Warm blood oozes from the eye sockets of a mouse clenched in the hook jaws of a big brown trout. Have you bought that T-shirt yet? There are plenty of similar rodent-themed wearables and stickers and Buffs out there now, because over the last five years or so, fly anglers have become obsessed with mousing for trout in the dark. Something about a trout crushing a furry mammal infects the psyche. It also makes for great social media posts, but the reality is people have been throwing mouse patterns at trout since Hemingway was in diapers.
Don’t misunderstand, I’m not coming down on the recent mouse hype. Not only do I think it’s cool and fun, I’ve also contributed to it. I’ve shot mouse videos, given mouse talks, and written mouse stories (like this one). Hell, I even created a widely available (and super, super productive) mouse pattern called the Master Splinter.
At least once a summer, I make a trek to the Upper Delaware River on the New York-Pennsylvania border for three back-to-back nights of rodent chucking. I’ve moused in Michigan and all across New Jersey and Central Pennsylvania. Because of how much I profess my love for mousing, I get a lot of mouse questions. And while I’ll be the first one to slap a new draw-mouse-blood-and-ride-the-lightning sticker on my lunch box, I also think there’s a fair amount of mouse bullshit that has cropped since the tactic’s popularity grew. So, I thought I’d break down what I consider the three biggest misconceptions about mousing in the dark. They don’t all support the narrative you see new-school mouse freaks pushing, but they’re all honest and will help you catch more fish.
Misconception 1: Brown Trout Love Eating Mice There are places in the world that have what can be classified as a legitimate mouse “hatch.” New Zealand comes to mind. Every 5 to 8 years, the island nation sees an explosion in the rodent population. Incredible numbers of the furry morsels end up in rivers and the brown trout gorge. They are genuinely keyed in on mice, and I’ve heard if you time it right, it’s some of the most incredible fishing you’ll ever experience.
If there are epic mouse hatches here in the States, I haven’t heard about them, but thanks to modern mouse media, you can be led to believe that mice are as common a food source for trout as caddis and stoneflies. They’re not. Given the opportunity to eat a mouse, a brown trout is going to take it, especially in warmer months when they’re already conditioned to look up for bugs. They don’t have a thirst for mammal blood despite how totally Slayer that would be. They’re just opportunistic. They’ll eat a frog or a toad or a salamander or a moth wiggling on the dark surface just as quickly. The right fish would eat a bird or a bat, too.
I’m convinced that the vast majority of the time, your mouse pattern isn’t really representing a mouse. It’s not representing anything specific. It’s just a target, something small and moving that looks alive. The trout isn’t concerned about what it is, just that it looks like food. After seven years of mousing on the Upper Delaware, I’m certain the trout in that system assume my mice are tiny frogs. In the summer, there are thousands of them on the banks after dark. I know they see these frogs in the water far more than mice, but it’s just not as cool to say, “I’m going frogging for trout.”
Misconception 2: Whiskers And Ears Matter There are so many better things you could do in the time it takes to add whiskers and ears to a mouse pattern. As an example, you could floss your teeth or wash a few dishes. You could iron your church shirt or microwave a Hot Pocket. I know this isn’t going to be a popular opinion, but the only reason to add whiskers or ears (or even eyes for that matter) to a mouse is to get more likes when you post the picture on Instagram. These features are cute and all, but they don’t do a damned thing in terms of attracting or catching you more fish. Legs, on the other hand, make a little more sense.
Any mouse pattern is only getting viewed from underneath, which means what’s going on below the surface matters and those ears above the surface do not. There are some incredibly complex mouse patterns out there, and while I appreciate the talent it takes to tie them, as long as a mouse pushes some water and makes a little wake, it’ll get hit.
That Master Splinter fly of mine is rooted in simplicity. Even a fly tyer with beginner skills can whip one up in less than 5 minutes and hit all three criteria with minimal material: There’s a simple folded foam head that pushes water and creates wake, the rabbit strip underbody wags and breathes, the thin rabbit tail wiggles. It has essentially become the “guide fly mouse”—it’s effective, simple, and a guide can knock out a dozen the night before a trip even with a good buzz on.
That may sound like a hard sell on my fly, but you don’t even need a Splinter. The truth is, you can be successful with a Cherobyl Ant, small foam popper, Sneaky Pete, or Gurgler. They might not be true mice, but after dark, regardless of what color they are, they will push, wake, and get hammered. I’m not even totally convinced a tail matters, because I’ve caught lots of trout on Splinters with missing tails.
Misconception 3: Mouse Takes Are Epic We’ve all seen footage of giant Russian and Alaskan rainbows charging mice in broad daylight like a great white shark hot on a baby seal. That’s super cool, and something I dream of doing some day, but it’s not representative of mousing as a whole.
Way up north, those rainbows have a short season to fatten up for the long, dark winter, which means they’ll charge anything that looks like food all day long. What I’d call “traditional mousing” is swinging or stripping mouse flies for brown trout feeding nocturnally. Interestingly, several of the wild brown trout rivers I fish also have wild rainbows, and once the sun goes down, it is extremely rare for one of those rainbows to move on a mouse.
One of my favorite things is taking a first-timer down the river. The tension is high and the anticipation is on overload then all of a sudden it happens—the water erupts out there in the darkness, you hear that sucking toilet flush sound, and the rookie’s heart just about stops. Funny thing is, 99% of the time, it’s a pretty small trout making all that noise.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that the less fanfare you hear when your mouse gets hit, the bigger the fish. It’s actually very logical. Little fish are full of piss and vinegar. They’ll see the target and attack with speed and force so it doesn’t get away. A big mature brown is confident and calculating. It doesn’t really need to break a sweat to eat a little mouse or toad. It’s just going to sip the fly. This is why it’s critical to keep direct contact with your mouse as much as possible. Feel is everything at night, and while keeping quiet and listening is important, there’s a strong chance that if a donkey takes a shot, you won’t hear a thing unless there’s nary a hint of breeze and your buddy isn’t yakking about which diner is open this late.
Misconception 4: You Go Mousing To Catch Trophies I’m looking for a trophy no matter how, when, or where I’m fishing, so I always chuckle when someone tells me they were out mousing for trophy browns. Will a trophy brown eat a mouse? Hell yeah, but it’ll eat a nymph, streamer, spinner, or jerkbait too if you get in front of it when it’s in the mood to chew. The idea that mousing in the dark is solely a big fish tactic is false.
The biggest wild brown I ever caught measured approximately 28 inches and ate a live shiner at 2:00 in the afternoon. The biggest brown I’ve ever moused in the dark measured 23 inches. On nights when the fish are really active, you feel like the next take can be a true giant, but no more so in my opinion than on that high-water day in April when your streamer is getting blitzed often, or during an epic summer evening hatch. The only exception is when fishing heavily pressured water. In that case, it’s reasonable to assume the bigger players will only let their guard down after dark.
Every single night I’m out there, I’m hoping for the pig, but it’s certainly not the driving force. The reason I’m so ate up with the game is simply because it presents a different set of challenges. It requires you to be really in tune and focused. A single 16-inch trout on a mouse in the dark is more of an accomplishment to me than catching four that size during a hatch. It’s not better, it’s just different. If you’ve thought about making night moves, do it to challenge yourself before hoping for a massive trout. But here’s a warning: It’s rare for someone to kinda-sorta like mousing. Most people try it for the first time and say, “that’s not for me,” or they fall in love with it and can’t get enough.