Fly Fishing after Dark

A while ago, I wrote “Resisting the Urge to Fly Fish Until ‘Dark Thirty,'” a short post with the simple point that sometimes, it’s wise to to quit before dark. That’s sound advice. Sometimes.

My point in the post was that if you’ve already had a great day catching trout and you’re expected home at a reasonable time (a time determined in consultation with your spouse and/or children), then peel yourself away from the river. Head home. There’s no reason to be greedy and fish until dark to catch a few more.

However, you need to resist the urge to quit before “dark thirty” if the best fishing of the day typically occurs when the sun goes down and darkness prevails.

A few days ago, I fly fished with my son, Luke, and my brother, Dave, on the Big Thompson River in Rocky Mountain National Park. Unfortunately, my flight to Denver was delayed, so we could not start fishing the first day until 7:00 p.m.

I figured we’d stop about 8:15 p.m. as the darkness began to settle in and head to the town of Estes Park to eat. But the brown trout in the Big Thompson convinced us otherwise. At about 8:15 p.m., they started rising. My brother Dave (pictured above) suggested that we keep fishing. Luke insisted on it. So we ended up fishing until 9:00 p.m. — well after dark. We caught trout after trout on a size #18 parachute Adams. Luke used a size #18 tan elk hair caddis with a black body and out-fished us all. We went back two more evenings, fished from 8:15 to 9:00 p.m., and caught quite a few nice-sized browns.

This experience provided some good reminders and a few lessons.

1. Browns like to feed in darkness.

This is common knowledge, but a good reminder: Brown trout come to life when the day is dying in the west.

Recently, I talked to the guides at the Old Au Sable Fly Shop in Grayling, Michigan, about booking a trip. They told me that their “day trips” in June and early July start at about 7:00 p.m. Then, they fish until midnight. That’s when the big browns come of their lairs to feed on the surface.

2. The white post on a tiny parachute Adams makes it stand out even in low light

If you’re afraid of not being able to see these tiny (size #18 or #20) flies, don’t be. You can see the white post easily enough as long as there is a little bit of light in the sky. The tan wing of an elk hair caddis is easy to spot too in waning light.

3. Assume that any rise in the vicinity of your fly is a strike.

Even after it was too dark to spot our flies as the floated down the current, we caught brown after brown simply by setting the hook any time we saw a fish rise where we thought our fly might be. I don’t have the scientific data to prove it, but I think we had fish on about three-quarters of the time we guessed and set the hook.

4. Go with shorter casts.

For one thing, it’s easier to see your fly and to control your line as the darkness takes over. Also, it will keep you from snagging a rock or a branch on the other side of the bank. The last thing you want to do is to tie a tiny fly onto your teeny tippet when it’s dark.

5. A flashlight can save the day, er, the night.

Some fly fishers will not have the common sense to practice my previous point. Uh, that would be me.

I saw a fish rise about an inch from the opposite bank. There was a branch a few inches above it, but I couldn’t resist. Unfortunately, I snagged my fly on the branch and ended up losing it. Trying to thread a 6x tippet through the eyelet of a size #18 hook was nearly impossible. Neither the river nor the sky provided enough backlight.

Thankfully, the flashlight on my cell phone saved the night! It was a clumsy process, but I tied on a new fly in the darkness and ended up catching two more nice browns before we quit.

6. You can’t fish at night (or in the day time) if you forget your fly reel.

Yes, on our second night, I left my reel in another small pack I had used earlier in the day when we hiked to a high mountain lake. So I was relegated to spectator status. My fly fishing companions mumbled something about giving me a turn to use their fly rods if the fishing was good. But I guess it was too dark for them to see that they were catching a lot of trout. Or perhaps they thought it was too dark to risk transferring their fly rods from their hand to mine.

I won’t make that mistake again.