Night Moves: What I Learned Casting into the Dark

By Jim DuFresne

For an evening float on the Upper Manistee River Spence Vanderhoof and I met Ed McCoy at an access site around 5 p.m. where a party of canoers, who had too much to drink that day, didn’t have enough patience with each other that night so someone had to call the police. Four police cars arrived and blocked us in the parking lot for 20 minutes before they allowed Ed to pull out in his pick-up with a driftboat in tow.

By the time we drove upriver to our put-in site and slide the driftboat down the wooden ramp into the current, it was almost 7 p.m. Just as well. This day had been brutally muggy and hot even for a week that was unseasonably warm. Ed, a guide with Mangled Fly Outfitters, knew we were still an hour away from rigging up our rods.

So we just floated for a while, eating sandwiches while drifting around one river bend after another. Soon the Manistee was ours, the paddlers and inner tubers were long gone. So were most other anglers. Wildlife slowly began to appear with Spence happily naming the ones with wings.

Then we saw the first rings of a feeding trout.

“When you take the time to listen to nature,” Ed said, “she tells you things.”

She told us the trout were there, but the water was warm, topping 68 degrees. That we needed to keep a fish in the river at all times when releasing it to avoid stressing out what we prized so much. No “grin-and-grips” this evening.

She told us to be patient. The night is long, and the best fishing will come long after the sun has set. And she hinted that there would not be a whole lot of chances that evening so we needed to make every cast count.

I caught the first trout, a 10-incher, but Spence followed up with a 15-inch brown and another one quickly after that. With every trout, Ed positioned the boat, dropped the anchor, and grabbed the net. He would lean far over the side so he could place it under the fish without having to lift it out of the water. For a minute we would stand there admiring it, a blurry trophy made with the river flowing over it, and then Ed would quickly release it with a twist of his wrist.

At 9:30 p.m. we were entering the transitional period of night fishing. We could still see the rings, but dusk and darkness were quickly approaching. It wouldn’t be long before hearing would replace vision in spotting a trout.

Just before it did, a faint ring appeared in a pool across the river. My first cast was short but my second was my best of the night and whatever was feeding took my offering. I immediately had a hunch it was big but when the trout leaped clear out of the river and twisted its head to throw the hook I was mesmerized by its size.

Ed snapped me out of it with anxious instructions. I couldn’t believe how nervous I was for a fish I would never keep. Or even lift out of the water. But my fishing resume didn’t include a 20-inch trout from Michigan. It does from Alaska, New Zealand, and Argentina. But not from the place I call home. And I told Ed and Spence that at the beginning of the float.

After the brown trout began to tire, I was able to swing it to the side of the boat where Ed gently placed the net under it and then a ruler next to it. “Nineteen inches and three-quarters,” Ed announced. A moment of silence followed, and I thought great, I’m fishing with the only honest guide on the river. But then Spence said “Well, at night we usually round everything off to the nearest whole number.”

I’ll take it. My first 20-inch trout in Michigan.

We pushed on, through water that was black past pines that had turned into silhouetted soldiers guarding the bank. At 10:30 p.m., in the last streaks of dim light above us, we watched a brown drake hatch, huge bugs flying overhead like the winged monkeys leaving the castle in the Wizard of Oz. “No spinners,” Ed said.

Vision was gone. We sat and carefully listened as we silently floated downstream. We’d hear something rustling in the trees, or slipping into the river, or chirping. Then there it was a slurp, a gulp, maybe even a small splash. When we heard it repeatedly from the same direction Ed maneuvered the boat and Spence picked up his rod and cast blindly to where he thought it was coming from before retrieving his fly.

After a minute of silence, the slurp resumed. “I think you were a couple of feet short,” Ed said, and Spence would cast into the night again.

At midnight everything was pitch black. I couldn’t see more than 10 yards down the river. At times it looked like we were going to run aground in a forest of silhouetted soldiers when suddenly a bend would appear, and Ed would gently ease us into it with a quick pull of an oar.

It was almost 1 a.m. when a light appeared downriver. After floating 8 miles of the Manistee River, most of it in the dark, we arrived at our takeout where someone was waiting with Ed’s truck and trailer. Everybody was tired and conversation was limited, not much more than an obligatory “how was the fishing?”

But on the drive back to my cottage I was wide awake reliving vivid moments of my first float at night. Especially during the witching hour when I was amazed how much I learned about fishing despite not seeing a thing.


Jim DuFresne is the author of Twelve Classic Trout Streams of Michigan and editorial director of Ed McCoy is a guide for Mangled Fly Outfitters (

Photo cutlines: When the river is warm in the middle of a hot summer the trout need to always stay in the water (photo by Ed McCoy).

Anglers prepare to launch their driftboat for a night run (photo by Ed McCoy).

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