Brown Trout at Dark
December 03, 2013
The metallic buzz of cicadas faded with the heat. Shadows lengthened across a seldom-used track that stretched away across a wetland and disappeared in cedar and balsam. The barely buzzing quiet gave way to the first tentative chorus of frogs. I shook the dust from my waders stashed in the trunk.
Not far away, the river puzzled its way out of a cedar swamp. The muck there is like quicksand in places, taking you down to your hips. It's best to find good footing, and establish casting angles and safe wading areas before the light fades.
A great horned owl stood atop a broken white pine, its head rotating eerily to monitor my progress across soggy turf. Walking upstream, I saw no apparent activity—no rising insects, and no trout visible.
I stopped along a flat above a deep pool where I could see the bottom all the way across. Not necessarily because I knew it would be a good spot, but because I had ample room to backcast without hitting a tree. As twilight descended, I plucked a big White Wulff from my fly box and tied it on. Not because it matched anything in particular, but because I knew I could see it in the dark.
As darkness enveloped the river something landed on my arm. Michigan mayfly (Hexagenia limbata). My spine tingled. Just as stars filled the sky, I heard the first greedy "gulp" upriver. I could vaguely see big mayflies riding the flow like fairy schooners, safety in numbers only. Another gulp. Another. Soon the sound of feeding trout rose to a level of cacophony normally reserved for ocean scenes.
There was no target, no individual trout to focus on. Just chaos. I coiled fly line in my hand and sent the fly out there. I heard a noisy rise and struck, sending the miss over my shoulder. I stopped the fly over the water again and allowed it to fall. Another boil, another miss, another cast. At some point in this comic danse macabre, I struck something heavy.
Darkness accentuates the other senses. A 7-pound brown feels and sounds like an orca. You hear it thrashing, but you can't see it. The mind begins filling in details. If the rod bends dangerously, you give line. If you can't get it back, you do the unthinkable and start sidestepping downstream. Where was that boulder? That log? Falling in the dark, into a river, foot hooked under an -invisible tree, tethered to a wild animal, is something like the moment a hunter experiences when he realizes the tiger is stalking him.
Jon Kestner, a veteran nighttime guide, says hunting monsters with spots the size of quarters on the dark side of sunset can be dangerous. "Last year a guy in his late 60s launched at Upper Branch at night in August," he told me recently. "The boat gets away from him. He wades out for it. They found him several miles downriver. He tripped on a rock and hit his head and drowned.
"When clients tell me they went night fishing for browns on their own, it's rare not to hear one of them got baptized," Kestner added. "A sedate, friendly stream can become a nightmare in the dark. Better to get very familiar with a 100-yard stretch of river rather than try to cover a half mile."
Something mythical, some rumor, a will-o-the-wisp brought me to this life-threatening pass in the dark. Lying on my side, the tip of my fly rod frothing the water, throbbing like a monster's heartbeat, I finally managed to stand, the pulse of Frankenstein still singing through my 6-weight. Luckily, the water was only a foot deep.
Two will-o-the-wisps, actually: More than 30 years ago, I heard rumors of a cadre of dedicated anglers who fished only at night, only with fly rods, only for brown trout. Secretive to a fault, they earned their black badges of courage battling panic and huge browns alone, in situations just like mine, on the dark side of the angling world. For them, anything under 10 pounds deserved little more than a nod. I called Jon Ray of Hawkins Outfitters in Michigan and he deferred to a couple of them. "Ed McCoy must have been born at night," he said. "He can smell browns. He's like a 'werebrown.'"
McCoy later described the dark side of brown-trout fishing on the phone. "One night we heard something big walking through the woods," he said. "Something cumbersome, letting us know it was there. Deer usually blow at you and take off running. This thing didn't run. Luckily I had some experienced clients."
"Probably a bear. Another night a coyote started howling about 10 feet from the boat. My clients jumped, their heads on a swivel."
Another werebrown I've stalked giant browns with along the shorelines of Lake Michigan is Matt Wilder, a producer with a recording studio in Memphis. He wears a shark tooth around his neck, taken from a fish caught, appropriately, at night. Friends in Michigan call him Sharky. The rest of the year, Sharky chases monster browns at night in Southern tailraces.
"Scoping out the areas you want to fish during daylight is critical," Wilder says. "I find markers in the water that I can see in the dark. You should always fear, on very dark nights, that the water might be rising in a tailwater. If you don't notice, you're in mortal danger. It's always spooky. A buddy is a good idea."
The other will-o-the-wisp is the Hexagenias. When they come off in big numbers, giant browns throw caution to the wind. "I take at least a week off each year to fish at night during the Hex hatch in Michigan," says Dr. Bryan Burroughs, executive director for Michigan Trout Unlimited, and best man at McCoy's wedding. "He was best man at mine, too. Neither of us could imagine missing the Hex hatch. In Michigan, it stretches out for more than a month, if you start near the Indiana border in early June and follow it north, where they come off around mid-July."
When Hexes are hatching at night, "they pop up to the top, float downstream drying their wings, then fly off," Burroughs said. "You can hear them flying. Their cloudy wings make a 'thuddering' sound. Big browns seem to anticipate it, knowing where the big mayflies will emerge. You need to use an "upwing" pattern during a hatch, though I've started to successfully used spentwing patterns for all those times between hatches.
"I have a spentwing pattern I love and use almost exclusively now. It's a fast tie made with closed-cell foam palmered on the shank, with Hi-Vis spent wings, and a few strands of Fiber Glow on top. It lasts through several big fish, and floats so well it doesn't need floatant."
The Hex hatch draws wide-eyed fly fishers into dark valleys because they've heard that cacophony, the siren-call of chaos. But it's a limited window. Big browns are carnivores that devour rodents and other trout during the remainder of the year, suggesting other methods.
Wilder has several 20-pound browns to his credit. He's an adherent to the "browns want meat" school of thought. "For me, night fishing means slow streamer fishing most of the time," says Wilder. "The hook-up comes on the strip, after a pause. Sometimes you feel the bite when the fly is sitting still and slowly sinking. Usually it stops. It feels like hitting a rock. Something explodes. Your heart stops.
"One night I hooked a fish that I truly think was a world record. It felt like a Kenai king. It screamed 100 yards of backing off my 9-weight outfit. (Yes, I use a big rod and big flies for monster browns, but certainly not too big when browns are of the double-digit variety.)
"Suddenly, without any sign of slowing down, the hook came free. It felt as heavy as those 45-pound lakers I sent you photos of. Made those 28- and 26-pound browns I caught in the White River feel small. Had it on for maybe five minutes. I wish I could have seen it."
With a tiger by the tail, the babbling insanity brought on by sensory deprivation finally seems worthwhile: "Not until you catch some truly huge fish will you stop feeling completely insane for being out there blind, cold, in the middle of the night, usually not catching the numbers you could during the day," Wilder said. "Some rare nights the numbers can be staggering. Sometimes you catch nothing at all. For me, it's a size game. I've never been able to hook the real 'horses' during the day like I can at night—except in the Great Lakes, which is another story altogether. Big browns are wary and spooky. They learn to avoid people. You rarely see them during the day."
Science bears out Wilder's observation. Tracking studies show that brown trout in streams become increasingly nocturnal during spring. By midsummer, some studies indicate that browns become almost 100 percent nocturnal, and the process begins to reverse itself by early fall.
Wilder, who always uses floating lines, likes sculpin imitations, big bunny strips, and anything with a thick, dense profile. "Some are weighted, some not," he said. "I've seen 15-pound browns sitting in 6 inches of water, where you want a very slow sink. The flies I tie for deeper water are depth charges that get down fast, and ride hook up. It helps to use an 8- or 9-weight for those. They are very difficult to throw with a light rod. My flies range from a size #10 to a 2/0. You never know what size they'll be keying on."
McCoy has been guiding for browns at night since 2002 on Michigan's Big Manistee, Pere Marquette, and other rivers. "Muddler-style streamers are the traditional favorites," McCoy said. "That's what the old-timers always talked about, and I think that's where this all started. A standard size 6 Muddler is about the smallest fly I find to be effective. The Zoo Cougar is a favorite pattern of mine, but I don't think there's one fly that's best. It all depends on conditions.
"On colder nights, subsurface flies work better. You have to keep changing. Behavior of browns can change every hour. It's really variable. Surface flies can be big, too. Some nights I use stuff the size of a big water boatman—like golf-ball size. I tie my own mice. I throw a big 2/0 version I call Gator Bait—a blonde, articulated mouse with a dark head."
Kestner uses sculpin patterns, but also thinks "mousing" is making a comeback. "It's really bounced back," he said. "When we participate (with the DNR) on shocking browns, we find frogs, snakes, lampreys, baby ducks, and mice in the trout.
"In the old days, people would stay out until 4 in the morning fishing the Hex hatch, and the best window was only a few days. People with real jobs don't have the luxury of fishing every night during a two-week window. Browns eat whatever wanders overhead that fits in their mouths. Some guys tie mice with glow foam on the back. Hit it with a camera flash, and it allows people to hone in on things. Mice patterns can take giant browns any night during the trout season."
Turns out the "nothing water" where I posted up for the night was the key to the resulting fire drill and quick bath. It shaped my thinking about night fishing every night afterward. Like Edgar and Johnny Winter, monster browns only come out at night—"out" being the operant word. Out of the logjams, sweepers, and other cover they call home during the day. At night they prowl in water surprisingly shallow and seemingly barren.
"Seasonally, trophy browns have residential homes," Kestner said. "They don't stray far from deep cover, but when you have a pitch-dark night, they're all over those flats. We call them vacant lots. People fish the outside of the bend during the day. At night, you fish where the daytime people were standing, in a foot of water."
Even in deep pools, big browns don't sit on bottom at night. "I hunt addresses," McCoy said. "Big browns are not always going to be where you expect. They're territorial, apex predators. They feed wherever they want, and it's generally over nondescript flats—what I call transitional zones. You can identify areas where they're going to hunt. Big browns might be on the right side one night and on the left the next. They're not coming from the bottom of the pool. They hover 6 inches below the surface a lot. If you spook a big one, work that spot hard the next time through."
Burroughs finds a unique situation in which big browns don't leave home at night. "After the big 'spin' is over, most of the small fish quit feeding and most anglers leave. But if the spin was heavy that night, dead bugs continue drifting downstream. The really big fish are still hungry and feeding, but the rises are more sporadic and become super quiet—very subtle sipping in most cases. The dead bugs bump up against the sides of the stream, and collect along logjams. Big fish find these seams of dead bugs, and in some special cases will find rare little spots in unique logjams where all the bugs are trapped and collect by the hundreds. Browns just keep slipping up from under the wood, and slurping them in.
"This late-night Hex fishing is for fly fishers who are comfortable in the dark. Most people don't enjoy this at all, and vacate the river after the initial mayhem is over. But for those who love being out all night, and can handle wading, and walking the banks in the dark, this is a quiet time for hunting big fish, and you can often pick up a couple more giants between midnight and 3 A.M."
The dogged brown bulldogged into a pool 40 feet below the spot where I hooked it. Water dripped from my elbow. By incremental degrees of time and space, gripping the spool, and bending to the fish with outstretched arms and bent knees as it tried to turn, I inched it out of the pool, and over the shallow sand.
Mosquitoes drawing blood from my face and neck, I reached down to touch it, then hold it for a moment. Eight? Maybe nine? Okay, seven. Set free, it pushed a dark, rapid wake through the ink.
The Marvel superhero Daredevil is blind, but his heightened smell, hearing, and other senses are honed to such a fine degree that to him, normal vision would be a handicap. When fishing for brown trout at night, the more like a fly-fishing superhero you become, the better off you'll be.
Guide Ed McCoy: "A fish just kissing your fly sounds like a bluegill popping a lily pad. That means they don't want to commit. They're always changing. Some nights they stay aggressive, but you can cue yourself in to changes through audible clues. The best anglers pay attention to subtle sounds and almost invisible indicators."
Dr. Bryan Burroughs: "If I could describe it to someone, I'd try to have them listen to the volume of the splash. If it sounds like a small stone being skipped into the water, it's a smaller brown. If it sounds like someone dropping a golf ball straight down into the water, it's a bigger brown. If it sounds like a baseball, it's a monster. The ability to scout out better-sounding fish, rather than just casting to any rise, is the difference between catching a lot of small fish, and one or two big ones at night. The clock is ticking. Each night, each fish you set up on takes up a bunch of available time. You have to choose what you want to spend your time on, and your senses can clue you in." If you train them, that is.
Matt Straw is a former newspaper reporter and staff editor for In-Fisherman (now a field editor). He's been writing in the outdoor-enthusiast market for 30 years and fly fishing even longer.