I had been mostly unaware of the concept of fly fishing at night until I read the book Strip-Set by George Daniel (read our review here) that had a really great section about fishing streamers at night. Ever since it had become something I really wanted to try but never got the opportunity because of where I live. Not that there wasn’t water for it, but more that the Rocky River Reservation will ticket your car if its parked in the system at night and I was also unsure of where to park in the more urban areas surrounding the other smaller streams. Being familiar enough with the water, I really wasn’t too concerned about losing my way in the woods at night. It really was just me not wanting to pay a parking ticket.
As is pretty well documented at this point, Nate is of the two guys I fish with most often (the other being my brother Mickey). Nate’s a guy who fishes nearly every free moment he has, and that includes the evening. I finally got the chance to go night fishing with him and have been out the last two Sundays. Best of all, my wife has given her golden blessing for night fishing since it interferes far less into our family schedule than the day fishing does. That is a blessing she will come to regret as I will surely test her patience with it.
For those who aren’t familiar with the region, it’s still pretty early in the season. There have definitely been fish that have moved up into the creeks and rivers, but not in the big numbers that indicate you’re in the heart of the run. Part of this is timing for sure being only early November, but also we have had very little rainfall that has bumped the rivers up for more than a day or so. The Rocky is usually our local measure for rainfall and in the last 50 days, the discharge has only gotten up over 500cfs a grand total of three times. 500cfs isn’t even that great for moving fish, so that’s really not saying much. Each of those three times were followed by periods of low precipitation, meaning that while they had gotten up there, they drained out quickly.
So the first Sunday we went out, I really didn’t know what to expect. I figured that we’d have to really do some searching to find some steelhead. He told me where to meet him and park our cars safely. It was one of the many small creeks that feed into Lake Erie, and while I had fished it many times, I had never once come in from this spot. We were parked behind a few strip malls and despite having driven past this back lot any number of times, I had never once noticed it, let alone recognized it as a place that would give me access to the creek.
Nate and I started hiking into the woods. As we carefully descended what Nate referred to as his “goat trail,” the light from the parking lot disappeared over the ridge behind us and we stumbled deeper and deeper into the darkness. Once we had reached the creek, the only lights I could see beyond our headlamps were the lights from the back porches from homes lining the ridge above.
I had a small headlamp that secured to the brim of my hat. I figured if it was bright enough that I could tie on flies with it, surely it would be enough to spot and cast to fish. I was wrong. It barely lit the ground beneath my feet. I grossly underestimated darkness from being on a small creek that was in a narrow but deep valley. I was woefully ill equipped but thankfully Nate knew the route well and was willing to do most of the fish spotting. The steelhead in this particular creek are quite talented at hiding in these skinny waters during the day time, so at night, it was just that much more challenging to locate them.
We wandered upstream first, spotting one or two fish here and there but they were inevitably in very difficult situations to cast to. Being such a tight space, any fallen timber ends up spanning the creek. Not only that, but low flows make casting farther upstream from the fish and drifting it back nearly impossible. Your fly will end up taking a nap in the dirt five feet in front of the fish. In many cases, we literally had to hunch over and cast horizontally, keeping our loop parallel to and only a foot above the water’s surface so that we could stay under the timber and still be able to land the fly close enough to the fish that it won’t stop moving before it reaches it.
I was amazed at how unaffected the fish seemed to be with a spotlight shining on them. There had been many times in the past where my brother Mickey and I would get to the river well before first light and would immediately turn off our headlamps because we were certain we would spook the fish. In hindsight, I now wonder how many opportunities we might have missed those mornings without any pressure from other anglers.
Eventually, we found a fish that had moved into less challenging water. Nate seems to have better eyes than I do and will tie on some darker nymphs, but I find I need to go with something brighter just so that I can see how my fly is drifting to a fish. I have a heavy preference for streamers and I like to be able to finesse them towards the fish to give them a little life. I tied on a tiny size 12 mostly white streamer pattern that I had been working on. It used white and light tan craft fur, some peacock herl, a silver braided mylar body and a sparse tail and throat of matching orange/red glo bug yarn. Turns out, this fly is REALLY easy to track in low light. After a couple casts, I had a good comfort level of how the water was moving towards the fish. I cast to the opposite bank and let the fly swing towards the fish, giving it a couple quick strips before landing it in front of her nose. I saw her mouth open and close onto the fly and she was on.
That was the only fish we caught that first night, but really, given the litany of challenges the environment put in front of us, it was easy to consider a one fish night to be a rousing success. This was especially true considering this particular night landed me my first nighttime steelhead. After checking out several spots, we headed back to the cars and I left knowing two things. 1) Nighttime steelheading was awesome. 2) I REALLY needed a better headlamp.
Leading up to the next Sunday, I had Amazoned myself a new headlamp and Nate and I decided to fish the same creek and meet in the same place. This time, I would be able to see much better. I pulled up a little late to find Nate already gearing up while Chasin’ Steel blasted from his car. While we parked in the same place, we decided to walk down to the mouth of the creek and work our way up from there. Between the previous Sunday and this one, we had one evening of rain that bumped the Rocky up to 400cfs so we were hoping that while that isn’t enough to really move fish on the Rocky, maybe this little creek bumped up enough to get a fresh push of fish.
We were wrong. From the mouth and up even further than we had gone the previous outing, there were actually less fish in the creek than the previous time. Two steelhead to be exact. The first we saw was about half way up, but was in a notoriously tricky spot with a large tree that only allowed for that fancy horizontal casting I mentioned earlier. Still optimistic at this point, we left him alone and worked our way further up, hoping to find some more accessible fish.
We found another male under a waterfall but quickly learned that he was far from interested in feeding. He was moving away from any fly that came near him and kept tucking up underneath rock shelves and not coming out. Discouraged, and having found nothing in the stretch above him, we moved back down to the buck who was in that hard to reach spot. I took a few cracks at him first. I tried 2 or 3 different flies and despite the restrictions on my cast, was able to get several good presentations to him with each pattern. I did get two very aggressive attempts at a take on my streamer and both times he missed actually getting the fly in his mouth. They were definitely territorial attacks but I wasn’t lucky enough for him to hit his target. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t make any more attempts and didn’t seem interested in anything else I put near him. Oddly enough, Nate was able to sneak in close enough to get this beautiful little video of him holding.
We gave him a little break and he ended up moving into some more accessible water and Nate tried his hand. He was able to drop a nymph to him and suddenly, the fish was interested. Nate got a gentle take and set the hook to get him on, but quickly found himself in trouble. As I mentioned, this was a really difficult place to even cast, let alone managing to fight a steelhead on your line. The steelhead bum rushed Nate and practically went in between his legs before running up under the tree. Nate struggled to keep the line tight while guiding it around branches and logs, all the while slipping on flat rocks covered in freshly dead algae. This fish twisted Nate around and had him dancing all over the place. He eventually was able to wrangle the fish, but not without getting his fly line, leader, and part of his tippet tangled into a nearby pricker bush. This fish made him work very hard and it was worth every bit of it.
I will definitely be looking forward to more night sessions as the rivers and creeks load up with more fish. It’s a lot easier for me to get out at night, and having had two night outings under my belt, I’ll feel very comfortable once things get going for real. Not only is it fun and challenging in different ways than the daytime excursions, but there is less pressure and when you’re successful, it makes for very interesting pictures.