Catching Monsters After Dark

Sometimes you just have to escape into the night, where unpredictable rendezvous and things that bite await you

Oct 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
FISHING AT NIGHT on the Bitterroot River near Missoula, Montana: During the last several summers I've developed a routine. I do the dishes, read to my daughter, say good night, load my gear in the car, and go. My favorite fishing spot is a 12-minute drive away, alongside a commercial gravel pit whose chain-link fence the river is always undercutting and dragging away. The water there is deep and powerful. Upstream from the fence is an overhanging bank on which I can perch right above feeding trout (one advantage of fishing at night is how close you can get to the fish). Within earshot, beyond some trees in the direction of town, is an outdoor theater that features musical comedies, and sometimes I hear the faint sounds of the show's finale just as the moon begins to rise. The disk of the moon's reflection slides around on the ripples of the current, making indecipherable scribbles like the tip of a lighted pen. Then sometimes in the reflection little fissures begin to appear, each accompanied by a tiny sucking pop—big rainbow and cutthroat trout are feeding on floating mayflies. I dangle my line in the vicinity of the reflection, and whenever I hear a pop I pull the line. Every once in a while the hook makes contact and a heavy trout suddenly threshes the surface, shattering the reflection to fragments, and then races across the river, taking line and leaping in spray that glows with a dim phosphorescence in the moonlight.

Or for variety I go to my second-favorite spot, which is a 20-minute drive. The river here is broader, with brushy banks and shallow places favored by fishing birds. Sometimes just at last light I see the resident osprey laboring into the sky with a still-wriggling whitefish in his talons. Almost always I see a kingfisher, who polices the place with irritable authority. One evening a tall heron glided to the water about 40 yards up from me and then stood by the bank so still I had to keep readjusting my eyes in the growing gloom to determine if he was there. The kingfisher came arrowing along the shoreline, saw the heron, and made a screeching halt in midair. Then he flew back and forth chattering like mad around the larger bird, fluttering and scolding over the water until any fish in the neighborhood must have been scared off. For many minutes the heron continued not to move; then, realizing that there was no longer any point, he unfurled his capelike wings and flew away.
Certain kinds of insects, too, like the shallow, riffly water here. At full dark blizzards of caddis flies start to move upstream, gusting in feathery hordes against my face and hands when I turn on my flashlight to change a fly. Bats swoop through this bonanza in a delirium of gluttony, clicking like Geiger counters. In mid-August, large hatches of a nighttime mayfly called the pale evening dun begin to appear. When these chalk-white insects are on the water the trout will keep feeding even on the darkest nights. I caught one of my biggest after-dark fish at this spot late one night on a fly that imitates a pale evening dun. I was standing a few feet from the bank when I heard some rises near a log barely a rod's length away. I cast blind, heard the sound again, lifted the rod tip, and the hooked rainbow trout came leaping through the air head over tail and almost down the front of my waders. Then he took off downstream, unwinding line like a kite disappearing in the sky. An unknown length of time later I scooped him into my net, which he stuck out of. I often let fish go, but this one I took home and sautéed in butter, lemon, pepper, and salt the next evening.

On one side of the river by this spot is a busy road. Just beyond the line of brush, pavement begins. Especially on weekend date-nights, many cars speed by with a heightened urgency, their stereo speakers throbbing like accelerated heartbeats. At about midnight, though, the cars become fewer, the heartbeats fade, and a general sense of deflation and too-lateness sets in. By now everyone who went out this evening, including me, has either gotten what they wanted or not. The fish have quit rising, and I stand in the river for a long time, not ever bothering to cast. An owl hoots a time or two. I turn on my flashlight to check my watch, and on the opposite bank a coyote immediately yelps in surprise. I make one last try for a fish I heard rising earlier by a gravel bar, and the spark of my hook on a stone shows me how off target I am.

There's an accumulation of mist in the alfalfa field across the river, and the faint turning fans of irrigation sprinklers. Red lights are blinking on the microwave towers on the mountains east of town. The last flight of the night, Northwest Airlines from Minneapolis–St. Paul, descends toward the airport to the west. I start thinking of distant friends I could not live without. The unromantically lonely hours of the night are up ahead, and I'm ready to go home.

Contributing editor Ian Frazier's most recent book, On the Rez, was published in January. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey.

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