When the sun sets and the sky grows dark, the mysteries of a river deepen. Where are the trout, and how are they feeding? These constant questions of the daylight fisherman don’t change for the nighttime angler. The search for answers continues. But under the veil of shadows, we are left to find clues among black water and quiet riffles.
Those answers, it seems, are more specific. Are there fewer trout feeding at night? I think so. And more importantly, the places where trout feed after dark are condensed. The range of productive water can be slim.
In the daylight, a good angler can pull trout from many different water types. He can pick over the risers in a long flat. She can nymph the pockets and runs or cast long flies to bank water. Daylight trout can be persuaded a bit more. We can coax them into cooperation through secondary flats or side water, while on our way to the next prime spot. We find feeding fish and search for their preferences, but it’s a rare day when trout feed in just one water type. Before dark, I can work a long stretch of water, across repeating riffles, runs and pools, covering most of the water and catching trout along the way — if I’m versatile. But after dark, that all changes.
When I really dug into night fishing, I promised myself to fish at least twice a week under the black sky, year round. And because backing into the driveway around 3:00 A.M. tended to destroy all normalcy for the next day, I kept most of my trips close. My home water was the logical choice for discovering, developing and refining my night fishing strategies, because here, more than anywhere, I’ve learned what I know about trout on a fly rod. It’s been my training ground — my classroom — for all tactics, from nymphs to dries, streamers and wets. So it was here that I focused my night fishing efforts, slinging big bugs on a string into the dark.
I learned. I caught trout. And I improved my catch rate. But I also left the river wondering what I was missing far too often. I remember the conversation with my friend, Matt Grobe, where he insisted that I should branch out and fish further from home to fully understand the night game. To that, I could not fairly disagree. But I also figured that what I was learning would fully translate easily to other waters.
I was wrong about that.
My home stream is packed with wild trout, but it lacks many big ones. It holds some high-teens fish, but I can’t remember the last time it gave up a true Whiskey. And this was Grobe’s major point. Fishing after dark is about big trout, he said. So I should go where those bigger fish are. I told my friend that I wasn’t really after big fish. Instead, I was chasing knowledge about trout feeding on the night shift. And I believed I could take what I learned here and transfer it over there. Grobe countered that waters with larger trout probably fished differently at night. And for that first year or so, I still disagreed.
I was wrong about that.
I had a good thing going with my home water. I grew to expect a fair amount of hits and hookups every time out. But when I ventured away from my home water in those first couple of years, I mostly struggled. And it wasn’t that I didn’t understand the terrain — because I know most rivers within a two-hour radius of my home inside and out. I chose locations that I’d memorized, that I could picture easily, filling in the dark shadows with a little imagination created from my own history in these prime spaces.
I struck out too often.
And it took me seasons of trial and error to understand this truth: On some rivers — especially those with larger trout — much of the water after dark is a dead zone. Nothing happens, no matter what flies or tactics you throw at them. Drift or swing big flies or small ones. Hit the banks with a mouse or swing the flats with Harvey Pushers. It doesn’t matter. On most rivers that I night fish, there are long stretches of water that simply won’t produce.
But in these same waters, there are sweet spots to be found — places where the action is almost predictable (by night-fishing standards), where two, three or four fish may hit in the same spot. And then just twenty yards downstream . . . nothing.
My home stream habit after dark is to wade and fish the river. I may focus on the banks or the slack water, but I can fairly expect much of the river to produce as I continue to wade upstream or down. I know other creeks that fish the same way after dark. But on waters where big trout reside, the top-tier fish apparently make a different set of stream rules. There, the smaller trout seem locked down at night. Even in stretches of river that I know hold plenty of trout, these fish cannot be convinced to hit a fly after dark. And it’s not until I move into another prime night lie that the line goes tight.
So, finding these locations is the real trick to night fishing for big trout. And they aren’t necessarily where you expect them. If so, night fishing would be easy. And it is rarely that. Hunting for productive locations is a big part of the night game. And once you find these areas, whether it’s the backside of an island chain or the middle of a wide and skinny riffle, the night game changes.
A good friend recently fished one of my favorite rivers at night for the first time. I told him where I park and generally what section I fish. But I left much of the discovery for him, in part because running the game without the cheat codes is more fun — but because I was also curious to see where he’d have success. And now, after a few night trips this month and some excellent results, his locations — his hot spots — align with mine. In a half-mile of river, most of his trout came from the same three pieces of river where mine do — each stretch no more than thirty yards long.
Location, location, location. It’s the mantra of property value. Right? And for trout after dark, location is everything too. So find a great section of water and fish it thoroughly, but make no assumptions about where trout should be at night. Inevitably, you’ll run into a patch of activity. Is it a short bite window or a good location? Only time and repeated fishing will tell. But a few jarring hits and solid fish will likely recur on future night trips. And once you’ve found a hot spot, consider the characteristics that make it appealing for trout. Then hunt for the next prime location.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N