Into The Arms Of Twilight

Into The Arms Of Twilight

Night Fishing: Nothing stirs the imagination quite so well as a dose of darkness

  • By: Trevor Paul Roberson

I was fishing the Au Sable River east of Grayling, Michigan, for the first time and, fevered by its legend, I was determined to cover every mile of it in a single day. At dusk I found myself 20,000 leagues downstream, and thought it wise to begin the slog back to camp. In what seemed like a matter of seconds, somebody pulled the plug on daylight. Having grown up in the 1950's and fed on a diet of grade-B sci-fi movies, I had a lingering fear of just one thing: The dark. The monsters, madmen and werewolves of my youth came rushing back, descending upon me in the form of bugs, bats and blindness.Crotch-deep in the center of this swirling black Amazon, with no cabins nearby, no lights to guide me and no other fly-fishing fools about, I stood paralyzed. It was not just the strange river that made things so scary, but the fact that it could only be traveled by wading down the middle. In the "Holy Waters" where I found myself, both banks were impassable. Not only were there mud bogs that could suck your legs off at the knees, there were also endless lines of "sweepers," lazy hemlocks and cedars with their green-tipped heads jutting out over the water. Great cover for trout, but the labyrinth they created made wading near the banks out of the question. I was stuck in this Stygian hell and totally unprepared. I did what any normal, manically obsessed fly-fisherman would do. I undid the fly from the keeper and began swishing out some line. Why not make the most of it, I thought. Better to go out in a blaze of fish-filled glory than stand like a fool in the middle of a river that I now suspected harbored alligators. After all, fly-fishing is supposed to be relaxing, and I needed to calm down. Three casts later I was fast to what I knew was the biggest brown in the river. I imagined a new state record at the end of my line, a leviathan with a neognathic jaw so large it could swallow its own head. Hyperventilating, with a triple-digit pulse, I finally realized this punishing spasm was not the heavyweight of my dreams. I was hung up, teased by a sweeper with a mordant sense of humor. After breaking off, I decided a fast death was better than a slow one, and I disappeared into the heart of darkness. Even with the gentle gradient, it soon felt like I was wading the rapids above Niagara Falls, blindfolded. Though I made it home in one piece, the experience left me wondering: How does one successfully-and safely-fish after dark? The answer led me to formulate Rule # 17. To paraphrase the wise Greek fly-fisherman and part-time philosopher, Socrates: Nosce riparium ipsum. Know thy river. It is now axiomatic for me to scout the section of river I am going to fish after dark. Even if I think I know it like I know the liver spots on the back of my hand, a watery environment is always in a state of flux. Logs, rock formations, holes and runs constantly change. Approaching the age of reason at last, I no longer think first in terms of fish, but in terms of safety. I find that a handful of fly choices gets me by. One of my favorites for night fishing at home in Montana represents the family Perlidae. Stoneflies, like humans, come in a variety of sizes, but basically the same morphology. Stoneflies, also like some humans, come out at night to party. So do the fish that love to eat them. I am especially fond of the genus acroneuria. The theory of benthic drift aside, these mottled stoneflies become highly active at night and are available in an adult phase from spring through fall. They offer a hefty, super-size meal, which is more than enough to induce large trout to forage unguardedly in the shallows. I favor a generic version of the acroneurians because the flies are easy to make and painless to lose in a tree or bush. I tie a mutant pattern on a size 10 hook with a 3X long shank. I prefer the classic style affected by Charlie Brooks in his book, Nymph Fishing For Larger Trout. Take two clumps of something and fashion into split tails. Goose biots are my tail of choice. In designer-yellow chic, they are durable and easy to work with. Even though stoneflies have a uniform abdomen, I am partial to a slightly tapered body. I use rabbit fur, mainly because wife Number Two used to raise them and she left me with a lifetime supply of pelts. I attach a small chunk of politically correct metal at the thorax for swimability. Then, after plumping up the pattern with more rabbit fur, I wrap the thorax with hen hackle, usually a dark shade of grizzly. I finish the head with peacock herl because I like the shimmering effect when it's wet. Whether this quality translates into something yummy in the water after dark is debatable. I avoid hammering any bead nonsense onto the head because I think beads are overrated. Plus, they are too expensive for my Spartan budget. I use a short leader, about as long as the rod, with a heavy, 3X tippet. Fishing dead drift, I rollcast and follow…rollcast and follow…rollcast and follow. It may sound like a tiresome mantra, but the lack of ceremony at night works its own magic. A variant technique is to strip out line at the end of a drift and impart action. I raise and lower the nymph as if it were apartment hunting, looking for just the right rock or bush from which to emerge. The fish, like shrewd landlords, will often out-splash one another for the right to eat the prospective tenant. To cover the caddis genera, I use a large wet fly similar to a Lead-Wing Coachman. I dress it sparsely on a size 6 short-shank hook. If there is any hatching activity prior to the stroke of nighttime, I fish the pattern with lots of rock and roll. I use an equally generic white marabou to cover the minnow family. Fishing spiritoso, with lots of vivace, I strip the hell out of it across the surface. This method produces splashy rises to say the least. Sometimes I'll fish a bucktail streamer, which also makes a passable stand-in for a large stonefly, thereby allowing me to eliminate one pattern from my already Spartan fly box. More often than not I will use only a single fly in a night's session-barring, of course, a break-off. Changing flies is time-consuming and unnecessary. I believe the trout are much less discriminating when the lights go out. My one-fly-a-night predilection stems from an experiment I conducted several years ago. I staked out a prolific, 80-yard run on a heavily fished section of a "blue-ribbon" stream. I carried three rods with me. One had a large streamer, another a caddis imitation and the third my prized stonefly pattern. I got a lot of weird glances when the other fly-fisherman saw me approach with three rods since, by law in Montana, you can only fish with one at a time. I nodded, smiled and leaned my rods against a tree stump. With a grassy hummock for a pillow, I watched the other anglers ply the water-ESPN Live. There were a few scattered rises, but nothing serious. None of the fisherman claimed bragging rights. It was nearly dark when the last of them took leave. Once they were gone, I fished through the run first with the caddis imitation, then the stonefly and finally the streamer. Same water, and basically the same technique so as to make the experiment somewhat valid. On the initial pass I caught a couple of teeny cutthroat. The fish got bigger on the second pass with the stonefly. Nothing on the streamer. When it was completely dark, there was no contest. The stonefly out-fished the other two by a clear margin. But the biggest fish of the night fell for the streamer-although it was a bull trout, and so technically did not count. Did my unscientific experiment prove anything? Would the trout have taken fly A as readily as fly B or C? What is it, ultimately, that triggers selectivity? Contemplating the motivation of a fish is akin to contemplating your alter ego's navel. It may be fun, but amounts to little in the long run. I stopped wearing a fishing vest around the time the Nehru jacket went out of style in the 1970's. (My vest was so heavy it felt like I was carrying wife Number Three on my back.) Unencumbered by miles of leader material, all the latest gadgets, 300 boxes of flies and my autographed copy of Trout Fishing In America, I felt liberated. Now I carry a purse. It's actually more of a small leather pouch that holds one fly box, two spools of tippet material, a combo knife-clippers and a box of raisins. (Liquid refreshment is around my waist in a plastic bottle, the kind favored by hikers and bikers.) And at night I go even lighter, stuffing a fly box into my pants pocket along with a candy bar. Shucking the nonessentials allows me more maneuverability among the obstacles that always seem to find me. Plus, I weigh less and am not as likely to sink whenever I fall in. One exception to this minimalistic mania is a net. I find that at night I break off a lot of fish just as I am about to release them. I just can't seem to run my hand down the leader as gently as I do during the day. So whenever I don't have to hike or wade through a lot of brush, I carry a net. An indispensable item for me after dark is a hat. I wear it not to keep the moonshine from my eyes, but to keep the bats from thinking my head is a landing strip. As crepuscular flying mammals, bats are not pretty. Up close they look like my ex-mothers-in-law: Flying demons in need of dental work. I'm not really afraid of them but, along with skunks and dogs, they are known vectors of rabies, a disease that is fatal if left untreated. In fact, I once thought I had it. The place: The South Fork of the Flathead River near Hungry Horse, Montana, my home grounds. The time: Midnight. The crime: Stupidity. Bats like to eat insects and, as we all know, insects are found in abundance along trout streams. Nature has provided bats with excellent sonar, a navigational and food-finding sense that is without equal. When they fly around me at night, circling and diving and darting to and fro, I know they will not fly into my hair. But this particular night they decided to play bat games. There were two of them, each taking turns tapping the end of my rod, and sometimes my line, thunk-thwack, while making little screechy bat noises of glee. I was fishing dries, and false-casting my fool head off when the line went taut behind me. At first I thought it was a bush, but it was moving, and bushes do not flop around, at least not usually. It was one of my bat friends. Bats capture food in a scoop formed by their wings, and one of the s.o.b.'s decided to make a snack of my Adams. Reeling in very, very slowly, I thought, How am I going to get it off the hook? By now I had about 10 feet of line and leader out and the rascal was still moving. The sensation was like that of flying a kite-a kite that had teeth that could, theoretically, kill me. With less than two feet of line out, I carried the combo up the bank and over to my car. I placed the reel end on the roof and the writhing bat on the hood. I searched frantically for a pair of gloves and a flashlight. I came up with a grease rag and dead batteries. I put the rag over the bat and held tight. Somehow, it had freed itself from the hook. As I raised the rag slightly, the bat grazed my hand. I saw blood. Not the bat's. Mine. The next day I made an emergency trip to the doctor. Being neither a fly-fisherman nor a bat expert, he consulted with his colleague-at no extra cost to me, thank you. They both agreed the laceration was not deep enough for me to worry about. Relax, he said. Go fish. Night fishing reached its low point for me when wife Number Four, a suspicious woman who was mean as a badger, wanted proof that I was actually fishing and not night-carousing. She expected me to lug home some dead fish every time I went out with rod in hand. To appease this shrew, I had to: First, catch something that, given my skills, was not always guaranteed and, second, kill whatever I caught. This was not only against my principles-or what passes for same-it was more often than not against the law, since I typically fished catch-and-release areas only. I solved the dilemma by stopping at the 24-hour grocery and buying whatever was cheap. To this day she still thinks there are pollock and mackerel swimming in the Blackfoot River. (She eventually ran off with a golfer, thank God.) If nothing else, fly-fishing after dark has helped to make me a better fisherman. And I have learned a lot: Don't carry more than you need; the moon is our friend; and never, ever wade into something you can't safely wade out of. Oh, and I know I'll never be lonely. If nowhere else, I will always be welcome in the arms of twilight. Wading safely after dark requires only common sense and the smile of good fortune. But neither logic nor luck can mitigate every watery hazard. Take the issue of light, for example. Consensus has it that we should carry some sort of illuminating device in order to "see." Nighttime human physiology, however, disagrees. Temporary night blindness-called nyctalopia-can have serious consequences if we use the light too often, especially when wading. As we all remember from 8th grade science, the pupils of our eyes expand naturally to admit more light as our visual environment darkens. When our eyes are exposed to a sudden burst of light, our pupils contract instantaneously to protect the retina from incandescent damage. The process is called pupillotonia. Our eyes take longer each time to readjust to the darkness, and we become, in effect, night blind. This can have serious ramifications. You can't wade safely if you can't see! But beating nyctalopia is easy. Simply close one eye when using your light. (It's an old Boy Scout trick.) Then, when you turn the light off, one eye will remain acclimated to the low light/dark conditions. This virtually eliminates photo-induced night blindness, thus reducing the chances of injury. As to the type of illumination, I prefer a flex-light, such as a Coast Tek Torch. It's compact, emits a powerful beam and is inexpensive. If you insist on lugging around an old-fashioned, 10,000-pound flashlight, you can reduce the nyctalopic effect by taping red cellophane over the lens. (Red light does not alter the pupillary response as dramatically as other frequencies of the spectrum.) There is a mountain-climbing axiom that can also be applied to wading after dark: Never trust the vegetation. The lore stems from the fact that no vegetative "handle" can be trusted as an aid to balance. Roots weaken and pull out, branches can-and usually do-break, and tufts of grass can be slippery. All can send you tumbling down the bank or into the water if you rely on them for clambering support. If you consistently night-wade dangerous rivers that have heavy currents, swift rapids and deep holes, a Coast Guard-approved Type III PFD (Personal Flotation Device) is the ticket to survival. They come in a variety of styles, from a simple waist belt, to a shoulder collar, to inflatable suspenders. Of course, there is also the traditional fishing vest with a CO2 inflatable shell. Extreme caution is called for when wading at night and you encounter human beavers-that is, the Army Corps of Engineers. It seems they have a predilection for releasing water from dams at night without warning. The sudden, unexpected tidal rush can be disconcerting and even dangerous if you are not prepared. So, if you wade below any impoundment that may release water during your night adventure, have an escape route planned. Nighttime companions can be a welcome safety addition to the after-dark experience, particularly if they don't fish or smoke (smoking impairs one's ability to see at night). They can keep the campfire burning, provide you with cold refreshments, and even help net that trophy. But more importantly, they can point out to Search and Rescue where you were last seen in the water, so the dragging operations can begin immediately. However, if you're a confirmed hermit and insist on solo-wading after dark, at least inform someone where you'll be fishing. Lastly, remember you are not the only "wild" animal out there on the prowl. Beware of snakes, scorpions, snipes and bears, not to mention aliens, poison ivy, the weather and ex-mothers-in-law wielding Spey rods. To paraphrase Orwell, "Light is dark." Further precautions should be taken to avoid injuries to the eye. It doesn't take much of a poke from an "invisible" branch or twig to cause damage. If you don't wear glasses, consider safety goggles if you're going to be plodding through thick brush to reach the water. The Kootenai River, where the world-record rainbow trout used to live-it's now stuffed and "swimming" in sombody's den-is a mecca for after-dark fishermen, yours truly included. I was told that a klaxon would sound when the dam was about to release water. I had been wading one night and felt the pressure of a rapidly rising river and didn't hear a damn thing, except the scary swoosh of a river going from 6,000 cfs to 14,000 cfs. Moral: Don't rely on hearsay to make what may be a life or death decision. Gather your own safety information, and make sure it's accurate. My personal night-wading nemesis is a twisted ankle. That's because I enjoy fishing a particular stream that's lined with talus slopes and has slate-like rock formations that are unstable. If I'm going to do any super-serious after-darking, I will wrap an Ace bandage around my ankles beforehand. Personalize the water you fish and wade accordingly. R.C. Hooker was the singles-division winner in the 2003 Cabela's/FR&R Trout Bum Tournament. He lives in Hungry Horse, Montana.