“Moon Down” by William G. Tapply

Written by: William G. Tapply


Bill Tapply fishes a Western spring creek.
Photo courtesy williamgtapply.com

[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. He was far and away the best writer I have edited, and we developed a friendship around our shared angling and literary interests. He wrote books and articles on fishing and hunting, as well as great mystery novels that often featured fly-fishing. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. If you are not familiar with Bill’s work, I encourage you to check out his website and the links below. Many of the books in Bill’s list here are out of print, but it is well worth your time to run down copies, which can usually be found online. I’ve included links to the Amazon pages for each book. ]

Who knows what drives our angling urges?

For most of my adult life I was a nine-to-fiver with family and other obligations, and the best time to go fishing was whenever I could—weekends and vacations, mostly. I didn’t have the luxury of timing a trip to hit a hatch or waiting for promising weather conditions.

Lately, I’ve arrived at a time in my life when I can, at least theoretically, go whenever the spirit moves me. It’s been interesting to observe that sometimes I am moved, and sometimes I’m not. I’ve tried to keep track of the comings and goings of my fishing urges, and this is what I’ve found out about myself:

The urge strikes quite regularly at dawn and dusk, particularly in the summertime.

It’s especially strong on what my dad used to call “soft days”—cloudy, windless, warm, and misty.

On the margins of the season—winter, early spring, autumn—I want to go fishing around noon on warm, sunny days when the air and water are most comfortable for man and fish.

When the mayflies are hatching, all bets are off; I want to go regardless of any other factors.

My angling urges seem to more or less coincide with the times when fish are most active and my chances of catching them are best. After a lifetime of going whenever I could get away, maybe my subconscious has internalized the variables associated with good and bad fishing. I’ve tried to pay attention to myself, and I’m convinced that my urges are instinctive, almost physical, not the product of rational analysis. I do not think: “I will catch a lot of fish if I go now.” I go when that certain feeling comes over me. More often than not I have decent fishing. Sometimes I get skunked. My urges are not infallible.

On the other hand, I always have a good time.

Dancing in the Dark
I was reminded of this last June when I was in Arkansas and John Gulley offered to take a few of us night fishing on the Norfork Tailwater.

I hesitated, biting back the impulse to say: No, thanks. I don’t feel like it. I’d rather sleep.

Gulley cocked his head at me. “The gates are all closed. Low water and heavy cloud cover. A dead-dark night. Perfect conditions. We got some giant fish in this river. They’ll come out to play tonight.”

I couldn’t turn that down. It reminded me that an optimistic prediction from a local expert was another variable that sparked my fishing urges.

I waded behind John in water halfway to my knees. The Norfork currents gurgled quietly in the darkness. A pair of barred owls called back and forth. From downstream came the muffled voices of our companions, T. L. and Tom.

After a while, John steered me out into the river until I was knee-deep in a soft current. “There’s a sweet run out there in front of you,” he said. “Plenty of room for a backcast. Throw it upstream at an angle, swing it down on a tight line, twitch it in. The bite will be soft. Just tighten on him. I’ll be upstream, if you need me. Keep your headlamp off the water. When you catch one, face the shore if you need to turn it on to unhook him. Got it?”

“Got it,” I said. I liked the fact that he said “when” instead of “if.”

Then John was gone, and I was alone in the darkness. It took me a while to learn to cast without eyes, to feel the length of line in the air, to know when it had straightened behind me, and to sense when to pick up the retrieve for a new cast.

I kept peering around, trying to see. But I could see nothing. When I gave up trying, I found the rhythm of it, and everything worked better.

Casting blindly into the dark was pleasant and mind-cleansing, but pretty soon I began doubt that I’d ever get a strike. I would cast all night into water that I couldn’t see, the same water for hours and hours, and eventually the sun would rise and we’d go home and go to bed.

In the dark, without a watch, with no stars or moon, it’s impossible to gauge the passage of time. It felt as if I’d been there for hours, standing in the same place, casting repeatedly. But I’d probably been fishing for about half an hour when I felt a nip and a tug and then a strong pull, and then somewhere in front of me a fish sloshed.


Guide John Gulley with a Norfork monster.
Photo courtesy River Ridge Inn

I steered it in, turned to face the shore, and flicked on my headlamp. It was a nice brown trout, eighteen or nineteen inches long. Not one of Gulley’s giants. But a very satisfactory fish, and a different kind of fun in the dark.

It went like that for a while—now and then one of us would hook a trout. It wasn’t fast, but it kept me tense and alert for the soft tug and gentle bump in the night out there at the invisible end of my line.

Then Tom and T. L. hooked up at the same time, and before they landed their fish John had one on, and then my rod tip twitched and dipped, and four hooked fish were sloshing in the darkness.

And we kept hooking fish. Somebody always had one on. Our voices, trying to sound cool but betraying excitement and awe, and the splashing and surging of fighting fish echoed in the moist night air.

It’s hard to say how long it lasted. At least an hour. Maybe two or three hours. I know that I landed nine trout, more or less one right after the other, interspersed with some unproductive casts and several missed strikes and a few brief hookups. The same thing was happening to the other three guys.

And then it petered out and stopped, and we went back to a lot of casting and an occasional hookup until the sky brightened and it ended entirely.

John built a fire and produced a coffee pot.

“Is it always like this?” I said.

“When we got competent anglers,” he said, “we catch fish. Oftentimes an eight or ten-pounder or two. As long as the water’s down and there’s no moon.”

“I meant,” I said, “that flurry we had, when everyone kept hooking up. It was like the river suddenly exploded.”

“Often happens that way.”

“That,” Tom said, “was our Solunar period.”

“You’re joking, right?” I said. “That Solunar stuff. Mysticism. Astrology for anglers.”

He shrugged. “There are those who swear by it.”

“Period or no period,” said Gulley, “we wouldn’t’ve had any fishing whatsoever without that cloud cover. Moonlight on the water is the kiss of death. A bright night, it’s not worth fishing. Doesn’t matter how the sun and moon are lined up.”

“I bet that flurry was a Solunar period,” said Tom.

“Anybody happen to notice what time it happened?” I said.

They all shook their heads.

“I guess we’ll never know, then,” said Tom.

“You boys want to go again tonight?” said John.

We definitely did.

Angling Lunacy?
Back in the 1930s, John Alden Knight observed that fish didn’t feed consistently all the time, that they seemed to become active at certain times of day and night. He theorized that high-activity periods such as we had that night on the Norfork could be predicted.

Knight noted the central importance of tides to saltwater fishing and wondered if there was a similar variable to account for activity peaks in freshwater fishing.

If so, you’d know when to go fishing and when not to bother.

Knight studied 33 variables and concluded that the key was the position of the moon. When the moon was directly overhead or directly “underfoot,” exerting maximum gravitational force, fish became active. These times, which might last as long as 3 1/2 hours, Knight called “major periods.” Halfway between the major periods were “minor periods” of 3/4 to 1 1/2 hours. Two major and two minor periods every day, for a total of ten prime hours of fishing.

His 1936 book Moon Up Moon Down explained the theory. Field & Stream has been publishing the monthly Solunar tables ever since.

Knight cautioned that weather and season and other conditional variables—an approaching cold front, for example, or moonlight shining on the water—affected fish behavior. But everything being relative, the Solunar tables, he claimed, predicted the best times to go fishing.

Best-Laid Plans
When I got back to my room that morning, I looked up the current month’s Solunar tables. That night we’d have a minor period at 10:30 followed by a major period at 3:50 AM. I’d wear my watch and give the Solunar theory a scientific test.

I had my gear ready to go at sundown. I felt the urge coming upon me.

And then it occurred to me that if the pull of the moon influenced fish, maybe it also affected people. Maybe the Solunar tables had been predicting the comings and goings of my own fishing urges all this time.

That night there were no clouds. The full moon shone on the water like daylight, and John called it off.

So much for science.

Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply:

They’re available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc. 

One thought on ““Moon Down” by William G. Tapply”

  1. for the record, I’m a believer in the solunar tables and the more simplified version of Moon Up and Moon Down. I often can associate abundance of wildlife crossing the highway with those old market hunting legacies.

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