Guest Blogger: Joe Dellaria, Woodbury MN

Author with a nice fish on after nautical dusk.

Last year I started fishing before sun-up to escape the hordes of fly fisherman hitting the streams due to COVID-19 induced interest in fly fishing. My experiences with fly fishing in the dark began with an article I read years ago in a fishing magazine. The author was a walleye guide (in the Midwest one has to be a multi-species fisherman to fish throughout the year as our trout fishing season closes by mid-October). He reported that he caught all of his largest walleyes (8 pounds and up) between Nautical and Astronomical Twilight. Being a natural morning person, I filed the article away in my feeble mind since I am either asleep or running on fumes by that time of day.

However, I needed to fish when others were not and vaguely remembered the article. Fortunately, I discovered the on-line weather app I use, Weather Underground, reports the times for actual, civil, nautical, and astronomical sun rise/dawn and sun set/dusk. So, I figured why not track this to see if anything correlated with my observations. As it turns out, a very clear pattern emerged from these outings. That is what I would like to share with you.

If you do a little digging around there are specific definitions for dawn, sunset, dusk, and twilight. We don’t need to get bogged down in the formal definitions but it is worthwhile to briefly review the different segments.

Sunrise and sunset are defined to occur when the sun is just below the horizon. You will note there is plenty of light at these times so you can see only the brightest stars and planets at that point. Dusk is the period between sunset and dark while dawn is the period between dark and sunrise. There are four segments to each:

The times and duration of each period will vary depending your latitude and day of the year. The chart below provides an example to give you a sense of what to expect. It is reported for July 18, 2021 in Weather Underground for Woodbury, Minnesota:

SAFETY CONCERNS

If you are going to try fishing in the dark here are some important safety guidelines to make the outing enjoyable and safe. I have not gotten into trouble yet but I have gotten close enough to realize the following are good “rules of thumb” for fishing in the dark.

Here are some anecdotal stories from my personal experience that validate the above safety considerations.

Two years ago a friend of mine agreed to split a guide for a half-night of fly fishing. My friend is not that experienced in wading. The guide set my friend up on a good spot and took me upstream to the next spot. He was heading back to see how my friend was doing when we heard a loud splash and a lot of blustering. The guide had not warned my friend there was a steep drop-off upstream of where he had started fishing. My friend fished faster than expected and unfortunately discovered the spot before the guide could warn him. He was completely soaked but able to safely get out of the river. Fortunately, it was mid-August so he was still able to fish comfortably after emptying his waders.

I was 17 or 18 when I attempted my first night fishing outing. A good friend of mine had shared his favorite spot for the “Hex hatch” (the giant mayfly that hatches at night on the AuSable River in Michigan). He could not go so I talked another friend into going with me. I had never fished the river before and went in over my waders three times that night. Unfortunately, I brought only two changes of clothing and had a 3 hour drive home in soaking wet clothes. The only upside is that I can assure you it is impossible to fall asleep at the wheel while driving late at night in wet underwear!

A month or two ago I took a chance and decided to fish at sun-up when the on-line river height gage suggested it might be iffy. I watched the weather closely that night and checked the river height gage in the morning before leaving. Even though it had rained during the night, the height gage remained reasonable so I decided to go. As I was driving to my spot it was pouring buckets about five mile north of where I wanted to fish. I thought to myself, “Man if it were raining that hard where I want to fish it would be blown out.” And never gave it a second thought. It turned out to be perfect conditions and large fish were on the move. I knew there was an especially large fish in a specific spot and spent a considerable amount of time running a variety of flies through the spot. I had noticed that the water had gotten murkier so I put on a large white bunny streamer which is my go-to fly for these conditions. As I finished tying on the streamer I happened to glance at the shore and realized all the rocks that were showing 15 minutes earlier were underwater; the water had risen 8-9 inches. I worked my way to the shore and made a cast figuring I should give it a try since I had tied it on. I got a solid strike and set the hook. Ah, fish on and it felt like it could be over 20 inches. The current was getting stronger and I was starting to worry that my 2X tippet might not be enough. I pressured the fish as much as I dared and landed a 14” brown. That was a bit of a let down as he felt much bigger. It turned out it was for a good reason; the fish had a 12-14” long stick straddling its open mouth and about two pounds of weeds on each side! Just as I released the fish an entire tree came bobbing down the river. I took that as a good hint to leave!

A few weeks later I met one of the land owners near the same area. There had been a 9 foot run-off earlier this year. I told her how I was laughing so hard when I tried to take a picture of debris in a tree on her property that was higher than my 9 foot pole. She proceeded to tell me that they were tracking the rain that created the run-off and decided to load deck furniture, kayaks, and other stuff onto a trailer and pull it up to their house with a four-wheeler. She said it took them about an hour to get the last load up to the house. When they started the water had just risen above the banks. By the last trip it was over the top of the four-wheeler wheels half-way back to their house. Within the next hour the river surged four more feet and stopped just shy of their sliding glass door in the basement! As you can see, it can be dangerous if there is enough rain; it pays to watch the conditions in situations like this.

2 Comments

  1. Interesting, Joe, great topic…I often try to get to a river a half hour or so before dawn (that is if the gate that says “dawn to dusk” was left open the night before) but not as early as twilight. I do it more to get the good spots before some other water-flogger gets there. I think even wading water I know well would be difficult to do gracefully in darker hours.

    It makes perfect sense to me that the big fish would feed in near-dark hours; their aversion to light is, after all, a big part of what has let them get big without going on a free tour of some hawk’s nest in their youth. By anecdotes of other anglers, I get the feeling that dark-hour feeding becomes in particular a heat-of-the-summer thing each year, and that fish begin to re-exhibit daytime feeding as the season enters autumn…because they need as much food as they can get before winter and because a lot of the midsummer nighttime food begins to disappear as the nights cool down.

    However I have never tracked it statistically. Your thoughts on how the time of year affects the feeding hours?

    – Mike

  2. Hi Mike,
    First, I primarily fish pre-dawn since I am a morning person. I have only fished post-sundown a few times. So my observations relate primarily to the pre-dawn period. The main obstacle is that from mid-May to mid-August I have to get up extremely early (around 1 a.m.) to get a couple of hours on the water before Nautical sunrise. So, I don’t fish much at night during this period. I do fish quite extensively in the dawn and dusk times during this period.
    Over the years I have seen and hooked numerous larger fish (20 and above) during low light conditions which includes dusk and dawn, heavy cloud cover during daylight, and murky water. During low light conditions I have seen many larger fish and presume they are feeding but have found that they are extremely spooky and leave at the slightest disturbance. My experience suggests that larger fish feed in a fairly large window of opportunity but are more difficult to catch when it is not dark. The big advantage to fishing in the dark is the bigger fish are not as easily spooked. Even so, it is important to wade quietly and to not shine light on the water if at all possible.
    I have never seen any data relating to your question. It would be fun to tag some of these bigger fish with transmitters to see when and where they feed.
    All the best, Joe

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