I was talking with a friend over some beers when the conversations turned to night fishing — because I’m that guy.
“But you can’t see anything out there,” he said.
“No, that’s not really true,” I argued. “Most nights are way more lit up than you’d expect — the stars, the moon, the lights of town on the horizon. And once your eyes adjust to the darkness, you can see enough to get the job done.”
“Yeah, but I mean you can’t really see where you’re casting,” he said doubtfully.
“I use a glow-in-the-dark fly line,” I replied.
“But you don’t see the leader or the fly. Right? And you don’t know where your fly lands.” My friend shrugged as he spoke and shook his head. Leaning in to me, he widened his eyes to make the point. “You can’t see what you’re doing.”
“Well I don’t see the leader,” I said, “but I usually have a pretty good idea where my fly . . .”
He interrupted. “And you can’t see the tree limbs or all the stuff around you, so how do you even make a cast without ending up in the brush all the time?”
At that moment I realized what I’d never fully considered — something I’d taken for granted as I’d worked on my night game all these years.
I leaned across the table toward my friend to match his posture.
“Imagination.” I said.
It’s easy if you try
I love how night fishing requires a full set of skills. Some are unique and some are a fine tuning of things we already do in the daylight. But our actions, our motions, must be second nature. They have to be intuitive, because any hesitation in your presentation spells trouble. The line tangles on the backcast, you hook a tree on the forward cast, or the drift just isn’t right.
And this is why night fishing isn’t for beginners. Dark water is not the place to build the basic skills of casting, drifting and stripping, or even knot tying. However, once you have those things down, once most of it is reflexive, then the only way to develop the remaining skillset is to get out there after the sun goes down and try to make something happen.
The key to that next level is imagination. And that’s what I never much considered until the conversation with my friend the other day.
The darkness is a handicap, no doubt. And to be successful we fill in the blanks presented by the night. We supplement limited sight with our knowledge of the area, with a mental map of the water and the obstructions, and with a few well timed shots of light when necessary.
I don’t enjoy fishing new water at night. In fact, knowing the area — having fished it multiple times in the morning or afternoon — is not nearly enough to make me comfortable after dark. I’ve learned to scout the water in the daylight first as if I was night fishing — to plan for the darkness. I’ve even taken pictures of a place to study it before walking in at midnight.
Wherever my boots are, I need a mental image of what’s around me in the dark. Since I’m casting further into the shadows than I can see, I have to imagine the rest. Guessing doesn’t work — too many snags and tangles prove that. So I fall back on what I’ve learned about an area during the daytime.
When that’s not enough, or when I’m disoriented and need a point of reference, I flip on the headlamp for a second. Literally, a second. It’s all I need to complete the mental map of what’s around me — of where I should cast and how I should drift the flies. I usually use the red setting on my headlamp, and this brief second of light doesn’t seem to bother the fish.
I’ve landed some of my biggest trout right after one of these sneak peaks. I often do it when I know I’m in the perfect spot but haven’t hooked up with a trout yet. The quick shot of light might reveal a bank further away than imagined, or water flowing faster than expected. The minor adjustments I’ve made on the following casts have helped land some of my best trout to date.
Careful with that . . .
Let’s just say it: Night fishing is scary. Being alone among the mysteries at midnight takes a lot of nerve. A dark room at home is one thing, but the darkness of a river winding through the trees, with no walls to protect against the infinite blackness, lends too many opportunities for filling in the blanks with bad stuff.
An overactive imagination keeps many would-be night anglers at home in the easy chair. That same human tendency to expect the worst drives most experimental night anglers back to their vehicles after an hour or so of clenched teeth. Being on edge in the darkness, wondering what’s behind you and what might happen next grinds you down.
Imagine the fly
All fears aside, it’s important to see the big picture, to feel where you are among the surroundings, so the casts are accurate and the drifts are effective. Otherwise, you’re just flailing around in the dark, hoping for some good luck.
And it’s just as important to imagine the position of the flies. I’ve written about this type of imagination before.
While fishing subsurface flies in the daylight, it’s helpful to imagine your flies underneath — to truly create a mental picture of the flies on the bottom of the river. That same skill transfers equally to night fishing. No matter the fly type or the tactic used, imagining the fly during the drift is a next level talent.
Most night fishing tactics keep us in contact with the fly, and the tuned-in angler feels the fly working through the rod and the line hand. The feeling of a fly against the water, combined with knowledge of the river — and a mental map — is the real key to night fishing success. Without it, we are lost.
Over time, imagination is something that comes naturally, and I really hadn’t given it much thought until the conversation with my skeptical friend the other day.
I wonder if I would have made greater progress if I was thinking about all this from the beginning . . .
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N