Whoever said “nothing good happens after sundown” was obviously not a trout fisherman. While we’ve all enjoyed those brilliant days on the river casting for rising trout on sun-dappled pools and shining riverside runs, the fact is that we’re missing out on the real game. Trout are naturally warier during the day and are quick to dash into cover as soon as you make a bad cast. At night they become more relaxed and willing to move out into the open since they can’t see what they’re eating that well. They’re more apt to take a bait, fly, or lure with little to no hesitation.
When the sun starts to go down, those big trout you don’t see during the day begin to come out to play. These big fish are almost exclusively nocturnal, coming out of the deep holes and hidden places where they hide during the day like vampires to prey on baitfish, ducklings, mice, and even other trout. If you’re willing to brave the dark, you can have some of the best fishing of your life at night as long as you use the right equipment and techniques.
Wandering around on a river in the dark can be quite dangerous. Many a trout angler has overestimated how well they know a river and made a deadly mistake when night fishing. Those deep holes, sharp rocks, and fallen trees that are so easy to avoid during the day are incredibly difficult to spot in the dark.
So, the most important piece of equipment a nighttime angler can have is a light. Either a good flashlight or headlamp for wading or even a large spotlight for using in a boat can be the difference between life and death on a dark trout stream. However, because trout are extremely light-sensitive, you’ll only want to use the lights when moving to or coming out of fishing spots and keep them off when you’re actually fishing.
Because you’ll be fishing in complete darkness, it’s also a good idea to use noise-enhancing headphones, especially when fishing topwater flies or lures. While this may sound like a gimmick or make you feel old wearing them, they’ll make a massive difference at being able to hear fish strike when you can’t see them.
Your equipment for night fishing should be slightly heavier than you would normally use for trout fishing during the day. This is because you stand a good chance of hooking into a larger-than-normal trout. But also because using heavy equipment will help you cast quickly and accurately and help you yank your lures and baits out of the myriad of snags you’ll inevitably encounter. At night, trout will be less spooky and much less wary of any line, leader, or lure seeming out of place.
Spin anglers should use a medium-action rod and reel strung with 10- to 12-pound monofilament or braided line. Fly fisherman should use a 7- to 8-weight tip flex fly rod with a heavy 7- to 9-foot leader. You can use anywhere from a 2X to a 0X leader with heavy 10- to 15-pound tippet.
Once you have you’re fishing spot scouted out and all of your lights and other equipment together, the only thing left to do for a fantastic nocturnal trout fishing adventure is choosing which technique suits you best.
Trout feeding at night are seriously voracious predators. Like a big pike or a muskie, these night-feeding fish are often at the top of the food chain in the waters they swim, and they’ll hunt down and eat baitfish that they wouldn’t bother chasing during the day. Therefore, anglers chasing big, night-feeding trout can and should use much bigger baits rather than small minnows, terrestrial insects, and worms you normally would when fishing during the day. Instead, choose the same big live baits you would use when pursuing other large gamefish. My favorites include large 4- to 8-inch gold shiners, small suckers, crayfish, and nightcrawlers.
No matter what bait you choose, the rig for night fishing for trout is essentially the same. Rig your line with a large size 2 to 1/0 bait hook, and then add a couple small split shot about 8 to 12 inches above the hook. Attach a glow float that’s easy to see about 3 to 5 feet above the hook, depending on the depth of the water you’re fishing, and then add your bait. Rig baitfish by sticking the hook just behind their dorsal fin so that they drift and struggle through the water with their head down. Rig crayfish with the hook through the center of their tail and worms by stringing the head (fatter end) all the way onto the hook, exposing the hook point just below the band.
Fish your bait rig from a boat or shore by casting it into the main current along the edges of slower-moving water. Free spool the reel or open the bail of your spinning rod and allow the current to drift the bait downstream at the same speed as the flow of the river. Keep an eye on the glowing bobber as it drifts and when it suddenly vanishes, set the hook, and hang on.
Lures for night fishing expeditions should also be larger than those you would use during daytime trout fishing trips. Trout at night can’t necessarily see and instead rely on their lateral line and other senses to detect food, so you want to use something that’s going to move a lot of water and attract a lot of attention. The best lures are ones that either imitate the large baitfish and small trout that the big fish are hunting or lures that cause such a commotion that the trout will attack it out of pure aggression.
For my money, it’s hard to beat jerkbaits like the Original Rapala for night fishing. These lures are easy to cast and can be fished by either simply casting and retrieving them or by dead drifting and twitching them in the current like a wounded minnow. Aside from the Original Floater, the XRap and Husky Jerk are also great options, as are the Strike King KVD and the Yo-Zuri 3DB.
Spinners and spoons are also excellent night fishing options for anglers using spin tackle, but you’ll want to use larger than normal ones when fishing the witching hours. The classic Roostertail spinner is an excellent option along with the Blue Fox Vibrax, and it’s hard to beat the Eppinger Dare Devil or the Red Eyed Wiggler when it comes to putting big trout in the net.
Topwater lures can and will also be incredibly effective at night and provide trout anglers with a thrill they truly can’t get anywhere else. Casting that floating lure out into the darkness, hearing a massive explosion of water around it as a giant brown trout smashes into it like a nuclear missile, there’s nothing more thrilling in the world. Spin anglers looking to have this thrill will do well using a Torpedo or Super Spook Jr. but my favorite is definitely the Hula Popper.
Fish your lures by ripping them through deep holes, along undercut banks, around large boulders, and log jams. Basically, anywhere that a big night hunting trout could be waiting to ambush their unsuspecting prey.
Fly anglers chasing trout at night have a myriad of options at their disposal, but if you asked most of them what their favorite night fishing fly pattern is, they’re probably going to say a mouse. Mousing is a classic way for fly anglers to find and catch big night-feeding trout, and there are dozens of different mouse patterns out there. However, I’ve always found the lighter, more elongated patterns like the Master Splinter and the Morrish Mouse seem to work best.
If you’re not into the topwater action at night, then it’s hard to go wrong fishing a streamer. Streamers are always effective when pursuing big trout, but they can work especially well at night. When fishing them in the dark, choose huge flies that’ll move a lot of water. The most effective will be patterns that have a lot of flash and are made with light, bulky materials like deer hair. For night fishing, your best bets are gaudy and flashy patterns like the Drunk and Disorderly, Johnson’s Sluggo, Cohen’s Manbearpig, and the classic Galloup’s Dungeon.
Fish your night flies in the same areas you’d fish large lures along deep tanks and around large pieces of structure in the river, and don’t worry about casting them neatly with tight loops. Instead, smack the flies down hard onto the water and start stripping and popping them almost as soon as they land. The fast, loud action is the perfect thing to call in a monster.
There are other ways to catch trout at night—slow stripping large stonefly nymphs, fishing during a hexagenia or a drake hatch, or by sinking a large bait down into the bottom of a deep pool and waiting it out. But these methods often don’t feel fitting for hunting monster trout in the darkness.
You’re out there to slay dragons, seeking out and going to battle with the largest, angriest fish in the river. So in the end you want to choose an aggressive fishing method, one that shows the big trout you're after who should really be scared of the things that go bump in the night.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.