Wait Until Dark
The strike you don’t see can be exhilarating
There will be plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead.
Slowing my small skiff to a crawl this time last season, I scanned the waters intently with my big marine binoculars. It was difficult to see very far at 11pm, even with a decent sliver of moon overhead. The seven-power glass made things just a little easier.
I was looking for a long, low rock jetty that ran well out from a shoreline, a tricky structure to see in the dark with a running high tide. Aside from ramming my hull into the rocks or dinging the prop, my biggest fear was getting too close and spooking the fish.
I was lucky that the winds were light and the water relatively flat. When finally I saw the familiar, shadowy outline breaking through the water about 250 yards in front of me, I relaxed.
The sound of even an idling outboard within 100 yards of this shallow-water honey hole would flush out a school of stripers in a heartbeat.
Shutting down the outboard, I coasted a few more yards before quietly dropping the electric motor into place. Twisting its tiller throttle, I felt the boat surge silently forward, the quiet dark suddenly alive with possibilities.
Minutes later, I shut down power and drifted to judge how the tide and the light breeze would affect my skiff. Satisfied, I slipped back into electric mode, re-positioned the boat and dropped a small stern anchor.
I knew that it might be a little early in the year for a nighttime shallow-water bite. But once or twice in recent years, I had found fish as soon as the first week in August. Plus, I was eager to get back to using my fly rods. They are the perfect tackle for this skinny-water fishing.
I always start out with the same fly after dark, a five-inch, black Bucktail Deceiver tied so that the hook rides point up. I like to throw about 30 to 40 degrees off to either side of the tidal flow direction and let the fly gently sweep across the current. The strike, when it occurs, can be exhilarating in the dark.
This time, though, after about an hour of casting, frustration made me regret the sleep I was missing. Into the second hour, I happened to hear a few soft splashes. I stopped casting and started to listen and look.
With the soft light of the quarter moon overhead, and if I bent down lower to the water to get a better angle of reflection, I could just make out the boils of fish that had begun feeding a distance down current.
Hopeful at last, and now just a little sleepy, I fired a long cast out, let it swing across the tidal flow and stripped the fly enticingly through the areas where I had seen the activity.
I changed the fly to a lighter color. Nope.
Larger fly; ditto. Smaller fly; still nothing.
As the time passed and I tried different flies, the boils continued and my options diminished. I feared that the problem could not be solved, at least by me. The thought of a soft bed became more enticing to my weary bones, until I noticed a small lure in my box that I had never before tried.
Called a Crease Fly, it was made of a fish-shaped piece of foam, folded and cemented over the hook shank (hence the Crease name) with a tuft of hair and flash tied in at the tail. It had a nice, flat, fishy profile. What’s more, it floated, and these fish did seem to be feeding on top.
My first cast with the fly fell short. Letting it lie on the surface, I fed out line as the tide carried it on toward the feeding fish.
Long seconds passed. Bending down to get a better angle of sight over the water, I tried to guess the fly’s location on its journey down current. Finally, at the limits of my vision, I saw a large, bulging wake push up as a fish lunged through the water. My line came tight; a fish had eaten the Crease Fly.
If you’ve ever heard the crash of a big striper’s tail on the water in the dead quiet of night, you know what it can do to your pulse rate. Mine definitely redlined as the fish felt the hook, broached, then made its next move the only option a large rockfish has in two feet of water a high-speed scram.
The fly line hissed through the guides following the rapidly departing fish. The drag of my old Pate Salmon reel began to hum its happy sound.
To hell with sleep. The nighttime, shallow-water action had started.
Note to Night Anglers: Rockfish are catch-and-release only between midnight and 5am.