THE BIGGEST FISH come out at night—or so I have believed, ever since I was a teenager and began to be abroad a lot in the night myself. At 16 I used to stroll from my grandmother's house in Key West down to the shrimp boat docks just after sunset and watch tarpon bigger than me swim around among the pilings eating shrimp scraps. They were like sea monsters, with their scale-plated sides shining under the dock's mercury lights, gulping and breaching in the black water an arm's length away. Once I brought a deep-sea rod with the intention of casting a tarpon plug to them; but as their tails carelessly slapped the sides of the shrimp boats I got an idea of the close-range violence that would follow, and I didn't make a cast.
Sometimes with a girl cousin about my age I would borrow my grandmother's car and drive at night to a highway bridge north of town to watch barracuda. Usually one or two of these long, narrow, crocodile-smiling fish would be waiting below a streetlight in the brightly lit water right beside the bridge's deep shadow. On the fisherman's catwalk we stood above them; now and then one of the barracuda would shoot forward like a bolt and then slowly return to his former position with his jaws chomping. I told my cousin that the barracuda were grabbing little fish that had come out from the bridge's shadow and had not yet adjusted their eyes to the light. I was right, for all I knew—why else would the barracuda choose to hunt there?—but I offered this explanation with all the bogus confidence guys like to assume on dates.
I'm old and married now, but I still pursue fish at night. Some summers I do most of my fishing only after the sun goes down. Fishing at night still holds a teenage excitement for me, a keyed-up anticipation of the unpredictable rendezvous waiting out there somewhere in the dark.
It's scarier, too, than fishing during the day. Some years ago a fly-fishing magazine had on its cover a photo of a giant brown trout a man had caught night-fishing on a Pennsylvania stream. The hooked fish, apparently too big to lift out of the water for the picture, gaped halfway above the surface in the beam from the angler's headlamp; the trout's upper jaw was cantilevered like a church, and its round gold-and-black eye stared back, glittering and nocturnal and malign.
That photo, spooky as it was, inspired me to take nighttime fishing much more seriously. Not long after I saw it, I went on a fishing trip with friends on the Pigeon River in northern Michigan. One night, as my tentmates were crawling into their sleeping bags, I suited up with waders and gear and set out in the buzzing darkness of late summer to catch a monster of my own. By flashlight I followed a streamside trail and then stopped at a deep pool where I knew a big brown trout had to be. I sat on the rocks beside the water and bent down with my flashlight in my mouth and began to tie on a fly, and as my lit-up fingers were moving in the intricacies of the knot, suddenly a big mouth lunged from the darkness and bit me on the side of the hand. I screamed, kicked over my fly box, sent the flashlight flying, and ran away up the bank. After a few minutes of deep breathing, I found the flashlight and investigated. Close to where I had been sitting the light picked out a squat toad about the size of a small teapot; my fingers moving in the light no doubt had looked like food to him. I got well away, tied on my fly, and waded into the stream, but my nerves were shot and my heart wasn't in it. I could still feel the coldness of that toad mouth on my skin. After a few casts I headed gratefully to bed.