright nights when near a city — because the city glows against the clouds. But cloudy nights in a distant state forest are dark nights, because neither moonlight nor starlight can punch through the thickest clouds.
Too much city light also defeats key parts of a night fishing system. It works against your ability to gain night vision, just as the headlights of nearby traffic are an unwelcome hindrance.
At night I often use a glow-in-the-dark fly line, or I incorporate a glowing sighter into my leader. At times I use a glow-in-the-dark indicator or even a piece of glowing foam on the back of a surface fly. But with too much artificial light present — like the lights from that parking lot making their way down into the canyon — the glow-in-the-dark stuff can be very hard to see, because it gets lost in the ambient light.
Fishing in the dark is enjoyable when you finally overcome your natural fear — when you gain some comfort with the deep shadows. Just trust the dark places and allow yourself to sink into them. Find dark rivers, keep them dark and go fishing.
What can be said about river conditions? Most of us are busy enough that we fish when we can and hope for the best. Such is the case with night fishing as well.
Muddy water is the only water condition that I won’t fish at night — although I’ve tried and failed to connect in muddy water on too many nights.
I’ll fish dirty water, high water, cold water and low water for trout at night. And I’ll fish any light condition too. Much of the folklore around night fishing suggests fishing only dark nights with no moonlight. But I’ve had enough good nights in a full moon to give me strong hope that it will happen again.
I prefer nights closer to the new moon phase (opposite of full moon), but I’m more than happy to step out under the light of a bright moon and fish for trout.
Remember, too, that clouds may roll in to block the moonlight. So watching or planning around a lunar chart is only half of the puzzle. I pay attention to moon phases and moonrise times, but not as a deciding factor for whether I will night fish or not.
Like with the high sun, I do my best to keep the moon at an angle behind or to the side of the trout. I think direct light upstream and in the trout’s face is the worst possible setup. So it helps to consider where the moon is and where it is going before choosing a stretch of water to night fish.
In George Daniel’s book, Strip Set, he includes a helpful chapter on night fishing. George points out that periods of high light are a good time to present flies lower in the water column, while darker nights are better for surface presentations.
My own experience has me mostly agreeing with George on this, with these two caveats: First, I find night nymphing to be a productive tactic in all light condition. And second, whatever rule book trout follow at night has a very large appendix. Anything can and does happen. They take mouse patterns in full moonlight. And they will reject them all night long in full darkness when they should be eating them. (I know it all too well.) But as George points out, when the moon is high it’s usually best to focus on the shadowy areas.
Basically, I don’t find a high moon to be much different than a high and bright sun. Sure, your odds are lower in high light, but it’s well worth a shot too. And we’ve all had enough surface hookups right in the middle of a river that’s bathed in sunshine, enough that we should believe the same thing can happen with a high moon. And it does. I promise.
Starry, Starry Night
While the experienced night fisher’s motto quickly becomes “Anything can happen at any time,” we all have our preferred conditions. Gained from the confidence of repetition, predictable trends emerge. And without a doubt, my favorite nights to be on the water are clear, starry nights.
I’ve kept records off and on, throughout my seasons of night fishing, and I have my memory to fall back on for the periods when I did not put pen to paper in a log book. And starry nights have been good to me. It’s the perfect mix of darkness for the trout with enough light for me to easily navigate the river.
Importantly, you can find starry nights during a full moon phase. The moon rises and sets at various times. So during full phases of the moon you may have perfect, starry night conditions until well into the late hours, before the bright moon crests the ridge.
Cloud-cover blacks out the stars, and thick clouds can disguise even a full moon. Such nights are so dark that it’s extremely difficult to see anything at all, even after you’ve gained your night vision. These nights are rare, though, and I’ve only experienced them a handful of times. While tough for the angler to adjust and wade through, the trout never seem to have a problem finding the flies. They see in the dark far better than we do.
I’ll say one more thing here about light. Trout get used to things. Over a long period of time, trout may adapt to night-feeding near a street light. They may not sit in the shallows and feed there — but maybe they do.
Likewise, on a narrower time scale, trout adjust to the darkness every night, just as they adjust to the rising sun over an hour or so every morning. These transition times are often a period of high activity. I catch a lot of trout within the first hour of real darkness. Just the same, I catch a lot of trout in the first hour of real daylight (when I can get out that early). It seems that trout are grateful for these transitions, and they are used to them.
But when the bright moon first rises over a hill, lighting up a river after a quiet and starry night, it seems as though a reset button is pushed. Most times trout turn off for me, and it takes another hour or so before trout may feed again. Similarly, if you are careless with a flashlight and suddenly illuminate the river for much time at all, trout will often stop feeding.
Reading through this chapter and the many sections that follow, you’ll find lots of expressions like, it seems, maybe, probably, sometimes and I think.
Get used to it. I already told you there are no experts in the night game. An open mind and experience is all I have to share.
Next week, Chapter Three: Lamps, Flashlights, UV Lights and Glow-in-the-Dark Stuff.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N