Guest Blogger: Joe Dellaria, Woodbury MN

Being a natural morning person I have focused my efforts for fishing in the dawn sequence. I have fished a handful of times after sunset and the patterns seem too roughly parallel to those seen during sunrise fishing but are obviously reversed.

You may be wondering how can you tell where you are and what you are doing? Good questions. First, be sure to wear a head lamp. I like to wear mine a little lower on my head so my hat sits just above the head lamp. This prevents the hat rim from blocking the light. I prefer a head lamp that turns on with a red light when you first turn it on (most do this anyway, if they have this feature). The red light it reduces the loss of night vision and you can see well enough to change flies or net a fish.

It is best to turn off your head lamp before you reach your fishing destination. This allows your eyes to adjust to the dark and prevents spooking larger fish which are highly sensitive to light and sound. As your eyes adjust to the dark you will be pleasantly surprised how much you can see after 10-15 minutes in the dark. Wade slowly feeling with your feet for obstructions below and do not transfer your weight to your next step until you are sure you will have firm footing. Large submerged rocks can be a real challenge if they are within reach of your next step.

If you have fished the water in the light, you will have a rough estimate of the distance across the river. Use your rod to measure out the number of line increments that will reach the other side of the river. Alternatively, you can deliberately stick your fly on the other shore. If you are lucky and get it off, you can count the number of strips to retrieve your fly.

The following sections will describe fishing through the four sunrise segments going from dark to sunrise.

Fishing in the Dark to Astronomical Dawn Period (this roughly parallels Astronomical to Dark Dusk segment at night)

The river and forest are nearly void of any wildlife sounds (except deer snorting if you get too close). It is usually dead silent except for sounds from the river. I find it both calming and unnerving not to hear any noise.

Top water and large flies usually are the best bet in this period. As summer progresses mouse season sets in. Mice are nocturnal and accidentally fall into the river. Larger fish are keenly aware of the sound of a mouse hitting the water. So no need to worry about a soft landing. In fact, a loud landing with a mouse pattern is like ringing the dinner bell. Steady retrieves with occasional rod tip jostles impart a struggling mouse action to the fly. Takes can be anything from a voracious explosion (I call them wader wetters) where the fish hooks themselves to a nearly silent sip where you may not hear anything but you will notice weight on the line. If in doubt set the hook. I have hearing aids and I often do not hear the takes because of all the background noises from the gurgling river and wind jostling things on the shore.

As the summer cools down takes on the mouse often get slower and less aggressive. If you are hooking fish and they are getting off consistently, switch to a subsurface fly such as a streamer, wooly bugger, or a girdle bug. This is what I faced in late September last year. I quite counting at 12 fish that got off in one outing (it was too depressing to keep counting). I was whining to a friend the next day who suggested a subsurface fly. I switched to a #2 black girdle bug and caught 17”, 18”, and 19” browns in the first 30-40 minutes in one of the same spots I lost 4-5 fish the night before.

The main thing is to keep the fly moving fairly steadily with some rod tip jostling to mimic a struggling bait. The fish initially locate the fly with their lateral line and finish by eyesight. There are different schools of thought on how deep you have to be in the water column to get a strike. The guide who showed me how to night fish feels it is very important and only used weighted subsurface flies. He averages over 50 fish 20” and larger each season. I have used unweighted flies and caught good numbers of 16-19” fish. So both can work but my guide friend catches larger fish than me.

Whether there is a moon, cloud cover, and wind all influence when this bite stops. Typically it is somewhere between astronomical and nautical dawn. Don’t worry, it will be quite clear unless the fish are not biting at all. You will be getting hits pretty steadily and all of a sudden it pretty much stops. If you are using a mouse, they will stop taking it completely. It is time for a change in flies.

Fishing in the Astronomical to Nautical Dawn Period (this roughly parallels Nautical to Astronomical Dusk segment at night)

Wild life starts waking up at this point. Usually you will hear a few birds chirping first; this will slowly crescendo from now to civil dawn where all the wildlife is up and talking!

I have found that big flies stop working at this point. As I said above, it will be fairly obvious when it is time to change flies. In addition, by now you have your full night vision and you can start making out general shapes. I usually switch to a medium to small lead fly (less than 1 1/4” in length) and a somewhat larger and unweighted nymph or girdle bug dropper (sizes #10-#14). I catch fish on both the lead fly and dropper but usually one works better than the other on each outing and each outing is different so feel free to experiment. I have caught fewer large fish (I define that as 15” and up) during this period but have caught up to 19” fish.

Perhaps I have not found the correct floating fly, but I have experienced very few takes on the surface during this period.

Fishing in the Nautical to Civil Dawn Period (this roughly parallels Civil to Nautical Dusk at night)

Sunrise is still nearly an hour or so away but you can see quite well at this point. Wild life activity is at full bore.

My experience is that this is the least active segment. Fish can still be caught but action is usually noticeably slower. The slower the action gets the more I down size my two fly set-up. Eventually, I replace the lead fly with a #12-#16 dry fly. I like patterns that I can twitch periodically during the drift. Inevitably the take on the dry will be as the fly begins to twitch and the takes on the nymph are usually just after the twitch. Patterns like the fluttering caddis, parachute Adams (or your local favorite), hoppers, beetles, and parachute ant patterns can all work. I use a dropper from 18-24” and use the largest tungsten head nymph that will not sink the lead fly. Most of my fish come on the nymph during this segment.

 Fishing in the Civil to Sunrise Dawn Period (this roughly parallels the Sunset to Civil Dusk segment at night)

There is lots of light and wildlife activity at this point. After being in the dark this feels like full sun light. It is easy to see almost everything. In general, I don’t catch many of the upper teens fish in this period, but there can be plenty of action with the 12-16” fish.

This segment also tends to be slower. But on certain days where it is cloudy and/or windy things can really pop during this segment. I stick with the same lead flies although if I don’t get many takes, I downsize until I start getting takes. I lengthen my dropper to 36-40” and use the smallest tungsten head nymph that will periodically tick the bottom. The fun in this segment is the cat-and-mouse game of will they take the nymph or the dry which is complicated by a take on the nymph may result in the slightest pause of the lead fly. Last week I did exceptionally well in this period once I realized that all the slight hesitations I was seeing were really takes. I realized this when I checked my nymph to see if it had weeds on it to discover it was totally chewed up from subtle takes. I started setting the hook at the slightest hesitation of the lead fly and had a spectacular outing. The one big down-side to the longer dropper is that the relay to the lead fly is delayed every so slightly. Be very attentive to your lead fly, if you even think there is a hesitation set the hook. You may be pleasantly surprised.

SUMMARY: My experience is that if you are set on catching more and larger fish, the dark to astronomical period is your best segment. Before April and through May and late August through October it is fairly reasonable to get on the river for this segment and get a couple of hours of great action. After that, it means you have to get up at increasingly earlier times to fish this segment. My strategy is to work hard on the early and late season during this segment. In addition, the fish get increasingly aggressive as spawning time looms later in the season. If I had to choose one segment to fish, it would definitively be the fall segment. It can be pretty cold during these periods. Layering your clothing, topping it off with a good wind breaking jacket, and carrying either wool or neoprene gloves can keep you fairly comfortable most of the time (it can be tough to keep your hands warm if they get wet and there is wind).

Hope this helps those who are interested in taking a swing at night fishing. Let me know if you have questions, suggestions, or other comments.

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