Jim recalls the wonders and excitement of night fishing.

Not long ago, I wrote of the passing of Bob Roles and commented that I thought he was probably the best flyfisher I ever encountered.

One of his passions was to fish after dark. The evening rise was not enough for Bob. As his regular fishing mate in our late teens and early twenties, I was dragged kicking and screaming into his enthusiastic web of excitement to fish late into the night. There was much to be discovered about the feeding habits of trout into the night. As he explained, with the loss of light came more requirement for a flyfisher to feel and hear things. Lightly-used senses during the day were now to the fore, to be enhanced and relied upon.

Nighttime brings many difficulties. Timing of the cast (particularly into the wind), tying on flies and tippet, walking over rocks, and playing and netting fish (not to mention wading!) are all heightened issues for the after-dark angler.

Playing big fish in low light brings its own challenges.

(As an aside, whilst Bob Roles loved fishing the dry fly, he couldn’t abide those who were snobbish about fishing wets or nymphs. He often described or even accused those that extolled the dry fly as superior, as intellectual pygmies. To him, the rich tapestry of fishing with a flyrod was the art in all its different aspects, and night fishing was a part.)

Bob could never be described as a morning person. His day started late, and usually ended after midnight. Later in life, that might be around a campfire with music, or at a dining table discussing the virtues of claret. However, in earlier times, the hours pass enthusiastically while trout fishing with a fly rod ‘til midnight or even later. I vividly remember a night at Penstock when the guitar was played, songs sung, and bush ballads recited until the new sun was just behind the horizon. In Bob’s trout fishing life, I don’t remember a dawn patrol ever being on the agenda!

After the last of the afterglow had passed and the purple cloak of darkness had drawn from the east to cover all, when only a moon and some stars offered a meagre remnant of light, then Bob often had a plan. All his plans, some madcap and others the result of some deep thinking, were always with revealed with great anticipation.

One of these was mudeye fishing in the early days at Eucumbene. The preferred nights were the few after the full moon, and then the dark period before the moon rose above the mountain slopes to light up the lake as the moon waned. Once the light hit the lake, the best of the fishing was over. On ideal nights with little wind, we would fish the twilight to midge feeders, and then after dark until the moon rose. After the full moon, we had an extra hour to fish as the moon lifted into the skies an hour later each night. The first few nights were best.

We’d switch to mudeye patterns. Our favourite flies at the time were two New Zealand patterns, the Taihape Tickler and the Craigs Nighttime. In later years, our mudeye patterns became a bit more sophisticated. A mudeye designed by Dan Todorovich was prized and hard to get… still is!

I well remember one night hearing a rustle and turning on the pencil torch to discover a recently-caught trout being dragged backwards by a very eager water rat. He came back to have another go quite a few times after being shooed off!

Moonrise at Lake Eucumbene.

Our mudeye flies were fished with a slow figure-eight retrieve and the trout would often take them very quietly. The trick was to fish with the rod tip nearly touching the water, push the rod forward at the first tightening of the fly line, and then strike firmly. Some nights were hugely successful, culminating in those days with a NSW bag limit of twelve trout each.

It seemed to me at the time that the hatching mudeyes were at their peak in the few days after the full moon. I’m not sure this is still the way of things. In later years in Tasmania, there was some exceptional mudeye fishing on the now-drained Lagoon of Islands. The moon there was not nearly so significant.

Bob and I used to spend much time on the Monaro and in the Snowy Mountains, and another favourite night fishing pursuit was along the shores of Lake Tantangara, and also the eastern rocky shores of Eucumbene in the Frying Pan arm of the lake. The best times were on dark windy nights with no moon. We’d cast an outsized Alexandra (size 6) across the wind and strip the fly at various speeds. We used floating lines back in those days with longer leaders, but I suspect if I returned to do it all again today, an intermediate line would be the order of the day. It was exciting fishing, with mainly rainbows trying to rip the rod out of your hand! A few browns as well came to the landing net. In fact, on those dark nights, I’ve never encountered faster fighting fish except perhaps the sea-run rainbows/ steelhead of British Columbia.

Back in my home state of Victoria, some of our night fishing was poaching closed waters. If the waters were closed to protect trout, we never broke the rules. However, where the waters were closed to keep anglers out of domestic water storages, they were considered fair game.

I well remember a few nights fishing the Maroondah Dam just out of Healesville. We had a secret access track, and we would hide the FJ Holden as best we could and make our way down the track just on nightfall. We guessed the rangers would have retired for the day after 6pm. We had a few frights from deer and other poachers but never got caught. One night Bob was fishing and saw the glow of a smoked cigarette alongside him. He froze in fright thinking the ranger had found he and his mate. Not so, it was just another poacher! The fishing was never outstanding, but we always seemed to get a trout or two fishing wets on windy nights, and a large bushy dry fly on calm nights, listening for the sip of a trout. We had good hearing way back then!

A very special experience was fishing from our blown-up airbeds after dark in the Pondage below Eildon Weir on Sunday nights. The water was traditionally released each Sunday evening for Melbourne’s power requirements, and in a couple of hours, we would drift down to the bottom wall  from under the bridge that led into the Eildon township. We, in waders on our air beds, would float down in the current and we did encounter some very large fish released from the nearby Snobs Creek Hatchery. The best fly was a Black Muddler dragged across the surface or sometimes fished dead still, and the lights of Eildon township were handy for reflections. The local copper caught us a few times and blew the crap out of us. We did retire from this form of fishing after his threats! I look back at half a century ago and we did take unbelievable risks as youngsters; I’m relating a time way before float-tubes and belly-boats.

In late spring, there were usually a large number of moths after dark. The biggest trout would look for the fallen moths. The secret was to have good hearing and to keep a largish dry fly quite close so you, as a waiting angler, could hear the sip of the trout as it took the fly. High banks with deep edges and under gum trees were favourite haunts. Whilst one can see little in the dark, one can (if young!) hear the audible take of a large beetle or moth and sometimes in the reflection of the moon, see the ripple of a take. Interesting and exciting fishing on lakes through western Victoria and probably elsewhere.

Looking and listening for rises on the Goulburn.

Other night fishing expeditions were on the Goulburn River, with a daytime selection of a suitably quiet run or glide, and then a return at night. A smallish black beetle drawn across and downstream, creating a wake, would often trip up a large trout. It seemed to me at the time that it was the better trout out and about after dark. Again, a momentary dip of the rod on the take usually assisted in the success of the strike. Easier to say than do though!

Heading back to the car was always a loud affair to avoid encountering a snake. Along rivers, snakes seem to hunt at night and noise will cause them to slither away. I never, in all my night fishing, ever encountered or heard one, but others did. We had pencil torches back then but today the new breed of head torches are the essential tool.

The sharp senses of youth are certainly a night-fishing advantage!

Today, as an old codger, my night fishing expeditions are no longer. Hearing has somewhat dulled, and balance is not as good as it once was. Falling and breaking a hip is not an option. But looking back at our time as youngsters with an enthusiasm that has not been dampened by the onset of years, I still remember with some affection the excitement of fishing at night. I write these notes in the hope that some young reader might expand his or her horizons with a fly rod, and explore opportunities at night with the excitement that we did, so many years ago.