Night Fishing for Trout — Fight or Flight

by | Aug 4, 2020 | 27 comments

** This Troutbitten article is part of the Night Fishing for Trout series. You can find the full list of articles here. **

I don’t night fish with others much. In fact, I can easily number the times I’ve ventured through the dark with a fly rod in the company of another angler. I guess I learned early on that if I waited on companionship for a trip that starts after bedtime and ends at 2 A.M. I’d be twiddling my thumbs and wishing more than fishing.

Going it alone is the standard after dark. You probably won’t find a good night fishing buddy, so don’t bother looking for one. Nobody night fishes on the regular for long, and I have zero close friends who are dedicated to it. Hell, now that I’m retired from the music gigs that I played for sixteen years, it’s harder to run the night shift myself. I’m an up-at-dawn guy now. But I still itch to tackle the darkness a couple times every week, especially in the summer and fall seasons.

I night fished with my friends, Josh and Trevor, last week. We all caught trout, but something was missing. And I know what it was.

Fear.

The presence of another human gives comfort. Friendship lends confidence. The conversations — the voices — break the dark silence often enough to keep things normal.

I walked in with my friends the other night. And instead of slipping quietly through the deep shadows of hushed pines and wondering what was beyond my darkened perimeter, I walked at Josh’s pace. His tall frame walks faster than mine. Trevor lit his lamp longer down the trail than I do, too. So the mysteries ahead were illuminated, and much of my wondering was burned away.

With three people, the inevitable cross-talk was enough to keep the ghosts of a forest at bay all night long. I heard no coyotes. There were no owls in my ears. No deer or herons were flushed from the shallow water. That rush of panic from being startled in the darkness . . . was never encountered. The challenge to overcome it never came. In short, it was easy times out there.

READ: Troutbitten | Night Fishing — Spaces

I finally have an honest understanding about what draws me into night fishing. Yes, it’s the fear. And of the serious night anglers I’ve known, it’s the same for all of us. Fear is the crackling spark plug.

It’s that edge-of-your-seat feeling that keeps us going back — like watching a suspense-filled horror flick. It’s knowing that anything can happen at any time, whether it’s the largest trout of your life clearing the water and splashing down with your fly in its mouth, or an unseen beaver brushing against your leg. Fear, and the challenge to overcome it, is as tantalizing as the tactical night fishing game itself. Tamping back the nagging questions about what lies beyond our perception is as much of a draw as learning the habits of trout after dark.

— — — — — —

Trevor and I fished yesterday morning, during the regular, civilized, normal people hours. And on the way home we reflected on all of this — on how solitary night trips are another world altogether. It’s just different when you’re by yourself.

He said our natural fear of the darkness, combined with our guesses about what might happen out there present a constant state of fight or flight. I think that’s true. And it took me seasons under a black sky to be truly comfortable in the dark. I don’t know that I’ve ever overcome the fear, either. I’ve pushed it down to another place, but it’s still there. The door remains cracked, and it’s the thrill of keeping those ghosts at bay that motivates me to wader-up in the dim red light of my headlamp.

From the passenger seat, I finished the cold coffee in my morning mug. And I had another thought for Trevor as we barreled down the sunlit interstate.

It’s all so different at night, I told him. It’s upside down. I fish downstream instead of up. I cast to skinny water instead of the deep stuff. And I keep my fly above the trout rather than taking it down to them. I cast further, fish slower, find different targets and expect fewer fish. Oh . . . and I wait for the trout to pull before I set the hook.

Trevor nodded to all of that. But he questioned the last point, so I explained.

After dark is the only time I’ve ever had wild trout come back, over and over, for a fly. Big trout have slammed my hook a half-dozen times before finally gulping it in. That’s unheard of in the daylight. But it especially happens with surface patterns after dark.

When I started out, I set the hook on every hit. Bam! Strike! Set! . . . Nothing. I had nights with thirty hits and just two hooks-ups. So the logical solution was to strip-set more. Right? That didn’t work much better. The strip still took the fly away from the fish, so they had to find it again — in the dark. It wasn’t until I used a trick from my bait fishing days that I really improved my hook-up ratio. I learned to set the hook only when I felt a fish pull the line.

READ: Troutbitten | Night Fishing for Trout — Your Gonna Need a Bigger Rope

Trevor raised his eyebrows and glanced away from the road toward me when I told him that one. Because it goes against every fly fisher’s wisdom.

Trout recognize a fake fly and spit it out, so we set the hook fast. Everybody knows this. Sure. However, I started landing a lot more trout when I stopped setting and waited to feel the pull.

But do you know what that demands? Steely nerve. You have to push fear behind the cracked door and leave it there. You can’t be on the edge anymore. Instead, you insert a buffer — a composed curtain of calm between your fear and your fly.

But even if you can do it — hold off on strikes and remain calm out there — there’s a consequence. There’s a downside.

Trevor looked my way again, waiting for the punchline.

It takes some of the fun away. Because those jolts of adrenaline I once felt on every hit were enjoyable. They were entertaining and exciting. But now, the adrenaline is mostly gone.

“I finally have an honest understanding about what draws me into night fishing. Yes, it’s the fear. Fear is the crackling spark plug.”

Trevor told me that it all comes back to fight or flight. Our senses are heightened. We stare off toward an unseen fly with only imagination to fill in the blanks. And whatever wrecks the stillness out there is startling. WHACK! And we set the hook.

Training ourselves to wait for the pull is essentially controlling our panicked flight response. And we can put more fish in the net by restraining our fear.

It’s true.

But dammit, fear is fun. And sometimes I miss it.

Meet Horton, Josh Darling’s nighttime namer. Photo by Trevor Smith.

I think I’ll go fishing tonight. And I’m going alone. I’ll slide in along the edge of the cornfield. The stalks, now grown over my head, will wave in the quiet breeze, and the half moon will cast slivers of light through a cloudy sky. What lies beyond my vision? What creature senses me through the darkness?

That intrinsic fear remains. It’ll never be fully vanquished. And I’m thankful for it.

Fish hard, friends.

** This Troutbitten article is part of the Night Fishing for Trout series. Find the full list of articles here. **

 

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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27 Comments

  1. Did Horton hear the Who?

    Reply
  2. My fear of spiders, big spiders, landing on my face keeps me out of the woods at night…

    Reply
    • Beau, I think you could handle it. If I can handle the snakes, you can do the spiders.

      Dom

      Reply
    • I’m with you! Too many giant spiders at night. Too much fear!

      Reply
  3. Once again an excellent read. Made the hairs on my arms stand up. Maybe not as much as that unknown animal that abounds away in the dark or that beaver that slaps his tail 10 ft from u at 3:30 in the dark. But ur right. It’s the fear of the unknown. I’m lucky enough 2 of my sons r night fishing addicts. Way more than me. I can’t keep up with them like I used too but I try. I was lucky enough to catch my pb around 1 am one night with them. 34″ 20 lb brown. Probably would of never landed that big girl without one of them there to net her down river. And in the end it wasn’t catching that big fish but it was sittin on the bank after a successful release in the moonlight with my sons replaying the whole adventure. Sometimes the inner pull of being alone out there is the ticket. And other times it’s really great to live the experience with someone to share it with.
    Keep up the good words.

    Reply
  4. Great post! I only night fished once. The strike was huge and he was gone. Maybe I should try again…

    Reply
  5. I think your advocacy of night fishing alone is irresponsible. You are more likely to get in trouble at night than during the day but if you have a buddy near by your chances of it ending badly are greatly diminished. I always enjoy your articles and usually agree with them but I think you seriously missed the mark with this one

    Reply
    • Hi Jim,

      I appreciate your comment. But I respectfully disagree.

      It is not my responsibility to decide who can be safe on the river, or where, or when. That is each angler’s responsibility and his or her’s alone.

      Night fishing is no less safe than fishing in the daylight. Done the way that I describe, this is the truth. Read back through the articles in this series, and you will find that I’ve stressed (multiple times) the need for KNOWING the water you fish completely. We should know the water so well, that we imagine every tree limb on the bank and sense the rocks underfoot. Because, without this knowledge, without the mental picture of where we are casting, we are terribly ineffective at fishing in the dark anyway.

      So I’ll continue to advocate for night fishing alone. Because it’s an experience that should not be missed. As described above, it’s a distinct pleasure. But if you or anyone else does not feel safe, that’s for you and others to decide, not me.

      All of this holds for daylight fishing as well. Some can be safe alone. Some can’t. Believe it or not, I got the same comment from people when I wrote another article, titled Fishing Alone.

      https://troutbitten.com/2017/10/11/fishing-alone/

      Lastly, I hope my reply here doesn’t seem rude. I only intent to explain my line of thinking and defend my judgment that it’s up to others to take care of themselves.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
      • Without belaboring the point I think your statement “night fishing is no less safe than fishing in the daylight” makes everything you say after that suspect and readers should take it for what its worth

        Reply
        • Sigh . . .

          Jim, I understand your perspective here. But you don’t understand mine. That said, this is the last time I will try to explain, because it doesn’t really matter if we agree, and I do have respect for your opinion.

          Fly fishing is not a dangerous sport in the first place. But I assume that the risk you are making assumptions about is falling and being hurt somehow.

          In the daylight, I take more chances with wading than I do at night. Let me put it this way:

          In the last year, I’ve fallen and been injured in some way about six times. Once, I broke ribs and had a concussion. (I’m on the water about 300 days a year.) But most times, it was a banged up knee or something minor. Just this morning, no kidding, I slipped from a midstream rock shelf and hit very hard on my left knee. But that wouldn’t have happened at night. Because I wouldn’t have put myself there.

          In all the years I’ve been fishing at night, I’ve had zero incidents — no falls with any injury — just a couple of stumbles. And that proves my point.

          I guess it’s about personal responsibility. And it is NOT my job here to hold anyone’s hand. If you feel unsafe at night, or in the daylight, then please don’t fish alone. But you won’t find me including that in my articles. That’s a responsibility for the reader to take on. Can you imagine how boring every article would be if I had do dance around the inherent safety issues of simply wading in a river?

          Also, you can already find what you’re looking for on the Troutbitten Terms and Conditions Page, under Disclaimer. It’s at this link:

          https://troutbitten.com/terms-and-conditions/

          There, you will see the summary at the end as (no joke) “If you fall in the river, it’s not Troutbitten’s fault.”

          🙂

          I hope you have a great day.

          Cheers.
          Dom

          Reply
          • Sigh!!!

  6. Great read, and yes im afraid of the dark on my stream, during regular people hours i get startled there, so id imagine it be 10x worse at nite. perhaps a bear or a unseen snake or a foul hooked muskrat , pulling like a big brown.. i know my chance of getting the whiskey is prob much better at nite on this creek,, but like you said i have to overcome this fear,, and when i hear about some local getting a big one at nite that i knew was there well i have to say i need to just suck it up and go no excuses… think i will give it a go soon. hopefully i can find a willing friend lol.

    Reply
  7. Perfectly said. Fear. You can suppress it for awhile, but then it comes back full force. Encounters with angry beavers and a big lynx this year have kept it at the front of my mind this year. But the chance of a whiskey brook trout keeps me going back

    Reply
  8. I go alone at night most trips these days. I admit it took a while to get used to it, but as you say that door that closes on my fear and the adrenaline surge that goes with it is always open a crack. I remind myself of some advice I got from you a while ago: “there’s nothing out there at night that isn’t there in daylight”. That idea has helped immensely. Now I look forward to the solo trips, but I still enjoy when I have the chance to go with a friend as well. But there is something special about going it alone. I’m glad it’s not for everyone frankly, as I like having the whole river to myself!

    Reply
  9. Riveting! I’ve tried it once and had some grabs from but fish and kept stripping but no crossed eyes. I did have a moment of disequalibrium while perched on a rock as my vision had nothing to grab on to. It’s also illegal on Virginia rivers but I didn’t know it when I did it. I’d like to try it some more. I solo camp a lot in Montana and Wyoming and I’m fearful of bears too, especially Grizzlies, a lot more so in the dark. The two together are unimaginable. I saw a photo of a monster rainbow a guide I met caught night wade fishing on the Madison but he knows every rock and drop off in the river. Another guide doesn’t like night fishing from a boat on Montana’s lakes because rocks and trees that could sink him And other mishaps. One of my favorite indecipherable quotes on the result of fear is: “What is beauty but the beginning of terror?” -Rainer Maria Rilke. Keep on exploring. Thanks for the stratospheric stories.

    Reply
    • The above comment…

      Reply
    • Anonymous- I live in Montana and I decided walking the banks with a .44 mag on my hip is just as good as laying like a taco in my tent. If you’re solo camping in bear country, you might as well be solo night fishing in my opinion. But in several years of night fishing Montana rivers now, the closest I’ve come to using the revolver is suppressing the desire to dispatch slapping beavers. I was lucky enough though to see a mountain lion at dawn once.

      Reply
  10. We only just started to get beavers back in Swiss rivers recently. They spooked me so much i cannot night fish! Anyone been bitten?

    Reply
  11. Dom – I agree with you 100%. As you know, I am a complete night fishing addict and routinely fish solo from dusk to dawn. I thoroughly agree with the notion of taking far fewer chances in the dark and therefore being inherently safer. Sure, I’m alone, and no one else is around – but that is true of most of my outdoor pursuits. Yet there is no reason for risk in the dark with the fish hunting banks/shallows and you having the river (and all the prime spots) to yourself. And it’s so much nicer not having the sun beating the life out of you. Knowing the water and scouting in daylight IS essential.

    (I also love your description about everything being backwards – I always tell people who join me that they need to prepare to do everything the opposite – slap it down, drag it upstream, wait to feel weight, etc.)

    Reply
  12. Great article. I fish alone day or night 95% of the time. I’m a big Stillwater fan and love being on a lake in the dark on my pontoon or float tube. Temps are cool, crowds are gone, its just me, the fish, the bats/beavers and other night time critters.

    Reply
  13. A little late to the party on this one but what a great read Dom! I’ve always had a knack for night fishing and agree wholeheartedly that there is something about the ‘fear’ you mention, as well as going it alone. You really do find yourself entirely absorbed in your thoughts and surroundings, constantly wondering where you’d be hanging out if you were a large brown on the prowl and when that next strike would come.

    Since moving to Colorado I’ve taken to night fishing some of the most pressured waters we have (think South Platte in Deckers and Cheesman Canyon and the Dream Stream) and have had some incredible hookups. You almost get the feeling the fish swam a mile out if its way just to smash your fly. That coupled with knowing that even if you have a terrible cast/presentation, the fish ultimately don’t care–they just want to eat.

    Most recently I night fished in Moraine Valley on the Big Thompson in Rocky Mountain National Park and while I was continually suspect of encountering a bear or mountain lion, the soothing sound of elk bugling throughout the valley made it all worth it.

    Lastly, I think taking the chance and trying night fishing helps change how you look at the water during the day. I found this when I picked up spey as well–you’re adding another element to your dissection of the stream, thinking of possible lies, how the pecking order will change when the sun goes down and as we probably all are guilty of: where that monster is going to be this evening when I swing my streamer through.

    Thanks for a great read!

    Reply

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