Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Night's Tale

I had to get away. I did get away. I took the afternoon after a workday, drove down to my favorite water and camped out. I've been dying to nightfish this river again for weeks, and too many "almost went but didn't" were piling up. The decision to camp came at an odd combination of times: 1) fit perfectly with my exhaustion level and likely inability to stay awake on the drive back after an all-nighter on the water and 2) Memorial Day weekend. I headed out Monday afternoon, hoping to catch the river and campground in mass desertion. Basically, I did, but I was still nervous about finding an open campsite. I figured if I didn't, I'd either sleep in my car or drive down to the Eleven Point and camp on a gravel bar. Thankfully, I ran into very helpful campground Hosts (those people are always the coolest) who directed me to Site #128--an available, Basic Walk-in site.

Host: "Go get #128--it's open and definitely the best one. It backs right up to water."
Me: "That's great, sounds perfect! Thank you!"

I was a little suspicious when the road that took me to #128 turned continually away from the river, but I figured he was the host and I was the camper. Finding #128, I found it was a road over and away from the river. Oh well, it's open...I'll take it! The old host was nice and helpful, but clearly he's a little confused....

Later that night, as I was drinking some coffee, I happened to look up in just the right direction and see this water spigot. A huge "Ohhh!" moment dawned, and I felt like a real idiot. So that's the "water!" Well, I still hold him responsible--you can't throw the word "water" around like that in a campground that backs up to prime Ozark trout water. It was a clarifying moment for me in more ways than one, but certainly I know now that I consider fish-water more important than potable-water.

I parked the 4Runner triumphantly in the drive, quickly unloaded my tent, pad and bag and went to work setting up home. I arrived on-site about 7pm, with just enough time to get out on the water afterward to wade up in the light. After the recent flooding, I'd heard the river had changed a lot, and that's dangerous for a solo fisherman in the dark. I was previously very familiar with it and could wade it with my eyes glued shut--now, though, there were new holes, deeps and hazards. I figured I'd better see 'em once and remember where they were for the dark wade back.

The campsite became increasingly less scenic the more I looked (and smelled) around. I definitely felt like a fireman--running straight into where everyone else is running out of. I completely confused the check-in lady by...well, checking-in. The looks I got from the few holdovers in the surrounding sites confirmed that I was going against the acceptable norm. They looked at me like I needed a calendar. I looked back like they needed a clue.

A team of yahoo canoers with coolers is not what I wanted to see pull up.

I fished almost through the night, having waded quickly upstream in the fading light of a clear sky. Rather than casting, I spent more time making mental notes of "OK, at this tree, wade left" and "Everything's OK through here until I get to that plastic bag in the tree." Though I didn't throw much line in the light, I did have the chance to stop and talk to a few old timers who were still fishing. They didn't care that the holiday was over, and I think they appreciated that I didn't either. I had some of the best on-water conversations I've ever enjoyed; they were all bar-like in honesty and warmth...not the more typical operating-room coldness. No one likes to see another fisherman on the water, but sometimes, under perfect conditions (i.e. one is leaving), it works out that two guys meet for the first time and pick up on a conversation that never really was begun. There is a "you're like me" tone that old fisherman offer to a few lucky souls, and they usually offer good advice right after. One yelled back to me from downstream, "Will! Fish the tailouts!" With those words he gave a knowing nod, like he'd just given me the keycode to the bank's safe. "You're like me...aintcha?"

I didn't throw down any mad domination on the trout that night, in fact...I didn't hook a thing. I had some interesting companions the following morning and day, though. This friendly otter was pretty badly injured, missing an Oreo-sized piece of fur ripped off his back. He seemed generally ok, but was saddeningly unafraid of me. I don't pray for animals too often, but this guy got a streamside prayer.

Night fishing is weird. Guys who do it are even weirder, I'll admit that. We excuse or try to hide the nonsense of the endeavor by claiming we do it in the name of better fishing and bigger fish. Maybe that's true, but to be honest, I've never had better fishing or bigger fish at night. I guess that means I'm just weird. Apparently, they are also the subject of myths, shared between daytimers; I was asked by one, as I headed upstream, "Are you the guy who throws mice here at night?" Huh, there's someone else who fishes this at night--I thought I was the only one, and I'm no mouser, so there's at least two of us. Damn.

There is something about it though, especially alone, that draws me out there. It depends how you take the dark, being surrounded by the current and surprisingly unfamiliar sounds of nighttime on the river. ...Nighttime in the river. When it get's to be real night, really dark, your entire world shrinks to the few cubic yards that are illuminated dimly by your headlamp. The water diffuses and steals that light, making seeing the bottom sometimes impossible. The reflection off the surface of the water beams upward, showing you the undersides of tree limbs and banksides--these suddenly flash into existence without warning or intention, seeming to appear out of nowhere. Eyes glow and glare curiously from you out of the blackness in the corridor along the water, and sometimes from the water itself.

Danger is there; it is one of the more hazardous ways to fish, but when you collect your mind together into a little ball of clarity, refusing to let it wander, and gather it into a cast beyond your light, you are rewarded with the greatest feeling of anticipation possible. Casting in the dark, sensing the drift rather than seeing it, it feels like you're fishing off the end of the world--and who knows what might be caught there.

So I fished through much of the night's dark, and finally called it quits when the caddis and skeeters were so intense that I couldn't walk forward with my headlamp on. Besides the obvious frustration of being swarmed by hundreds of little buzzing bugs, they are just big enough to reflect back a blinding amount of light when they fly in front of the headlamp. It was like waving a sparkler in front of my face in otherwise total darkness...and it brought a new meaning to "I can't see shit." Figuring that as time wore on I'd be forgetting my mental notes about trees, holes and plastic bags and would have to make most of the wade back without my headlamp on...I started back. So, in the dark I slowly retraced my steps, occasionally forgetting a crosspoint or crossing too early and wading deeper where I thought I'd be ok. It's a bit like closing your eyes and trying to walk down a highway, but you figure out ways to make it work. At least the holes don't move. I made it back, exhausted and dripping with DEET, and de-wadered.

I returned to camp, slept for a few hours and got up to fish again. The night repeated itself, with more conversations with old timers and not good fishing for me, but it was a lot brighter. I waded up, fished, and waded back. My world was bigger then, too big to cast off the end of.


  1. Very nice! Still to night fish by my self.

  2. Very nice. I night fish a lot, I'm one of those people who fish with mice. Great post, you captured that feeling of night fishing. You know the one.

  3. FR-yes, I do know that one. :) Thanks for reading!