By Dave Anderson
Nighttime is my time. I love fishing at any time, but I feel the most at home in darkness. When color is removed from your field of view you perceive the landscape using different senses; on one hand your eyes begin to hone in on nuance, picking up the subtle color changes of a gentle rise on the surface or the dark stain of a recent break. The black expanse of a grove of pines is given depth when your hearing fills in the blanks. Hollows gape and echo in a light wind, pine needles soften while leaves hiss – almost ring – in the breeze. When you really tune in and your subconscious takes over you may find that your mind is practically on fire, processing sound, using sight only on an ‘as needed’ basis. It’s these times when your mind takes the wheel that it is easiest to believe that we only use a tiny fraction of our brain’s potential.
Winter is a tough season for the night angler—unless you target holdover striped bass exclusively or maybe, walleye. For those of us that hunt trout and freshwater bass, the hits become fewer and the chances of blowing that opportunity become much more likely—complacency comes easy in the third hitless hour with your fingers frozen in the positions of holding a rod and reel.
I covered a lot more ground than usual last night, more than I ever had in this particular pond and I only had one solid hit and two nudges to show for it. Maybe it was the fact that it was a Sunday night, after a weekend of increased fishing pressure, or maybe it was the cooling waters and threatening stare of the super moon foreshadowing the whiteness of the coming winter. A light wind rose from the west, I wished I had worn one more layer.
I turned around after covering, what Google Earth tells me was, almost exactly one mile of prime shoreline (it felt like twice that!) and began walking back toward the car. As I rounded a shallow bend in the shore I heard the low calls of a pair of owls in the trees. When you spend a lot of time outside in the quiet darkness you learn that owls all have a unique call, not to the species but to the individual. These two were keeping a good rhythm going one of them was low and somber, with drawn out annunciations, Hooo-Hooo-H-Hoo-Hoo, the other was playing for style points with a much faster and complex call, Hoo-H-H-H-Hooo-H-Hoo-Hoo. Each one replicated to a tee during each round, each one sung in a “woe-is-me” minor key.
My mind snapped to a conversation I had with my friend Keith’s wife, Lauren. She works for the Audubon Society and conducts regular owl walks for groups of bird enthusiasts. I could hear her voice in my head telling me that owls can be brought in by playing—or in some cases—vocally imitating their calls. She uses an iPod and speakers to broadcast actual recordings of owl calls and they come to investigate—almost—without exception. Since I had a captive audience that was, clearly, feeling the night vibe and comforting each other with the dialogue of mated pair. I cupped a hand to my mouth and did my best to throw my own vocal stylings into the mix.
The pair went silent. The light wind seemed to bend with their confusion as a deafening silence crossed the pond like a sudden gust of wind. Their calls cautiously resumed as I did my best to move quietly along the gravelly bank. I called again, they called back—in sequence. I called again and the first owl rushed to fill the space at the end of my phrase, the other followed. I took a few more steps and called out, again the space right at the end of my phrase was filled. It was starting to feel like a competition. For a split second I felt a flutter of nervous excitement blooming in my chest—an osprey once tried to attack me… in the dark I might never see them coming! I weighed the risks and called again—they called back quickly and, once again, in sequence.
This continued with intermittent steps until I could tell I was right below the second caller. Hidden by the blackness of a tall, gangly pine I heard the call. I don’t know why, but I assumed that this owl was the female—low and somber, not as brash and braggadocios as Mr. Style Points. She called, I called back and she took to the air, crossing the clouded corridor of the full moon as she flew, I watched the black dart, soar across the pond and settle into the treeline. I pulled my camera, knowing (hoping) that he would follow her—he didn’t. I called again. I heard the snap and rustle of the foliage as he dropped into an iron cross and glided slowly through the same lane, I snapped the best shot I could. His slow movement sent a message of warning as he surveyed the area before crossing the water to join his mate.
I could hear them consoling each other for the rest of the night, the rhythm and phrasing unchanged. Even after taking several casts on the way back, in some of the most productive spots in the pond, there was not a fish to be had. The owl encounter made my night. It’s the incidentals that make fishing what it is to me. I have already shared this story with my wife and daughter and I will tell it many more times in my life. If I had caught a fish, I would most likely forget that fish within a few years, but this owl encounter will stick with me forever.
By Dave Anderson
Darkness falls so fast in October. I almost had to skip dinner to catch my tide. When I arrived at the beach, the wind had come up hard, forcing a change of plans. My phone buzzed impatiently, it was my buddy Keith—he was mowing pasta and giving me a report. He said that the whole area had been hot for bass—schoolies to the mid 30-inch class and a single 28-pounder. In addition there had been large albies and some bluefish mixed in. I drive by that beach every day after I drop my daughter off at school, but on this day I kept the blinders on so I could tend to things at home. While the fish blitzed, I was at home picking up around the house, doing the dishes and working on writing and editing deadlines. Being responsible sucks.
I told him I was sitting on the corner of the beach in my wetsuit at that very moment—I heard the rhythm of his chewing increase as he spoke—I pictured a wig of spaghetti hanging from his mouth as he choked out his words, “I can be there in 30 minutes,” he gulped punctuated with a hard swallow.
I agreed to wait for him.
The beach was deserted. Just one month prior there would be cars lining this little strip of prime public real estate—couples enjoying wine on a blanket, fogged windows of college kids ditching their roomates for a quickie. The ocean breathes life into anyone that stops to receive it—many stop without realizing why. This night felt cold and blue. I stepped out of the car and listened to the wind playing an eerie tune through my braid and leader—the rod racked on my roof. I looked into the last vestiges of sunset, the trees, the beach houses, the telephone poles all in silhouette—black, brown, blue—the occasional steady eyes of a passing car. I snuck a quick leak before zipping up my wetsuit. As much as I grit my teeth over navigating the grocery store when the ‘summer people’ are in town, the loneliness of the nights after Columbus Day do bring on feelings of melancholy—not because I miss seeing 40- and 50-something women who think a mesh shirt over a bikini that begs for youth is suitable attire for the deli counter, it’s because I know what comes after this.
My fall striper season has been dismal. Before hurricane Jose barreled past it had been good and the Canal had been hot enough to keep everyone else glued to the easy fishing. Since then, there had been repeated skunkings, slow nights and (probably too much) worrying about the season passing me by.
Keith arrived and we walked to our spot—he was rattling through the blow-by-blow of the daytime fishing, a mix of sea herring and peanut bunker fueling the fire, supposedly bigger splashes out of reach. As we toed the edge of waves, Keith laughed and said, “Welp, ready for another skunking!?”
To make a long story short, we did pull a skunk in one of the highest-probability spots that I know. Mid-October on the night of the new moon… ouch. On the way out I said, “Man, I used think I was pretty good at this!” Where did all those fish from the daytime go?
It was early enough that I felt like I could hit another spot and still be present as a father and all around person the next day. My mind began working through the reports from Keith’s daytime exploits. The fish had moved steadily west throughout the day—staying with the bait. There were several logical stopping points to the west; I picked the one that seemed like the approximate middle.
And after a short walk, there were fish, from the first cast through the fourth hour of the tide. Needlefish crawled through the shallow break drawing strikes. None of the fish were impressive, but a few in the mid-teens came out of what seemed like a sea of shorts. Other times I might have moved after a half-dozen schoolies, but I was hoping that the building sea would draw in a few bigger fish, it didn’t. My meager success still served to ballast my listing confidence and instinct; I had been right about their movements. Hopefully the next push will bring something bigger.
By Dave Anderson
When I think of the fall run, I think of panic. It’s hard to describe the feeling—in some ways, I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this. Unlike the summer, when I’m content to miss a few nights or mornings, even several in a row if the conditions suck—the fall rushes in with a sudden sense of urgency and the constant nag of being late. Late for something that may not even be happening. And I don’t do much to help the situation… in my mind I feel certain that at least five locations are going off—and inevitably, I find out that I was right about at least one, the fact that I was “right” only serves to compound the urgency. My everyday responsibilities begin to feel like royal pains in the ass, writing deadlines and other work-related promises live in the pit of my stomach, while my fishing brain fights to turn my head away from what has to be done in favor of doing what it knows I want to do.
This battle is easily won. I have become a master at rationalizing fishing trips. I am also a master at making myself believe that I can complete an impossible amount of work—tomorrow. I know this about myself and yet, I still do it.
I was out just last night and the fishing was good. Too good. I know these fish were at least in migration mode—they very well may have migrated already. I probably could have had them for a week. But I held my fire. I don’t like big surf, and the surf was big last week—I fished freshwater. I know a lot of people love a good heave, but punishing waves have rarely been good to me and nearly all of my big fish have come from calm to moderate seas. But in this case, I know I missed out. (Or at least I believe I did.)
These fish were on a pile of bait. I know because of the way they were taking the plug—many of the fish were choking on it. I also know because of the speed they were relating to, they wanted it fast and wild. Rapid retrieves with a lot of tip action were swimming my glidebait in a wild, jittery to-and-fro; the hits were thunderous and final.
Even in this early stage of the fall run, more than one third of September is already behind us. To some it might seem like we have all the time in the world, but I feel like I’m trying to suck spilled water out of desert sand. Yes, I know there are many pushes of bass to come. Moons and winds and rains and tides will trigger movements of baitfish as the many migrations ebb, flow and collide. But the fall is not a hopeful season. It’s not like the spring when the fish are welcomed like a long parade. The days of the fall run peel off the calendar like the minutes leading up to a root canal. The end of the fall run is the end of the year. The end of daylight savings, the end of flip-flops and the end of manageable heating bills.
Some might think I’m being melodramatic for effect. But the romance of the fall run cannot exist with complacency. The fish are moving constantly, bites flare up like forest fires but move like the same. The urgency is just as much about having a constant pulse of what’s happening as it is about slowing the race. The urgency needs to be real. Mine physically hurts, while taxing my heart with unnecessary—and totally invented—stress. But it drives me to fish and removes none of the joy. I actually like these feelings… how sick is that?
By Dave Anderson
The nights surrounding the August full moon are some of my favorites for largemouth fishing after dark. Unlike the surf, where darker nights seem to bring bigger fish and more consistent fishing, bright moon nights have been far more productive for me in the ponds. I am big on feel, I try to rely on instinct to tell me when and where to fish. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes my feelings are wrong. My belief is that we, as human beings, have undergone hundreds of years of un-training; we used to be much more instinctual creatures. Evidence surfaces when a random image of someone you haven’t seen in 10 years emerges from the back of your skull and the phone rings, guess who? Or when your kid gets into a bad spot and you are miraculously there to catch her as she falls. But one of the most common manifestations of our fading catalogue of natural instincts has to do with being watched. It’s almost mind-blowing how often we feel eyes on us and can then turn and immediately lock onto that set of offending eyes. Even the fact that we can lock eyes and feel that electric connection is something that I believe is left over from the instinctual creatures we once were. Try locking eyes with a deer and see what happens, as soon as that connection is made, she’s gone in a flash of brown and white. It’s an animal instinct, we can all feel it.
A few nights ago, I was on foot, stalking largemouths in a pond a few towns away from my house. Sunday nights are some of my favorites to fish in the surf because no one is fishing, but on this pond with a single road tracing the north bank, I came to realize that not only is no one fishing on a Sunday night, no one is doing ANYTHING on a Sunday night. Less than eight cars rolled by in the time I was there, during the daytime, that street would be alive with the perceived importance of daily life.
Wading softly through the calm water, the smell of stagnant silt and pond weed filled my nostrils and brought me back to my youth, growing up on a great bass pond in Westboro, Massachusetts. Fishing has that effect on me, when I’m in the mindset I feel as though I could be any age. I was fishing a large wakebait, one I made for myself, throwing an 8-1/2 inch bait in freshwater can be a lonely proposition—most of the bass in any given pond are only a few inches longer than the lure! The feeling of hunting something big makes it very engaging and enjoyable when the explosion comes.
But, for the first 45 minutes, I felt very much alone.
It had been a long day and I told myself I was only going to give it an hour, unless it was going off, clearly, it was not going off. Worst of all, I had hedged my bets by fishing the three best spots first, and they were dead. I walked back to where I started and looked back at my car. “Fifteen more minutes,” I said to myself and I walked past my entry point to a place where I had only caught three or four fish in all my times fishing there. It’s a shallow flat with a single and distinct rocky edge that drops down about 2 feet and then continues on as a long, gradually-sloping flat. The next 15 minutes would produce five fish—no big ones, but all nice ones in the 2 to 3-1/2 pound class. This was enough to get me to stay, at least until midnight.
There was a distinct pattern in the five fish that I caught on that flat, they were all relating to prominent changes in that edge, large rocks, bump-outs and small submerged points. And the pattern held for most of the night.
My last stop was a an area where a marshy river entered the pond, it’s a hard spot to cross, so I pretty much always end my nights there when I fish this pond. The incoming stream has carved out a wide cove, I can just barely reach the other side with a good cast. When I arrived on the small delta of debris the stream has pushed up over centuries, I could hear something rustling in the reeds across the cove. This was not something small like a raccoon, and it wasn’t a deer because I had made enough noise on the mussel shells and gravel that a deer would have been long gone. A carpet of clouds had filtered the moonlight, leaving me in a hazy shroud of almost darkness. I heard the rustling getting a little more intense, so I whistled to it, like a dog. It stopped.
I began casting and, within a few minutes, hooked up with what would be my last bass of the night, another solid fish, just over 3-1/2 pounds. After that, the fishing tapered off and the night seemed to reach a new level of quiet and dark. The rustling was back now, but moving along the opposite shore, slowly, like a child learning to tip-toe. It was moving in toward the stream. It took this animal 10 minutes to cover about 250 feet of shoreline—that’s pretty slow. Then I heard it quietly slipping through the reeds and then splashing—very softly—through the river, and then through the reeds on the other side.
In that moment my senses were firing like the processors on a supercomputer. I felt like I was seeing in 360 degrees as my ears aided my mind’s eye. This animal, which at this point I was pretty sure was actually two animals, was now right behind me. I am not the type to get spooked by wildlife, if I was fishing a stream in Wyoming, yeah, I’d have been reaching for the bear spray, but in Southern New England, I know where I sit on the food chain. But that didn’t stop my brain and body from reacting. I could feel the eyes on me and my body reacted with a chill on my back. Some people equate this to fear, but again, this is a warning sense, left over from the thousands of years ago when our ancestors hunted and fished out of necessity and these senses told them when danger was near. I’m sure you’ve seen a dog with its “hackles up” when it can sense danger or an intruder, that chill is the same thing.
I never saw my stalkers, but I heard them shadowing me for over 100 yards on the walk back to my parking spot. Coyotes have much sharper instincts than we do. Any time I’m with a friend that gets spooked by their howling, I remind them that we don’t smell like food to them, we smell like deodorant, and shampoo and danger. But they are curious and bold in the dark and they will stalk you; they step when you step – they stop when you stop. It’s eerie, but also fascinating—instinct is amazing, a sense taken for granted and ignored. When you feel the silent nudge of eyes on your back, or the wary zing of a chill up your spine, don’t shake it off, listen. These instincts are the last vestiges of your sixth sense, exercise them, keep them sharp and virile; be glad that your survivor instincts are still awake and functioning inside you, because this world and the lives we live are doing everything they can to take them away.
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