It was almost dark when the nose of my kayak touched the muddy river’s edge at the informal takeout along the lower Susquehanna. Dodging protruding boulders between the barely submerged ones dotting the way back to shore was a challenge, especially in the low light. Once on land, the relief was overwhelming as I resisted the urge to kneel and kiss “terra firma” in gratitude. But just at that moment, I noticed two rather bulky anglers loading spinning gear onto their kayaks ready to push off into the twilight. And after what I had just experienced, I was somewhat bewildered. Replying to their casual “how was the fishing?” inquiry with a dejected one word “slow” while looking for an empty beer can or two to explain their dubious behavior, I curiously asked what would prompt them to head out into the fast flowing rock pocked river at that hour.
“The fishing’s been great just after dark,” one fisherman said. “The last several evenings we’ve been getting some nice stripers letting our lures swing in the riffles behind the boulders.” Intrigued, I queried how it was they could safely see, and they replied that they use the light of the moon along with headlamps to get around. And as I watched these two oversized guys paddle into the night perched precariously atop their rather simple kayaks until they were swallowed up by darkness, I was dumbstruck. But then, I considered that possibly I was just being too dramatic about the danger. Or even worse, that I had lost my nerve for adventure in my waning years.
Admittedly, I love fishing at night. During the decades living in Montana, late evening forays chasing big browns sipping caddis would always slip into total nightfall afar from the safe haven of my vehicle. Alone in the darkness, I would regularly feel my way back to the parking area at a time when most anglers gave up hours beforehand. I got so comfortable fishing at night that I would head on down the train tracks into the spooky Maiden Rock Canyon section of the Big Hole River only when it got dark enough to no longer see. Amid the screeches of owls, the snorts of deer, the scuffles of big horned sheep, or the growls of who knows what, I often ventured into the blackest of voids to swing my fly through a couple runs that regularly produced dandy brown trout well beyond midnight. If truth be told, many friends were just as dumbstruck with my “dubious behavior” back then as I happened to be watching those two hefty anglers head out into the unknown of the Susquehanna at such an ungodly hour.
Prompted by a passion for fishing in the dark, it took a couple days for me to reconsider the possibilities that the big river had to offer, especially if the fishing was as good as those guys indicated. So a few evenings later I was prepared with a headlamp and the will to stay well into the night. Pushing off an hour or so before dusk, I scouted the water that would be safest to cast my fly as well as to land a fish without being swept out into the current. As the light slowly dissipated, my attention was drawn to the distant landing where I barely made out three kayakers preparing to take off, likely the same guys I encountered the other night – plus one. After each took off paddling up river and traceable only by their headlamps, I was impressed. Courageous souls, I thought.
About the time I was positioning to swing a bait pattern into the rips created by a series of jutting boulders, the river dynamic began to rapidly change. The rather hypnotic sound of the soothing flow gradually became an angry whoosh. No doubt the gates had been opened at the dam. In a panic, I reeled in and started to fight substantial crosscurrents and demonic deadheads of disappearing rocks on way to safe harbor. The twisting, turning and bumping was a fright, and when I finally arrived close to shore one of the three anglers was there as well.
“Must of released some water,” he noted in an unflustered tone. “Too bad,” he continued, “the fish were just starting to bite.” This heavy-set angler was older and apparently the father of the two younger guys I met the other night who were still way out and visible only by their headlamps. After asking how they were so calmly able to fish at that hour without being terrorized, he replied, “We’ve been doing it all our lives. Know every rock out there.”
There was a time when I may have been more daring, but it seems the older I get the more good sense wins out. Considering the words of the young anglers’ father, I realized that I didn’t have enough years, or courage, left to get to know “every rock out there.” Dragging my kayak back to the truck, I considered that I’d still rather deal with a midnight mountain lion on the Big Hole than dodge boulders in the dark on the Susquehanna. But then, who knows? After another few days, maybe I’ll reconsider.