Written by: William G. Tapply
Sometimes you can see better in the dark.
It’s a little-known fact, and I hesitate to reveal it, but here goes: on the otherwise undistinguished little trout stream that passes under the bridge just a three-minute drive from my front door here in Massachusetts, there is a Hexagenia hatch toward the end of June, and trout that have lain dormant all day come to the surface to feast on them. These are pale yellow mayflies, absolute giants, bigger than any of our drakes and imitated by a pattern tied on a size 6, 2XL hook. They emerge from the mud after sundown, just about the time you can no longer follow the drift of a giant dry fly with inch-tall white wings.
It’s grand while it lasts–a week, maybe two in a good year.
It’s not hard to catch trout when the Hexes are on the water. But you’ve got to enjoy casting into the darkness.
I got my first taste of fly fishing at night on the Upper Connecticut River nearly 40 years ago. I’ve been hooked ever since . . . .
* * *
I had fished some delicious pools and runs all afternoon while the midsummer sun beat down on the water, and I had seen no sign of trout. But the water looked as good as its reputation, and I had come far to try it. I was reluctant to quit. So I kept casting while the shadows lengthened and the air cooled.
Things began to change as the sun sank behind the Vermont hills and dusk faded from gray to purple to black. First came the bats and swallows, materializing out of the dark woods along the riverbank, swooping and darting over the water, sometimes skimming their wingtips on its surface.
About the time the stars popped out in the moonless sky, the trout came to the surface. At first I couldn’t distinguish their riseforms from the natural eddies and braids of current. But gradually, as my eyes adjusted, I began to detect the splashes and swirls of feeding trout. The disturbances captured shards of starlight and spread them over the inky slickness of the water’s surface until, gradually, they dissipated.
Against the night sky I could see smoky clouds of insects swirling over the water. Caddisflies, maybe. More likely a spinnerfall. Back then, I didn’t know much about either. And it didn’t matter. The bushy gray dry fly on the end of my leader would have to do, because I couldn’t tie on another. I hadn’t expected to be out after dark, and I didn’t have a flashlight with me.
So I cast blindly into the currents. I looked hard, trying to follow the perky white wings of my fly that had been so visible in the afternoon sunlight. Impossible. My fly floated, I assumed, through the line of feeding trout in front of me. Maybe not. Maybe it was nowhere near them. Or maybe one of those fish had taken it under and spit out. As hard as I looked, I simply couldn’t see what was going on.
But I kept casting into the darkness, squinting at what I imagined to be the drift of my fly, picking up, casting again, and after a while I stopped trying to see and allowed the darkness to wash over me. I surrendered to the night, and then I realized that I could smell the river–a clean, moist, almost odorless smell, but a smell, nevertheless. And I felt the silky night air on my face and arms, soft and liquid and black.
Then, for the first time in my life, I heard the tiny sucking noises of surface-feeding trout, and I heard their swirls and splashes when their noses and tails broke through the skin of the river. It seemed that I could distinguish the separate sound of each fish, visualize his location, see him inside my head.
I continued to cast, and once, for some reason that my brain did not explain to my conscious mind, my arm twitched and my rod lifted and a throbbing vibration traveled up the flyline to my hand. I didn’t understand what had happened. I had seen nothing. But somehow I had raised and hooked a trout.
I played him in the darkness. I might as well have closed my eyes. But when he came ghosting to my feet, I saw the silvery glint of him in the light of the stars, and I knew that it was a rainbow fourteen or fifteen inches long.
I released the fish, blew on my fly, and cast again. Soon another trout was jerking and tugging on my line. And then I began to understand what was happening: I had switched off the part of my mind that was governed by vision. I had allowed my other senses to take control. By feel, I was able to cast the proper distance so that my fly would float over those rising trout. My casting, I sensed, was perfect, as it rarely was in daylight. The sensation of my rod moving though that tangible liquid night air created a picture I could see clearly in my mind’s eye–my flyline lifting off the river, rolling back over my shoulder, straightening, pausing, uncurling in a graceful loop over the river, then settling like a slender snake on the surface. By feel I knew how and when to mend my line. Senses other than sight enabled me to follow the drift of my fly.
It might have been my ears that told me when a trout had taken it. Somehow I knew, with an accuracy that seemed extrasensory and uncanny, exactly which audible slurp was the one that had come to my fly. Or maybe it was a new sensitivity in my fingers that transmitted some subtle, electric vibration through the slack in my line that caused my wrist to jerk instinctively. I don’t know. But for an hour or more I hooked a trout on every third or fourth cast. As long as I was able to blank my mind, to forget everything I had learned about reacting to what I could see, to turn the mechanics of fishing over to my senses of touch and sound–and some new Zen part that I didn’t understand–I caught trout.
It was a magical, spooky hour, and when I struck too hard and broke off my fly in the mouth of a fish that might have been heavier than the others, it ended abruptly.
I groped my blind way to shore and found a boulder to sit on. Then I lifted my face to the sky and closed my eyes and allowed my other senses to absorb the sounds and smells of the dark river.
I might have sat there for five minutes. Maybe it was an hour. Even my sense of time had been distorted by the night.
I recalled some lines from Walt Whitman that I had once memorized optimistically–but, as it turned out, futilely–for the benefit of a blonde cheerleader, with, I readily confess, seductive intent:
I am he that walks with the tender and growing night,
I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.
Press close bare-bosom’d night–press close magnetic nourishing night!
Night of south winds–night of the large few stars!
Still nodding night–mad naked summer night.
* * *
I’ve learned a few things about trout rivers in the nighttime since that mind-shifting experience on the Upper Connecticut forty years ago. But in all the important ways, nothing has changed. The trout still like to come out to play in the dark, and I still want to be there, prepared to suspend my sense of sight in order to savor the sounds and smells and to cast flies blindly, but not without purpose, to those trout. I confess to seductive intent.
Sometimes I fish trout rivers at night by design, like when the Hexes are hatching on my local stream, and sometimes I just cannot force myself to leave after the sun goes down. I’ve cast black caddisfly imitations onto the inky surface of the Bighorn under an inflated Montana moon. I’ve stayed with Hendrickson spinnerfalls on Connecticut’s Farmington while early darkness has descended and the frigid April air has numbed my fingers. I’ve lobbed Woolly Buggers against the banks of the Bow and the Green and the Missouri while my guides have magically maneuvered their driftboats through the darkness.
Sometimes I’ve caught the biggest fish of the day this way. Sometimes I’ve caught nothing. But I’ve never failed to savor the sensual pleasures and black mysteries of a trout river on a bare-bosomed mad naked summer night.
* * *
Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here.
Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):
- Sportsman’s Legacy: A Rich Memoir of a Man’s Life with His Great Sportsman Father, His Beloved Family, and His Adored Brittany,
- Bitch Creek: A Novel, and
- Death at Charity’s Point (The Brady Coyne Mysteries Book 1).