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Night of the Hunter

by Dave Karczynski
photos by Dave Karczynski

It’s here. The end of the summer. The last push of heat.  From here on out the nights will be getting cooler and starting earlier. Large trout—those trophy fish that most anglers haven’t seen in a few weeks if not months—have commenced their final scarfdown of summer’s cornocopia. With spawning season not too far around the corner, it’s a time of wide open maws and bulging guts–provided you’re willing to go fishing in the dark.  If you haven’t caught your fish of the year yet, or if you’re looking to top it, it’s time to bust out the big sticks and the headlamps. Time to break out the foam and fur. Time to splat mice till the night splits open at its seams. It’s time to practice the Dark Arts.

But being successful at the night game is at once easier and more difficult than it seems.

The fish are there—and they’re gamers.  But “being there” yourself, in mind, body, spirit and equipment can be another thing altogether. Perhaps more so than anything else in freshwater, fishing for trophy browns in the dark requires the right attitude—not to mention strategy—to be successful. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you’re looking to make the most of those inky black hours on the river.

Know your water like the back of your hand

Especially if you’re fishing without a guide, it’s mandatory to choose water that you already know well—and then learn it even better.  Of course, the most important reason for this is that fishing new water at night is downright dangerous.  The second is that fishing to structure, be it an undercut bank, a logjam or a sharp inside bend, is still very important–even in a new moon phase.  A good 80% of the fish I catch at night are holding close to something, and you are ahead of the game if you know where that something is and where you need to place your body in (dark, dark) space in order to make an efficient cast.  In this sense, you might compare mousing to a game of mini golf with the lights out:  you’re going to do a lot better when you know all the holes, cups and curves.  That said, your big rod is going to be a much different putter compared to your five weight.  If you have the chance, fish your beat with your big stick during the day in order to get a better feel for your casting motion. 

Lend them your ears

Night fishing is very much an aural game, and you’ll be surprised at how many competing sounds you’ll have to negotiate in order to keep track of what’s happening to—and who’s interested in—your fly.  There’s the purl of water around your legs or boat, the sound of that riffle just upstream, and, depending on where you live, a symphony of up to a thousand or so shrill night insects.  That means you’ve got to really focus your attention, keep those ears perked up and tuned into to a slip or slurp.  Of course, your eat might be a toilet bowl gustation audible through a pair of aviator earmuffs: pure awesome.  But in the case of a large, mature eater, that take might be something far more subtle.  And if you’re not listening you might not hear that fat old fish who just sipped and missed–and now needs to be worked slowly and methodically with a change of flies and/or presentation if you’re going to roll him again.

Trust the moon and stars

Once, fishing under a full moon, I told my fishing partner I needed moonglasses, something to cut out the bright glare that was making me squint. He thought I was joking.  I wasn’t. One of the most surprising things you realize when you spend enough time out in the dark is how much light there is to see by—that is, if you give your eyes the chance to adjust. Most any moon phase (with the exception perhaps of the newest new moon) yields sufficient light to navigate by once that moon gets above the treetops.  The key is to let your eyes adjust slowly. This means using your headlamp less as a regular tool, more as an emergency measure. And when you do need to use artificial light, do so briefly and at the dimmest possible setting, so as not to undo all the hard work of getting your eyes acclimated to the dark.

Your retrieve matters

It’s true that browns are less wary at night, but that doesn’t mean they lose all their discretion.  They are, after all, brown trout–fickleness is a defining feature. So when it comes to your retrieve, try to imitate the real thing. Having made the dubious decision to go for a midnight swim, a mouse or frog is going to swim down and across—emphasis on the down.  This means throwing intermittent mends into your swing if you’re fishing good-sized water.  If you’re fishing a small spring creek, it might mean casting upstream, hitting the banks as if you were fishing hoppers.  In either case, learning to fish a fly in a way that is both natural and intuitive comes with daytime practice. In the dark, even under a full moon, odds are you’re not going to be able to rely on your vision to make adjustments to the path of your fly.

Mix up your profiles

People will argue about the merits of different colors and tones, but your two most basic options when it comes to night fishing are flies that wake aggressively and flies that wake weakly (or not at all).  Don’t be afraid to change things up if one of those profiles isn’t working.  You wouldn’t fish a streamer for three hours in the daytime if it wasn’t producing, so why do it at night?  In addition to varying the amount of water pushed by your surface flies, don’t be afraid to go subsurface in the form of a diver or leech.  Going just an inch or two below the film can make a big difference, especially on cold nights or during a full moon.

Put in the time

The most successful night anglers don’t merely fish the hour after dusk as icing on the cake of a long angling day.  Rather, they spend the day resting (to whatever degree life allows) and hit the water just before dusk, with a mind to fish for a good long while.  In the same way that your fly has to be on the water to catch fish, your mouse (or frog or leech) has to be on the water at night to catch a true–and truly big–night predator.

Keep your mind at ease

Being out by yourself in the middle of a nowhere–especially under a new moon–can be trying on the nerves, especially since you might not be the biggest nocturnal predator in the area. The reality is that you’re not going to be on the water long enough, or fish in a focused enough way, if you’re flashing your headlamp at every whump or rustle in the bushes. Ever since a too-close-for-comfort encounter with a grizzly and two cubs while throwing evening streamers in Yellowstone, I carry bear spray. Do I expect to use it? No. Does having it allow me to focus a heck of a lot more on my fishing? You bet.

Last, and most importantly: get out there

Depending on where you live, you’ve got at least four good weeks of nocturnal unicorn-hunting left. The biggest of the big fish are on the feed, and it’s time to capitalize. As a friend of mine likes to say, “Do the right things, and the right things will happen.”  Don’t miss your last chance to get it oh-so-right up top and in the dark this year.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Dave Karczynski's writing has appeared in The Flyfish Journal, Fly Rod & Reel, The Drake, Fly Fusion and others. A Robert Traver Award winner, he lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he teaches writing and photography at the University of Michigan.
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  • Brian Kozminski

    some nights are on the verge of frigid. we shall keep an extra fleece and wool cap in the dry bag…