Night Flyer/ Test Patterns

I was looking past the evening hatch and peering into the night. At home, I was rereading Jim Bashline’s nightfishing book, subtitled “The Final Frontier,” and preparing for darkness.

Bashline’s Night Fishing for Trout is probably the most absorbing read of its kind. It’s allOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA the more inspiring to me because the late author, one of the leading outdoor writers in this country, and editor of Field & Stream in the 1960s, was from Coudersport, Pennsylvania, a place near and dear to my own madness. Coudersport, built around the junction of Mill Creek and Allegheny River, is the town where night fishing for trout (particularly with flies) developed into the witching sport that it’s become.

George Harvey, Bob Pinney, Gene Utrecht, and Jim Bashline were among the group that spurred the night-fishing game for massive brown trout on the upper Allegheny when the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGoodsell Hole (at the junction with Mill Creek) was reputed to be among the most amazing places anywhere for catching browns on moonless nights (when big fish lose their inhibitions and go prowling).

Bashline died in 1995. Tom Dewey spoke at Bashline’s memorial service by the former Goodsell Hole. Dewey had been a neighbor of Jim Bashline, and he spoke about the days fishing here with Jim and many of his cohorts. Dewey was just a youngster when he first met Jim and learned how to nightfish with the masters.

I once had the privilege of fishing the nearby Oswayo Creek with Tom Dewey. We didn’t nightfish, but I learned a thing or two from this friendly elder. Tom had once wrestled a 30-inch brown trout in an isolated pool of the Oswayo– at night, when you couldn’t see the hand in front of your face. And as we fished near that pool again, we were struck by one of the fiercest thunderstorms I’ve ever experienced while far from a vehicle. Thinking of it now, my head reels like a test pattern on a screen.

"yellow dun"

“yellow dun”

That reminds me… I’ve been tying some North Country Spiders, patterns loved for their simplicity and effectiveness when trout are feeding just below the surface. Simple?

What should have been a simple job turned out to be a comedy of errors. I had a couple of botched productions looking at each other as if they were the 70s stoners Cheech and Chong:

“Hey man, what you watchin’ on the television?”

“Oh man, I’m watchin’ this western movie. You know, cowboys/Indians.”

“What?! Wait a minute, man. That ain’t a movie. That’s a test pattern!”



It was late evening and I was on the Genesee. The trout began to rise to what was probably a hatch of Isonychia.  I presented an imitation of the spinner fly– the Purple Haze, or “Hendrix fly,” as my friend Dale refers to it. My best fish on the pattern would be a brown of 15 inches.

I was testing patterns for late day fishing and for casting after dark…Experimenting for the main event that happens when the evening sun goes down… Practicing for the Maine event next week when my wife and I spend time in the northern forest… We’ll be going off the grid for a week while camping on the waters, and hopefully it’ll be more fun than an equivalent of going off the “movie” into a test pattern of sorts.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was reading Bashline’s book about the old days on the Goodsell Hole and similar haunts, of Jim’s friendship with the legendary Robert Pinney who clerked at the Crittendon Hotel and lived for flyfishing, particularly with a set of wet flies after dark.

I tied a Yellow Dun (#8), a locally famous pattern now lost to history. Bashline had provided a skeletal recipe for it in his book. My variant of this pattern first tied by Caroline Phillips, of Coudersport, shared one thing similar with all other variants ever tied– there was no yellow or dun-colored material anywhere on it. I could only hope that the fly would be productive and echo the proclamations of night-anglers who had said there was nothing like it for meaty browns before or since.

After Caroline Phillips and her fly-fishing husband left for California in 1920, the secret for concocting a Yellow Dun vanished forever. Imitations abounded but nothing could really reproduce the Yellow Dun’s body of rosy mohair. In the water, the original body is said to have appeared like “a glob of bloody flesh.”

DSCN7049I even tied up a #8 Governor, another old pattern, simply because Jim Bashline considered it one of the most effective patterns for night fishing in “God’s Country” Pennsylvania, and because I’m a sucker for the history and traditions of this game.

I visited a huge river pool below Coudersport. It’s nothing like the Goodsell Pool that the Army Corps of Engineers tore out to the horror of Bashline and his friends, replacing it with a concrete trough abomination. My selected pool, however, is about 200 feet in length, and deep enough for swimmers to leap from a rope tied high above an old abutment.

The water was a fair 66 degrees, and I quickly caught a nice brown on the surface with an Ant, but darkness was approaching and it was time to string up for the night. I switched my reel, line and leader for a brace of wets, the Yellow Dun and Governor.

Several large fish were feeding underneath the surface and displacing water well beyond my casting range. This pool is deep, with high banks dense with vegetation, so maneuverability is limited. As darkness overcame me, an occasional splash or burbling noise raised the hairs along my neck. It was time to face “The Final Frontier,” as Bashline called it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

What was that? A beaver, carp, muskie, trout? A test pattern for the brain and heart! I had my escape route to the highway all planned out, but at times like this, especially, it helps to have a fishing pal nearby.

I’d like to say I hooked into a monster (of the trout variety) and contributed something to the night-fishing stories of the Allegheny but the best that happened was a jolt on the iron of a hook.

There wasn’t much more than that, but the sense of mystery and beauty of a darkened river at night will beckon me again… Like the next page of a book you can’t put down.OLYMPUS 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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23 Responses to Night Flyer/ Test Patterns

  1. Doug Paugh says:

    Wow! Great blog Walt. I was thinking about you this week-end, as Karen and I went to the Blue Ridge mountains to get in a day of photography, with a visit to Looking Glass Falls in the Pisgah National Forest. We went by some great streams that just called out, Walt, Walt, trout here! Hahaha, oh well. Just my imagination I guess. Anyway, the stories, and photos you got from Night flying will lead your readers directly into the test patterns of my crazy imagination.

    • Sounds like an excellent weekend get-away, Doug. I love those mtns. of N. Carolina though it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen them. I can almost hear those streams right now; it’s music to my ears, with a “Walt/Walt” refrain that some would mistake for the song of water over stone. Or maybe that’s just a test pattern to see if we’re listening or not. Thanks much for commenting. I hope you got some great photos of the falls and mountains!

  2. plaidcamper says:

    Very happy to read this and vicariously experience some night fishing! I don’t know that I’d go out on a moonless night with an incoming storm – my nerves would be shot by any noises off – it’s a measure of your commitment…
    Wonderful to learn here about some of what’s involved and who taught you. You’re clearly in your element out there. Thanks Walt, and enjoy your Maine event!

    • Thanks a lot, Plaid. Your phrase “measure of commitment” has much to do with fishing after dark, as it does with other actions that we wouldn’t ordinarily perform. Then we feel committed to knowing something more than we do otherwise. In night-fishing, though, we might only hear or feel something new and strange without learning what it is exactly.

  3. Bob Stanton says:

    I don’t know if there is anything more unnerving to a fisherman than multiple trout rising at dusk/ night, some seemingly under your rod tip. When that happens, I catch some, but never as many as I think I should. It’s a sweet madness though. Potter County, God’s Country, U.S.A.!

    • Ah yeah, a sweet madness! Another thing, Bob, that should be pointed out concerns the mythology of night-fishing: I think Geirich said that, sure, the big browns come out after darkness falls, but don’t forget that the smaller fish do as well, and often what we catch, if anything, are the smaller ones. Still, the place, the water, and the stories make for an event.

  4. Les Kish says:

    Like that reflection shot Walt.

    • Thanks Les. I like it, too, but its only real connection to the narrative is that it was taken during the same period of time as the other pics. That, and the possibility of a complementary spirit.

  5. Brent says:

    You sure know how to advertise night fishing, with all of its mystery, uncertainty, excitement, and aquatic angst. And that last picture–wow. That could be a painting, a real work of art!

    • Brent, In a sense I guess I’ve tried to sell it, even though I’m still a neophyte when fishing when the curtains are completely drawn. The last pic has, to my thoughts, a certain balancing of the elements that night fishing has, or should have, if we keep our wits about it. Thanks!

  6. loydtruss says:

    Enjoyed the read, the closet I’ve come to night fishing is really late afternoons when the sun fads. I’ve started using the soft hackle pattern similar to your Spider with some success when the trout are feeding subsurface. Thanks for sharing

    • Glad you liked it, Bill. Night-fishing is so much different than any other aspect of the sport. You either feel completely alone with your desire for a catch, or you feel a part of something way bigger than what you’re used to. Yeah, the ancient spider pattern is an interesting one. Just the other morning, when thinking once again that the pattern seems overrated, at least in my local streams, I watched a trout swim to the drifting fly from out of nowhere and take it with authority. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  7. Alan says:

    While I’ve never night fished, dusk is about it for me. I’m fully aware that the big boys seem to enjoy dining late.

    • For most of us, Alan, the cut-off time is dusk. I’m usually no different in that regard, but if I know the water and I have some human company, I’m tempted to go “beyond” to see what’s possible on a dark summer night. Sometimes it’s worth the effort. Thanks for commenting.

  8. I used to fish for big browns at night many years ago. There were always some bumps in the night that kept you looking over your shoulder. Thanks for the interesting history lesson even if I chuckled a little remembering my own experiences.

    • Sure thing, Howard. As infrequent as night fishing is for most anglers, it does seem to have its share of both comic and hair-raising aspects. Just the image of a guy out there after dark flailing at the water without a light anywhere in the area is, well, pathetic if not humorous. But ask anyone, there’s a point to it, right? I’m glad you chuckled some at your own remembrance!

  9. Mr Jed says:

    Another great job Walt.Jed

  10. Mike says:

    Awesome, Walt! You make me want to jump up and get out right now!! Love night fishing with streamers and the surprising jolt it brings! Fantastic read as always.

    • Mike says:

      Not to say you are night fishing with streamers…a difference from the wets by a long shot but, hey, you’ve got some experience on me 😉

      • Well thanks, Mike. For me, the subject of night fishing is intriguing but one I step toward carefully. A blend of creepiness and wonder. Casting the big wets isn’t much different, in my opinion, from fishing small streamers. The big streamers are something else. All in all, it’s a hoot though, isn’t it?

  11. Mary Frederick Ahearn says:

    Just had to join in to tell you how I love your final photo of this posting. The sense of peace is just so beautiful. I’ve returned to it many times. Just wonderful. Thank you for sharing it.

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