Tips and techniques for hunting monstrous trout that go bump in the night.
[by James P. Spica Jr.]
CITY LIGHTS TWINKLE AND RAINDROPS PATTER ON THE WINDSHIELD; it’s 9:30 p.m. and already plenty dark as my buddy and I drive north away from Boston with the last traffic of the evening. It’s not the traditional time to coffee up, but the two of us are downing a hazelnut roast by the gulp, spilling splashes in our wide-eyed frenzy to get to the fish. Headlamps dangle around our heads, and tents, rods, wading boots, and beer bounce around in the back of our fishmobile. We’re a pair of crazies, but fly fishing can do that.
We arrive at the river around 1 a.m. No turning on the headlamps— seeing in the dark is a lot easier when you force it upon yourself from the beginning. The natural light is more than bright enough anyway.
It’s dead quiet. We rig up and walk to a deep hole on a gravelly bend. We lob mouse flies; patterns better suited for midwestern streams. And yet, first cast, there’s a fish on, a large rainbow.
Fly fishing at night is one part meditation, one part horrormovie jitters. You relax, slow down, and let your imagination and muscle memory do most of the work, while simultaneously wiring up on caffeine and anticipating a giant fish on the end of the line. Few experiences can compare.
Night fishing doesn’t fit into many anglers’ comfort zones, but with a few tweaks to your routine and a little practice, you can add a variety of scouting techniques, gear, and preparation procedures to your repertoire and some large fish to your fireside tales. After all, there’s no reason to be scared of the dark.
One of the biggest keys to success in night fishing is scouting. Get to know the water you plan to fish during daylight hours before you head there at night: this will save you a lot of fumbling around during valuable fishing time, avoid stepping in deep holes or tripping on logs, and other stunts that can have you irritated, swimming, or both.
Scouting will also allow you to get accustomed to the types of water and the distance between good places to stand and cast that you can later locate in the dark. The section of water you choose needn’t (in fact, often shouldn’t) be very large; choose a goodlooking 50-yard stretch instead of a 100-yard multi-bend section, and if possible, choose a section you know holds fish. Failing that, select one area with likely hiding places for large trout.
Once you’re familiar with your stretch of choice, familiarize yourself with the different types of water in that small area— mentally divide it into patches or sectors, taking note of the depth, streambed type, and flow speed of each sector.
After dissecting a section of river, work on predicting where you will cast at night. The trick to this component of scouting is to understand trout don’t occupy the same water types at night as they do during the day. While you may be accustomed to casting up against the banks or along logjams during the day, you will have more success at night knowing that big, predatory trout are out on the prowl instead of hiding and scrutinizing passing foodstuffs. You’ll find fish in the middle of the river, in the riffles that normally hold only small fish, along the inside of softwater bends, or cruising close to the bank; they’re in ambush mode. This is one reason why mice, frogs, and large streamer patterns work so well at night—the largest trout come out to hunt large meals under the cover of darkness.
Preparation for night fishing involves fishing gear, body, and mind. When it comes to gear, organize and assemble as much as you can in the afternoon daylight so it’s all set to go once darkness falls. This means more than just stringing your rod and knotting flies on a tippet. Double-check your headlamp for fresh batteries, and check that you have spares of both. Don’t forget to pack an extra clothing layer in case it gets a little chilly.
Night fishing may disrupt your sleep habits a little, but there are a few good ways to make it less detrimental. Everyone is different in preferences and body chemistry, but in general, avoiding things that induce a crash or make you sleepy out of the gate will do wonders.
A late lunch and a preemptive afternoon nap (think between 3 and 6 p.m.) will help you stay awake and energized through your night excursion. Additionally, don’t eat a large meal for dinner, and try to cut out sugar- or carb-heavy meals—digesting sugars and large meals can make you sleepy and make a night-fishing trip seem more like a chore than an adventure.
Caffeine will be your friend, but don’t overdo it. A cup or two of coffee or caffeinated black tea (my preference) around dusk is just enough—iced when it’s hot outside, and hot when it’s a little chilly. Going too gonzo with coffee (which is always tempting to do) and energy drinks can bring about a caffeine crash around midnight (though I’ve found energy drinks can cause a stronger crash) or have you dropping your waders to urinate more than usual.
With caffeine in your veins, it may be hard to abide by my next tip: Slow down. If you slow down every aspect of your approach, you’ll find night fishing a much more fulfilling experience. That goes for everything: more time between casts, more standing still and listening, slower retrieves, even a slightly slower casting stroke. (I’ve found this can help when throwing large flies and bullet-taper fly lines designed for casting wind-resistant flies like big streamers and mouse flies.) It’s tempting to power into the forward casting stroke too quickly when you’re casting a large fly, but in reality, you want to do the opposite.
According to Brian Pitser, owner and head guide at the Northern Angler Fly Shop in Traverse City, Michigan, one of the biggest mistakes first-time night anglers make is being to loud. “Most anglers make too much noise; they think that just because it’s night, they don’t have to be as stealthy, and that’s definitely not the case,” Pitser says.
One of the most important actions to slow down is the hook set. I have found many anglers, experienced and novices alike, having a tough time setting the hook when fishing at night, especially with mouse patterns—they feel the tug, rear back, and find they’ve yanked the fly out of the fish’s mouth. Josh Greenberg, owner of Gates AuSable Lodge, says that’s because at night, “The fish play a lot with their food.”
With large fish hunting at night and often making noisy strikes on flies, keeping your composure is critical with a slow hook set. A lack of composure is why a lot of first-time night anglers screw up.
“That’s where most people miss the fish,” Pitser says. “They go, ‘Oh my goodness, I heard the fish, I heard this big splash,’ and they rip the fly out of the water. The fish has to turn down on the fly before you can set the hook. When you hear the splash—it’s okay to perk up; but take a deep breath, pause, and then slowly lift the rod. And if you miss them; they’ll come back, more often than not—there’s a reason they moved for that fly.”
Personally, I also find that after you’ve kept your composure and let a fish take your fly, a strip set to the side and downstream (rather than up) works pretty well.