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.
The 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.
Bob 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.
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.
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.