It was a moody night, with grumbling thunder in the distance and the kind of lighting that floods the whole sky for brief moments in time. The intermittent flashes from behind tall trees cast shadows with long fingers that reached out to grab me before disappearing. Thankful for the brevity of the cursed shadows, I took solace and refuge each time the night sky returned. Somehow, the ominous darkness was more welcome than the quick and curious glimpses of my full surroundings.
I had fished through these conditions hundreds of times, in both daylight and darkness. And before you get the notion to preach to me about the dangers of fishing near or through a thunderstorm . . . don’t. These decisions are mine, same as they are yours. I’ll judge my own risk/reward, just as you should do the same.
Trevor had apparently made the same calculations, as I saw my friend’s six-foot form thirty-yards downstream, every time the lightning flashed. His angle of approach and his casts to the bank looked similar to my own. All this I easily judged by the glowing fly line that arced, unfolded and returned in the deep darkness following periodic lightning. What a night. The wading and casting was punctuated by wild trout that frequently obliterated our flies — the same flies that were too large for civilized fishing under the same river conditions.
A half hour later, the storm passed and the fish-catching slowed.
That’s the question that plagues every decent fisherman in times like these. Was it the cold front? Had the rain turned fish on that were now back to sulking and waiting rather than hunting? Or was my presentation somehow off?
The latter question stuck with me. In part, because it’s the only condition that I had any control over, and because I’ve fished long enough to know that it’s usually the angler and rarely the trout. Never blame the fish.
A half-hour after the last shudder of thunder, and forty-five since the most recent flash in the sky, I thought of something. My casts to the bank were less accurate now that the light was gone. Against the intermittent foreground and through the grabbing shadows, the bank had been visible every time the lightning flashed and my target had been in sight. My brain had cataloged the distance, my hands and arms had converted the measurements, and I’d cast into the returned blackness with deft accuracy, unequaled without the occasional point of reference to the bank.
That was it, I decided. Or at least, it was a reasonable theory.
So I returned to a tactic that I’d employed on many dark nights where I couldn’t effectively reference the bank. I reached up to my headlamp and flicked on the light for an instant — a half second and no more — before returning back to the black. Then, just like the quick shots of lightning earlier, the lamp showed me the way. The image of the riverbank burned into my brain. Something inside of me calculated the adjustments and converted the images into accuracy with my tools of fly rod, line, leader and fly. It was a little bit of magic.
By flashing my light at every bank point when I got lost on my way downstream, I found my reference. Better than that, I found agreement from the trout again, with another hit and another fish in the net by the time the next storm rolled through.
The Trevor Sit
Trevor waded upstream to meet me for a bankside rest as the second round of thunderstorms grew with intensity. I saw him coming through the over-lit filmstrip of stuttering motion, and I agreed to his unspoken request. I reeled up and joined my friend.
We sat together, escaping the heaviest rain of the evening under a dense canopy of hemlocks that buffered the force of driving wind and thick raindrops. We sat alone but together in a darkness punctuated by blinding light and the earth-shaking echoes that followed. When the storm moved on top of us, the sky let loose with a simultaneous explosion of light and a round of thunder that seemed sure to rip the atmosphere apart.
“That one scared me,” I confessed aloud to my friend.
Trevor chuckled and agreed. “Me too.”
“Kinda put my heart in my throat for a second,” I admitted. And Trevor murmured agreement as the storm continued.
The presence of a fishing partner changes everything at night. And while I deeply love the solitude of night fishing alone, on this night it felt comfortable to have the friendly voice of a trusted companion nearby.
We sat silently for a while, unable to compete with the cacophony of rain in the forest and mixed, rolling thunder. Until finally, the storm passed and the chaos eased.
“You were flashing your headlamp at the bank a while back.” Trevor stated this with the lifting tone of a question.
“Yeah,” I replied between groaning thunder. “Without the lightning, I couldn’t see the bank well enough to hit it accurately anymore. So I cheated with my lamp a bit. Just a quick flash shows where you are, ya know?”
“You don’t think the trout are spooked by it?” Trevor asked the fair question.
“No.” I stated flatly. “I really don’t think they care. I mean, I caught that last trout on the first cast after I flashed the bank.”
“You think it’s because, on a night like this, they’re used to periodic flashes of light? Do you think that helps you get away with it?” Trevor reasoned.
“No,” I said quickly again. “Well . . . the lighting doesn’t hurt. But all I can tell you is that I’ve done the bank flash thousands of times on hundreds of nights, and it seems to help way more than it hurts.”
“Tell me more,” Trevor asked.
“I flash the bank because I know I’m not close enough. You and I both understand that success at night is often determined by how close you can cast to the bank. Most times, it’s gotta be inches and not feet.”
“Right,” Trevor agreed. And I continued.
“So I’d rather flash the light for a moment to see where I am, — to pick out the details around my next target — than to hang up in a tree limb or play it safe and land too far from the bankside,” I concluded.
“I just figured that any light like that would spook trout,” Trevor said.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “It might spook them once in a while. But I keep the bank flash as short as I can. And most times, I don’t think trout even process it. I mean, yeah, I’ve spooked plenty of fish with my headlamp or spotlight while relocating, and they hate direct light that’s sustained for any length of time. But with a super-short flash like this, trout don’t seem to care. But it sure helps me,” I told Trevor.
When the storm subsided again, Trevor and I stood up, shook off the rain and separated. We fished the far bank for another couple of hours. And we methodically covered every piece of riverbank, giving special attention to the minor coves, to anything with depth and all water near fallen trees.
The bank flash helped both of us find a place for our flies in the darkness after midnight.
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