Catching Monsters After Dark

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


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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.

I KEPT ON TRYING, THOUGH. I spent many late nights on the water, summer and fall. On the Yellowstone River in Montana I fished some nights in darkness so murky I could hardly see the end of my fly rod, let alone the bushy White Wulff dry fly I had on. The biggest challenge at first was wading into that river’s strong current more or less blind. (Of course, I had scouted the water beforehand in daylight.) Fishing with so little sensory information to go on was an activity that approached the purely theoretical; casting, letting the fly drift, and casting again became odd, empty gestures sort of like mime. Staying focused was a problem. And then, as I picked up the fly at the end of a drift, something huge grabbed it. The feeling was as if a dream had reached from the darkness and yanked hard on my arm. We battled frenziedly, in complete and mutual confusion, me spinning around and nearly falling in the current, the fish pulling with electrified desperation in one direction and then another. I never saw a glimpse of him, not even a splash or the ripples of his wake. After a short, endless time, he bent the hook out and got away. I remember him better than fish I’ve landed.

Sometimes I run into other night-fishing guys like me. On the beach at Sandy Hook on the New Jersey shore one October there were hundreds of us assembled in the predawn hours, fishing for striped bass. All along the pale line of surf you could see us, vaguely human-shaped presences slightly darker than the sand. What made this surreal was that we almost never exchanged a word. We passed one another on the beach, sometimes quite closely, with no sign of recognition, like sleepwalkers ghosting through a dreamscape in which each was alone.
This etiquette of the sleepwalker also applies on western trout streams, I found. Guys—night anglers are usually guys—would appear from the darkness, move past me, and fade away without a sound other than the clicking of stones beneath their feet. Only back at the cars, illuminated by the headlights as we showed one another our catches, did we become three-dimensional beings again and regain the use of our tongues.

Naturally, the conversations never went much beyond fish and fishing. Personal subjects, such as why we were out there in the middle of the night in the first place, didn’t come up. I could tell, though, that most of the nighttime anglers were middle-aged family men like me. I noticed infant car seats in the backs of their vehicles or pink plastic bottles of children’s strawberry-scented sunblock on the dashes. I guessed that they, like me, had become nocturnal because of the forces of domestic life. They had no doubt discovered that if you return from a pleasant afternoon on the river to find the washing machine overflowing, the kids crying, and a bunch of relatives about to arrive, then you will be in for some unhappy discussions with your wife, and on the losing end of them, as well. But if you leave to go fishing with everyone tucked safely in bed and return after midnight with them still sleeping, you’re free and clear. Plus you feel harmlessly sneaky, which is always important in a marriage.

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.