The potential pitfalls of darkness can greatly deter many anglers from fishing at night, but Herb Spannagl certainly isn’t one of them. Read on to find out why…
I know several mad-keen fly fishers who won’t fish after dark, even though they realise that trout become much more catchable under the cover of darkness.
While there are a number of reasons why some pack up at the change of light, perhaps the most prevalent is frustration with casting and frequent line tangles. They simply can’t make the transition from visual to tactile fly-casting, where feel rather than sight guides the rod and the following line.
On the other hand, I also know anglers who have become such converted night owls that they rarely venture out on the water during the day.
Night fishing can be productive year-round, but some of the best lake fishing occurs during the colder months, when trout amass around the mouths of spawning streams or, as is the case in some Rotorua lakes, return to their release points and come within casting range after dark. Even the river shallows, apparently devoid of life during the day, are visited by predatory trout, the water barely covering their backs as they hunt for food. At such times the otherwise super-cautious brown trout become suckers for a well-presented night fly or spinner. I have caught several trophy browns in the Tongariro, Rotorua’s Ohau Channel and, particularly, in the Flaxy Lakes. Also, while holidaying in the South Island, a friend took me to Blenheim’s weed-infested Spring Creek after dark, where he pulled out two massive browns with a black and gold Zebra Toby.
To most of us night-fishing is an acquired taste that takes time to develop. After a scorching summer day, the air cools and the fading light bathes the surrounding landscape with ever-changing hues, while the dark descends around you like a curtain.
I shall never forget the evenings I wade-fished along the western shores of Lake Rotoaira while working as a ranger at Tongariro National Park, the setting sun painting Mount Tongariro a fiery bronze, while in the swamp behind me the distant boom of a bittern broke the eerie silence of this truly magical setting.
Twilight is a special hour when, similar to the scenery all around you, your senses gradually change from predominantly visual to mainly tactile. From this time on, everything you do is by feel.
But winter nights can also be cruel. On some frosty nights it does not matter how well you are clothed, the icy cold eventually finds a way through the best insulating garments. Usually the pain is felt in the fingers and toes first, then gradually the whole body chills. I wear fingerless gloves that keep my hands reasonably operational, but constantly handling wet line takes its toll on the exposed fingertips. Silly as it sounds, I recall one particularly frosty night where my fingers were so cold that I said to my mate George: “I hope I don’t hook a fish – I don’t want to put my hand in the icy water!”
Before the arrival of neoprene waders, the standard wading attire consisted of relatively thin rubber, which on sub-zero nights guaranteed chilblains, superficial frostbite and the sensation of slowly dying from the feet up. In those days my friend Rudi Ferris, his mate and I used to night hunt the large browns that camped at the mouth of a little spawning stream that empties into the Tongariro’s Hydro Pool. Because of the dense bank vegetation, only one angler could fish at a time while the other two would wait their turn, sucking on a flagon of sherry to ward off the numbing cold.
Some nights can be hilarious. I was fishing at a Lake Taupo rip with my friend, Chris Thame. We took up positions only metres apart, but it was so dark that we could barely make out each other’s outlines. On my first cast I had a massive tangle in my shooting line that took me a good half-hour to free before I could re-join the fishing action. Meanwhile, Chris had landed a couple of good ones.
At last I had a big strike, the fish making the reel scream – until suddenly the spool flew off and sunk in waist-deep water right at my feet. I was left holding onto the line with the fish jumping in the dark while we tried every trick with Chris’s rod to hook up the spool. Every time we lifted it, the current pushed the spool further out. Nothing worked. So we decided to shuffle it with our feet towards the shore, which was at least 50 metres away. It took ages, but at long last we got it into shallow water, allowing me to quickly dive my arm under and grab it. I subsequently landed the fish and buried it under a heap of washed-up aquatic weed.
Back at the drop-off, we both heaved out a big cast and settled down to a slow retrieve. I had hardly started when Chris yelled, “Fish on!”
Almost immediately I had a big pull too, followed by a strong run. In an epic battle I repeatedly gained and lost line until it dawned on us that we were fighting each other. Our lines had caught and somehow got jammed around a log or large piece of pumice, seesawing back and forth. In the end we had to break off both flies, and with the time now nearing 11pm we decided to call it a night. Then, upon wading ashore to get my fish, the torchlight illuminated a dozen rats, which scattered from the weed to leave behind just the head and backbone of my only fish for the night. And what a memorable night that was.
The gear chosen for night fishing depends on the water you fish and the fish you expect to catch. One night on the Motueka River, right below Norman Marsh’s house, I swung a small, dark streamer and hooked 13 browns with the same rod and line I used for dry fly fishing during the evening rise. On the other hand, when using a shooting head for ‘heave and leave’ targeting big fish at Rotoiti, a rod with a bit more backbone is called for.
All line densities can be used with success, as the fish come into the shallows and/or rise up in the water column during darkness. Fly choice is more critical, with visibility the main priority. After all, what use is the most delicately constructed fly if the fish can’t find it?
You can achieve visibility in two ways: by contrast against a lighter background or night sky, or by incorporating some illumination in the fly. I like to combine both by adding luminous beads to a bulky black fly, such as a Burglar pattern, which looks the same from every angle. Around Rotorua a lot of people fish with two flies: a big dark fly in front trailing a lumo Doll fly, tied on truck-and-trailer style to hopefully double one’s chances. The downside is that this set-up also increases one’s chances of line tangles, which are not so obvious in the dark.
However, by far the most contributing factor for line tangles is the desire to cast as far as possible. In the dark you quickly realise how much fly casting depends on good hand-eye coordination. Without that vital feedback, your casting efforts will deteriorate. Apart from lots of practice, the best remedy is to cast a shorter line and raise the elbow at the end of the casting stroke to ensure good leader turnover.
An article about night fishing would not be complete without a word or two about safety. Some fishing situations can be dangerous enough in bright daylight, and the risks increase dramatically when you can barely see your hand in front of your face. In the dark I have broken a rod tip by stabbing it into a tree, ripped my waders when I tripped over a small stump on an access track, and almost walked over the soft lip of a drop-off into deep water. I once drove off, forgetting that my rod and reel was left on the roof of my car. It fell off on the highway and had been pulverised by the time I came back for it.
Night fishing can also be truly dramatic, as my friend Bill Nikl and I experienced on a stormy night in 1998. With the sun gone, the freezing wind promised a cold night, so we put extra clothes on and headed for a fish at the Waimarino Rip. In our party was a keen young fisher who wasted no time getting to the lake. When Bill and I got there, the headlights revealed big whitecaps rolling towards the shore.
Our young man pronounced with an air of authority that the locals reckoned this rip did not fish well in a westerly, and with that got in his car and drove back to the house. Admittedly, it did not look good, but considering the effort we’d made to get there, I suggested to Bill that we might as well give it a go.
So we waded out into the crashing waves and hammered our shooting heads into the teeth of the gale. After only a couple of strips I had a smash-grab. Turning to Bill I shouted, “I’ve got one on!” and his reply was, “I’ve got one, too!”
Two nearly identical big silver fish were landed, and similar scenarios were repeated several times over before the driving rain finally forced us out of the water. We’d fluked the right place at the right time in the right conditions to enjoy a spawning run of big silver fish. It turned out that 1998 was the Big Fish year at Lake Taupo, and what we had in our bin were the best of the best.
It just goes to show that magic can happen in the dark.
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