Starless and Oatka Dark

To night-fish on a river is like starting out life with nothing and realizing, when all is said and done, you’ve got most of nothing left.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

To night-fish on Oatka (O-at-ka) Creek, a tributary of the Genesee River in Monroe County, New York, can be a challenging prospect. As the writer Al Himmel has stated, Oatka fishing can be “a puzzle, a pleasure, and a headache,” and that’s just for the daylight hours.

There’s a lot of wild and stocked trout to be found in this nutrient-rich water (among the finest in New York) but public access is limited and takes some figuring out. The best fly-fishing water, from the mouth of famed Spring Brook down to Garbutt, recently drew my night-fishing efforts, thanks to a friend who knows this water like a capable guide.

Night-fishing isn’t for everyone. You’ve got to know your target area in the daytime. You should know its pools and riffles, rocks and boulders, log-jams and abutments like you know the lines on your face and hands. Then you’ll need a bit of courage to fish in total darkness when the air is warm and muggy. That’s the best time to encounter the uninhibited prowlings of the largest fish.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Oatka isn’t a stream I know very well, and I certainly wouldn’t night-fish there alone, but when Tim D. inquired if I was ready for another angling adventure, it didn’t take me long to say, “Okay, and it’s my turn to drive.”

You’ll need a head-lamp for this type of fishing, but ironically you won’t be using it much when you’re on the stream because any flash of light on the water will put down the fish you want to catch.

Approaching the Oatka we passed the home of Tim’s friend Bob Herson, of Caledonia. Herson is a fly-fishing guide and rod-builder whose big fish story was related in the book Mid-Atlantic Trout Streams and Their Hatches by Charles R. Meck. I recalled reading of this angler and ice-hockey goalie who, on 9/9/96, left a bad night on the ice to take out his frustrations on the stream. It was near midnight when his brown-hackled streamer hooked up with what initially seemed to be a log.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABob Herson eventually landed a 29-inch, 12-pound brown trout in total darkness. Authorities at the fish hatchery on Spring Brook, not far away, figured that the trout was 20 years-old and was streambred in the Oatka.

Tim and I approached the creek before nightfall with visions of hefty trout, the kind that Tim often wrestles with when he fishes in the dark.

As the sun went down beyond the woods where katydids and crickets rang the night’s promise, as mosquitoes kept things real by drilling unprotected skin, the fog began to rise from the cool 58-degree water. It was still light enough to see several rise-forms on the placid pool. Casting a tiny Gnat on 5X tippet, I caught the first brown trout of the evening.

We weren’t night-fishing yet. That would start after a retreat to another site a few miles distant. There we parked the car and assembled our gear in the glow of head-lamps.DSCN5162

I had strung-up a 3X leader, but Tim handed me a 1X taper, feeling that a 12-pound test would better balance the big flies we would be casting. With all my years of fly-fishing, I was still a student at this night-fishing game.

With a dim orange reflection from an out-lying street lamp, I was in the water casting to the riffles and a large pool formed by a bridge abutment. Tim went downstream and disappeared from view. For a couple of hours I went through the idiot motions– across and down, pulling slowly at the massive streamer, feeling an occasional jolt from a striking fish…

While standing in darkness as a large bird passes over, it can seem like a Pteranodon has checked you out. You can’t see a damned thing going on, so the mind plays tricks in order to fill the void. You might see the history of fly-fishing unfold, as if on a screen, to leave you with this crazy present moment. And the future might appear as well, with all its frightening or hopeful prospects.

DSCN5170You might hear the poetry of Dylan Thomas or the intricate music of King Crimson.  Anything might appear– to mitigate the bible-black night.

When the midnight hour came, all I really had for my effort were these bone-shaking, unproductive jolts to the fly rod and my aging bones. On a couple of occasions, though, I heard Tim’s fly reel working frenetically out of some place, and I knew he had another heavy fish.

“Hey Walt, can you see this fish from there?” I could barely see my friend’s silhouette, let alone the fish in his net. But description was enough.

The kyped jaw and the heft can come to an angler who’s well-practiced in the dark.DSCN5023OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA



About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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12 Responses to Starless and Oatka Dark

  1. Amazing. I had no idea that you could (successfully) fly fish at night!

    • Thanks Jim. Yes, at night the big flies take big fish, though it may not be the fastest action. Generally speaking, the biggest trout are taken at night in summer, with the darker the night the better.

  2. Bob Stanton says:

    Nice Kype! Have you ever tried articulated streamers with two hooks? I find that my “stick to strike” ratio is somewhat better with ’em.

    • Bob, it’s interesting that you ask this question at this moment in time because that was my fly of choice that night– however, the streamer had but one hook and I think that’s why I was getting unproductive but solid strikes. I stubbornly refused to change the pattern, unfortunately, so I don’t know if a different style wouldn’t done better or not. No, I haven’t fished a 2-hooked articulated fly, but think I will in the future.

  3. Brent says:

    That looks like a pretty fun adventure. All of the action and beauty that you find on the water would take on elements of mystery and an added dimension of possibility. Plus, it resulted in some really nice impressionistic photos.

  4. Brent, it’s an interesting adventure for the fisher/naturalist because, as you say, there’s an added element of mystery and possibility. It can get pretty hairy, too, as anyone experienced with this mode can probably relate. Thanks!

  5. Alan says:

    There are a few anglers locally who fish at night, and do well with those browns who hunt after dark. I have always been a day person though.
    29 inch 12 pound streambred brown., awesome.

  6. Alan, I much prefer the day myself, but like those few guys who enjoy the dark, I can see the fun in going for the big ones. Thanks for commenting.

  7. LQN says:

    Thanks for sharing walt. Sounds like it was a neat experience. Haven’t fly fished for trout purposely at night, but have heard of people throwing mice patterns on the delaware for big browns. Might have to try it next year!

    • And thank you, Long. I haven’t yet thrown those really big night patterns, but my friend has shown me some of the flies he has cast successfully, like the mouse pattern, and they’re huge. Almost unbelievable until you think about the habits of big brown trout.

  8. Mike says:

    I love fishing at night and this piece really got me going. I do it only once or twice a year but it’s such a different type of experience that it really gets the imagination and juices flowing as you say!

    • Glad to hear it, Mike. Like you, I do it only once or twice a year, and somehow that’s enough to keep me energized about its possibilities until the next time out. I’d be interested in hearing how you do with this night-game thing!

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