2:00 in the morning. The darkness is thick, and it’s foggy. Fog can kill night fishing action completely, but this is thin stuff and intermittent. Earlier in the night, I was convinced that the light veil was my own breath, surrounding me in the cool air and hanging around on a windless night. But I was wrong, and I see this fog again when I turn my back to the water to light my red lamp and tie a knot — something I’ve been doing a lot tonight because the fishing has been slow. Night fishing in this kind of blackness is disorienting, even after decades of fishing after dark.
This is the first cold night since June. Temps in the low fifties have changed things, and trout are not reacting to flies the way they did just a week ago. I’ve been out since 8:30 pm. I walked a quarter mile at dusk, through a floodplain overgrown with ferns and vines that were overtaking the fallen timber. I followed a game trail for a bit. Then I lost my way in the scattered rays of battery light until I’d fully lost my direction. But I paused, listened, and eventually heard a car pass on the road that paralleled the river a hundred yards up. I caught my bearings and forged a path through the ferns, on guard to flush something alive and scared underfoot — yes that’s happened before.
The count is 1-2-5. That’s fish caught, lost and missed. I keep track at night for two reasons. One, it’s just another thing to keep me focused in the grand darkness. And two, it’s good data to store, share and learn from.
Action from any trout matters here. Lost fish that were on for at least a few seconds indicates that the trout ate the fly, but I probably did something wrong in the hooking or fish fighting. The “missed” count is valuable too, just to assure that trout are interested, available, alive and perhaps willing if I can dial in a convincing technique.
What is that technique tonight? Why have I had so many misses — so many trout that have touched the fly but didn’t eat it? Or they hit short, and I had no chance at burying the hook. Is there a solution?
I have a handful of go-to tactics for the night game. And when things get tough, I rotate through them with some discipline, spending ten or twenty minutes doing just one thing, over and over, and then trying the next. I’ll do anything to remain focused in the dark — anything for inspiration and resistance against the voice in the back of my mind telling me to go home.
With nothing happening since midnight, what should I try next? I cast aimlessly a few times and let the Pendragon swing out. Imagining it’s position in the water, I pop the fly a few times, staring into the darkness and watching my glowing fly line jump with the rod tip motion. But I’ve done this already. I’ve tried short strips, slow slides and . . .
I know what to do next — show ‘em the wiggle and hang. Do it every drift for the next twenty minutes, or at least until the bottom of this flat and into the tailout.
I feel better. The voice about going home is silenced, and I have renewed purpose — a new hope.
Cast directly across to the bank. Land the fly inches and not feet from the brush. One lift of the rod to be sure I didn’t catch a tree limb, then let the Pendragon slide off the bank. The Pendragon is the brilliant creation of my friends Josh and Trevor. It’s an articulated streamer with a full deer hair head. It barely holds its head on the surface, while the back section falls underneath. I call this style of fly a mouse emerger, much like Tommy Lynch’s White Bellied Mouse. Who knows what they take this fly for, but they eat it. It’s the same concept as another of my favorites, the Bad Mother night fly, but the Pendragon is longer, fuller and (sometimes) better suited to pulling bigger fish to the surface.
The Pendragon makes its way to a forty-five downstream of me, and it’s time. Lifting the rod slightly, I shake the rod tip left and right. Easy, rhythmically, I wiggle the tip and feel the line wave as I see it dance and glow in the dark. I’ve done this in the daylight with floating and emerging patterns, and I’ve seen that the wiggle makes its way down to the fly, if enough of the line is off the water. The fly shimmies and sends a pattern of waves through the surface and beyond, calling to any trout within who-knows-how-far. Brown trout have incredible lateral line sensitivity, and the vibrations are a beacon that signals vulnerable prey. I can’t see it, but I know the Pendragon is wiggling. That articulated joint is swaying and the deer hair head is pushing water left and right through the constant V wake behind it.
About eight wiggles, then I stop. I simply hang the fly and the current swings it out a little further until it’s almost below me. While it swings, I drop the rod again, maybe a foot or two. Pause. Have patience. And just when I think it’s time to recast, I wait another second or two. Have patience. Follow up with a slight lift of the rod and more wiggle. Then another patient hang.
When the fly swings out, or sometimes before it reaches a proper downstream angle, I recast. Hit the bank, let it slide off to the forty-five, lift, wiggle and hang. Wade, cast, repeat and . . .
BAM . . .
There is nothing like the bomb that goes off when a big trout takes a surface fly at night. The explosion breaks the silence. Ferocity pierces the stillness. Everything changes in an instant, and high-grade adrenaline takes over. Nothing exists but you and the trout that you came here for.
Wiggle and hang. Wiggle and hang. It produces two more hefty trout in the next hour. Then there’s the long walk out and a solitary drive home.
“In the end, all sacrifices are reckoned, and every night fisher estimates his worth with heavy eyes behind the headlights, wheels turning, confronting loneliness between the painted lines.”
— Troutbitten | Back in Black — The Night Shift (2017)
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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