If you'd like a soundtrack for this, scroll to the bottom and click to play. Be warned.
It has been a long, busy summer. I've managed to fit a lot in, I'm not sure how. One thing that has eluded me is the night game. Driving home from work I decide it is time to go and find a big fish. I spend the evening running errands, cooking dinner, and keeping occupied, but one thing is on my mind- tossing mouse patterns for big browns, waiting for an explosive take in the darkness.
I finally wrap my deliberations up as the sun is setting. Conditions are perfect- no moon, warm evening and a high overcast. I'm looking forward to this.
I drive out in the gathering gloom to my spot. I had scouted it during the daytime last week and am comfortable with the water. Night fishing however, is always a game of nerves, so we'll see how long I last. I'm already seeing bears in the bushes. Much to my dismay, I discover I've left my flies at home, and must drive the ten minutes home to fetch them.
When I get back, I tie on a big black foam gurgler, getting my Rapala knot right in the darkness. This is going to be good. I decide to leave my light off so that my eyes can adjust, and walk into the slavering night.
|fly selection in the black of night|
No sooner do I start down the trail than a horrible commotion erupts, piercing the night air, stopping me in my tracks. Some animal is braying in terror in the darkness. I've heard this before- two raccoons fighting. They make a horrible sound, a snarling mixture of growls, shrieks, and crying. This one is close, very close, and the bad part is that I'm walking toward it. I pass within thirty yards, and shout into the dense brush, but it never pauses, never lets up. As I pass by the sound changes to crying, and I realize it is not raccoons but probably a fox kit. It keeps up this incessant caterwauling all the while that I walk past. At the closest point I pause. What if it is a rabid fox, crazed and suffering, foaming at the mouth, biting everything in its path? But no, after the initial scuffle there is only the sound of a creature crying in the dark, pitiful, sad, plaintive. It's starting to sound like your new puppy when you made it sleep by itself for the first time, crying half the night in its loneliness.
I move on to the river. The sound never abates, just recedes into the background. It is a welcome relief to wade into the cool water, as if I've dug a moat for myself, the waters protecting me from that awfulness in the dark. I wade upstream to my starting point and wait ten minutes. Still this horrid creature cries, and now I hear sounds of movement on both banks. Perhaps some big boar coon whose motto is "carpe noctem", or some possum that is suddenly un-dead. Speaking out loud, I warn the creature on my side of the river not to come closer. This seems to work, but on the far bank the movement continues. I can imagine every set of ears for a mile around pricked in my direction, every set of night vision eyes gleaming with anticipation. Some creature out there isn't happy, and either through inexperience or injury it is an easy meal. It is only fifty yards from me.
The sound never stops. I'm not thrilled with this situation, but staying in the river at this point seems like a better option than getting out and walking back toward the miserable creature. The boreal glow on the northern horizon is starting to wane, and the surface of the river flows like polished black granite, and so I start to fish, more to distract myself than anything.
I toss my fly upstream, let it drift all the way below me into the bend, then lift and toss it back up, like the worlds slowest metronome. I tire of this and try chugging my fly or retrieving it. I roll-cast, snap-T, and even overhead cast at times, slapping my fly on the surface with force trying to elicit a response. I also hope to make enough noise to alert any critter on the banks to my presence.
That infernal noise continues.
Ten minutes after I start fishing I hear a frantic scuffling, much closer, and a squeal of pain. Then a new sound, very close, guttural and deep. "Huh, huh, huh, huuuurrrrrgghhhh...... hurrrrgggghhh...huh, huh, huuuuuurrrrrggggghhhh...."
Another yawp and all hell breaks loose. That very deep growling accompanied by a snarl, the scuffling of leaves, breaking limbs. The animal is definitely canine, probably coyote, but the sound is so deep that it could be a wolf. They are fighting (or killing) only about thirty yards away on the far bank. The other creature is still crying in the distance, and now yet another creature is squealing in the dark as a much bigger something is obviously giving it a thrashing. It seems to go on forever, ten minutes, but it is probably only five. Then silence, followed by the sounds of running in the forest.
That blasted crying doesn't let up.
What did I do? I kept fishing. I didn't want to draw attention to my position. I stood there in the darkness choking down the rising bile in my throat, fighting the urge to flip on my light, to scream into the darkness, or to run down the river and back to my car. Everything in the dark seems wicked now- every sound, every rustle of grass, every croak of a frog, and even the birch limbs lying in the water shining whitely in the dark seem skeletal. Every muscle in my body is taut, every nerve set on edge, and the only thing that keeps me sane is to keep tossing my fly upstream.
Ten minutes after the closest fight ends, my line swings out in the current and comes tight. I hear a small bloop and my line jumps in the darkness. So do I. There are fish here after all. Five casts later and it happens again. Downstream I hear the bombastic slap of a beaver tail on the water. Stink. There goes the fishing. It happens again. And again. My poor sorry screaming companion is starting to sound hoarse. It also sounds like a child drifting off to sleep as it cries. I'll never know if it fell asleep, died, or simply wandered off.
This infernal noise lasts 45 minutes. I only last an hour. Another larger fish hits twice, but it's still not the one I'm after. The woods have gone quiet, but I'm thoroughly rattled, and now my next fear takes over. I've fished to the bottom of the familiar water, and now I have to navigate a stretch of water that I've only waded once before. It is deeper, the current a little faster, and there are submerged logs and a couple of right hand holes to avoid.
I can't do it.
I turn my light on and head back to my car, grateful I've left it unlocked. I don't even bother to take off my waders. I start the car, flip on the lights and head home.
Sometimes the night wins.