The moon and stars are either in the sky and lighting your way, or they are not. Heavy clouds may roll in and block out those natural lights, or you may have clear skies all night long. There’s nothing you can do to control any of it. But the modern night fisher can choose from an arsenal of artificial lights — headlamps, flashlights and glowing things — to find his way through the darkness.
Here’s a guiding rule about these artificial lights: Our flashlights and headlamps are best kept dark until necessary. Stray light puts trout down — not always, but enough that artificial light should be used sparingly.
Turn on your lamps as little as possible. Allow yourself to grow into the darkness and feel comfortable with what you can see. Such an approach forces you to move slowly and cautiously anyway. And that’s a good thing.
Let’s dig in . . .
The new night fisher’s first inclination is to buy the highest powered headlamp possible, trying to cut through a thick wall of darkness. But purchasing a lamp because it throws the most lumens is a mistake.
Learn to work with the night. Don’t try to defeat it. The truth is, a dim headlamp is better, and it must start on red without cycling through white to get there. Red light is far less spooky to the trout, and used correctly, it preserves your night vision.
It’s amusing how much error there’s been in my own trial-and-error process with night fishing gear. I’ve used six different headlamps. Each was good for something, but not great for other things. One was too heavy, and the beam of another was too narrow. I learned in a September rainstorm that my third headlamp wasn’t waterproof. Most lamps were too bright, and half of them started on a white setting before cycling through to red.
No headlamp was perfect for night fishing until I found FRED.
The FRED light from Princeton Tec is exactly what I want as a night fisher. While many headlamps are seemingly built with the end goal of lighting up the night for miles around, the FRED headlamp is built to preserve your night vision.
And remember, obtaining and keeping your night vision is the most important thing out there. Once your eyes have adjusted to the night, everything becomes easier. Seeing and reading the water’s surface helps you know where to place the next cast and track where your flies are drifting. And perceiving the outlines and shapes of the obstacles around you makes navigating the river and its banks so much easier. Night vision is the key.
Importantly then, the FRED lamp starts on a dim red setting. Another touch of the rubber button boosts the red light brighter, and by holding the button at any time, the lamp switches to dim white (with another touch for bright white). So you can turn the lamp on and off without ever using white light. None of the settings are overpowering, therefore, they’re perfect for night fishing.
When it’s time for a change in strategy, I gaze into my fly boxes and tie knots under the dim red setting. I’ve learned that my night vision is destroyed if the red light reflecting off my hands is too bright. And white light in this case is a big mistake.
I really like the FRED lamp, so much so that I bought an extra, in case Princeton Tec ever stops making it. I’ll also mention that battery life is very good, and it’s small and lightweight. So it’s comfortable on top of a ball cap or fitted under the cap on your forehead — and it’s water resistant.
I usually turn on my red lamp as soon as I exit the truck. I gear up under the red light and get used to it as I gain my night vision. If I’m walking in a great distance and I want to move fast, I may use a dim setting on my flashlight, but I’m careful not to look directly into the white light.
I like a small but powerful handheld flashlight, and I’ve gone through a few of these as well. Eventually I learned what I really wanted from the hand held light.
I want it durable and powerful, but small enough to fit in a pocket, and light enough not to add much weight. I want a beam with a range of focus, because sometimes a flood setting is better than a spotlight setting. Let’s get to that.
I use the flashlight for those times when I need more light than the headlamp provides, at close range or far off. And these days, I most often use my flashlight to spot sections of the river.
Spotlighting fish has become controversial in the last few years, and for good reason. I think spotting can provide an unfair advantage, especially to the floating angler. You can drift down a river, spotting ahead of the boat until you locate a large trout, then cut the light and give the fish a few moments before casting to it. But what kind of night fishing is that? I don’t know, really.
As I mentioned in Chapter One, different regions of this country offer different night fishing opportunities, and what is frowned upon over here might not be given a second thought over there. Personally, I think the scenario I just described is unsporting, but it’s not for me to decide that for anyone else.
Others may find my own use of a flashlight unsporting. But of course, you can decide what you want to do with your own flashlight.
This night fishing series is primarily for the wading angler, and most nights I spend time walking hundreds of yards between sections I want to fish. And while slowly navigating the banks, I often illuminate the edges of the river with my flashlight. I do it to learn something.
Some nights (and in some areas) the shallows are alive with crayfish, minnows and other baitfish. And when I see this, I know to target the shallows almost exclusively. Excellent action often follows.
On most nights (in my rivers) the shallows are not alive like that. But there are still enough reasons for trout to gather close to the banks. And I do occasionally spot a trout. I make note of what water type the fish is holding in. Is it the bubbly, soft side of some pocket water, or is it the slow edge of a long pool? Maybe it’s the deep side of a tailout. Is the trout in shadow or under the moon? And how deep is the water the trout is holding in? I spot the river to learn something about trout behavior, and not so much to target specific fish.
Keep in mind that my limestone rivers are never clear. They always hold a green murk that is difficult for a flashlight to penetrate. So spotting a big trout, for me, is rare.
I’ve learned a lot by spotlighting the river. And I often turn my flashlight onto a section after I fish it, just to get some idea if any trout were even there in the first place. And where I have spotted decent fish, I mentally mark those locations, because finding places where trout feed at night is half the key to success out there anyway.
In my waters, trout that see my flashlight usually spook. They swim away. When they don’t move immediately, then yes, I have come back to try fishing for them at times. For me, it rarely works. And most often, another quick look with a bright light shows the trout is no longer there anyway. I think trout cruise around at night more than we realize.
So I use the flashlight more as a learning tool than a locating tool. But like any powerful tool, the flashlight at night can be abused. And just like I choose not to fish over spawning trout in late Fall, I choose not to spotlight fish with any intention of setting up over them. I think it’s up to you to draw your own ethical lines and stay within them.
Aside from spotting, I use the flashlight to shed big light on things that scare me out there. It’s very quiet on my favorite rivers, but that still peace is occasionally shattered by something large and unusual. I’ve turned on my flashlight to see deer that jumped into the creek twenty feet away, and I’ve been startled by a couple of black bear the same way. I once illuminated a very vocal group of baby racoons swimming over to mom on the other side of the creek, and I’ve shined my light on many blue herons, just to shut them up. I was also once rammed midstream by a porcupine. That’s not a joke.
Finally, I use the flashlight to charge glow-in-the-dark stuff . . .
The night game completely changed for me when my friend, Sloop, gifted me a glow-in-the-dark fly line that he bought in a fly shop’s clearance bin.
Decades ago, my first night fishing resource was Joe Humphreys. I read and followed the two sections in his book, Trout Tactics, along with his night fishing video. And I still adhere to Humphreys’ strategies, in large part. I agree with him that the night fishing angler should adapt — just like fishing the daylight hours. Be versatile. So I’m ready with many tactics on a dark river, and my strategies are open to change on any night.
Humphreys writes about using white fly line, because on some brighter nights you can faintly see the line. Otherwise, the old-school night anglers fished blind. Jim Bashline’s book, Night Fishing for Trout: The Final Frontier, is another favorite of mine, and he certainly wasn’t using anything glowing out there. Neither was his mentor Bob Pinney.
But these are different times. Years ago I used glow-in-the-dark paint, yarn and rubber tubing to try and gain a visual — to have some reference for where my line and fly might be. While I can catch fish without such a reference, the glowing stuff made a big difference in my effectiveness after dark. Some visual aid for where my fly is helps me feel like I’m fishing and not just guessing.
These days I use a glowing fly line. I also carry a glowing Night Sighter and two kinds of glowing indicators.
Both RIO and Scientific Anglers make a glow-in the-dark fly line. I like the Scientific Anglers line that you can buy here.
I charge the first 2-8 feet with the flashlight for about 5-10 seconds, by rolling up a section in my palm and holding the light directly to it. These lines charge easily and hold a glow for a half hour or more. You quickly learn that the line doesn’t need to be super-bright to be effective. Just charge it to the point where you can see it.
When getting a good dead drift is important, I use long leader strategies with the Mono Rig. And before the tippet section of my leader I use a glow-in-the-dark Night Sighter. It’s a 12-20” section of the thin running line portion of a glow-in-the-dark fly line, and I nail knot it right into my leader.
I wrote more about the Night Sighter in another article . . .
The Night Sighter gives me an ability to detect strikes on a true dead drift, and that’s a huge advantage.
I use the glowing fly line with a seven foot leader when I’m swinging wets and streamers, or when I’m fishing surface patterns. Any time there’s continuous tension on the line (i.e., not a dead drift), and when I want to cast long distance, I use fly line. The glowing fly line improves my accuracy. I know that my fly will land seven feet beyond the glowing butt of the line, so I get it closer to the bank. I can also see the belly of the line (if it’s laying on the water), and I can mend more effectively.
Glowing fly lines and the glowing Night Sigher help me accurately track the progress of my line and flies on the water, and they improve strike detection.
Lastly, while night nymphing, I may use Dorsey Yarn Indicators made with glow-in-the-dark macrame yarn or glowing Thingamabobbers. But at night I do prefer to tight line with a Night Sighter.
The obvious question is whether any of this glowing stuff spooks trout. Sure seems like it would, right? My answer is no. I have A/B tested, with and without glowing things over and over. On slow nights, I often go black, with nothing artificial glowing out there, just to see if it makes a difference. And I can’t say that it ever has. Though I expect the fish to care about glow-in-the-dark stuff in their space, they just don’t seem to mind.
UV-light nymphing is another way to employ long leader tactics and achieve good dead drifts in the dark.
A leader constructed with fluorescent materials is used, and a UV headlamp lights up the leader. It works. Amnesia, blue or gold Stren, bi-color tippet material and many other colored lines light up like a Christmas tree under a UV lamp.
You can therefore fish a Mono Rig with tight line nymphing principles, working streamers, buggers, nymphs, etc., and using the glowing leader materials as your sighter.
But the UV system isn’t for me. Fishing with a light on seems too conspicuous. I don’t know who’s really watching out there, but I don’t like shining a constant beacon signaling my presence. Part of what I like about night fishing is the feeling of being the one who sees and not the one being seen. The UV light, though not as bright as a white light, is still visible from a distance. And having the constant light on changes things too much for me. It lights up the river’s surface a bit, and while I don’t think that type of light spooks the trout, it seems like another advantage that I don’t really want to get used to. For me, night fishing is done in the dark and not with any lights on.
But the real deal breaker is the bugs. The UV lamp draws moths, mosquitoes and everything else that’s surprised and pleased by a light in the middle of the river. The last time I used the UV system, I quit after I was repeatedly dive-bombed by junebugs. I went back to the Night Sighter.
Because I have the Night Sighter, and the ability to fish long leaders and dead drifts without a constant light on, that’s what I prefer.
You could probably find reasons why you don’t like the Night Sighter solution either. So maybe the UV light system is your thing.
Cell Phone Light
Last tip here. Jim Bashline and Bob Pinney didn’t carry a smartphone on the river, right? I’d rather not carry one either, but I’m married, with two young sons. And if I have a cell signal, then I usually carry my phone while fishing.
Remember all that talk about night vision? You’ll spoil it by checking your phone just once.
But there’s an app for that.
My favorite is called Twilight. It puts a red filter over your screen and allows you to set a dimmer level much lower than the standard option, therefore preserving you night vision while you check you Instagram account from the river. (Don’t do that.)
Remember, 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.
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.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N