Obsession, like a virus, is a demon that creeps in and takes hold before you understand you’re had. For example, I now find myself creeping from hole to hole on creeks and rivers on moonless nights, throwing gobs of feathers into the ink, seeking big fish. I don’t care what species, just big. But my favorite is brown trout.
I’m also addicted to the annual hex hatch, but then you have to wait for the bugs. With mouse-chunking, its game-on nearly every night.
I was sure I’d outgrown this big fish thing in the far-back. Newp. Summer fishing the Upper Peninsula I’m content to catch small brook trout all day, but several times each summer I feel compelled to make contact with big browns.
Part of each winter I spend moving from water to water when the landscape is undressed, looking for likely holes that may hold summer fish. Winter, if the snow isn’t totally ridiculous, is the best time for such scouting. Come spring, after ice-out and runoff, I return to the same places to see how they look. If still promising, I make it a point to day-fish the hole and immediate environs. Not important to catch fish during these excursions, but seeing them is. I usually visit the potential sites at various times and while trying to tempt fish into sight, wade around to get a sense of the footing, pratfalls, traps, other potential hat-floaters. Getting to know the area is critical to your safety.
The interesting thing is that big browns often become exclusively night feeders, so even living here in southwest Michigan in a semi-urban environment I can find big old trout at night, willing to play cat and mouse.
It’s said in some parts of the country that the best such fishing is during the full moon, but that’s not the way we play the game here in Michigan. We may shine a small green or red pencil light at the tree tops to get a rough gauge on distance and scenery at night, but this game is meant to be played dark, and the darker the better. We wait until there will be no moon at all, and that’s when we go.
The best mousing seems to be for the first two hours after dark. Then there is a lull and it seems to pick up again from 2 a.m. until 4 a.m.
We use short, three-to-four foot leaders, with 15-20 pound test mono. With total darkness and big browns hot for chow there isn’t much finesse in all this.
You need to stay focused. Every single cast at night has the potential to be the one that brings an attacking gorilla.
The thing about mouse fishing is that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or even an accomplished caster to be successful. What it requires is a certain degree of stealth, the ability to listen, and some way to hardwire your striking reflex to the sound and to some connection to your fly. You have to discard imagination and seat yourself firmly in reality, given that wandering in rivers in total darkness probably is not exactly a good representation of reality. Or good judgment. But hey, we’re fishermen, safety is relative and if you don’t take some risks you don’t catch fish. 100 percent of the casts you don’t make, don’t catch fish. To work a mouse, you need to leave your house.
There are probably lots of techniques, but I know only two and have caught fish with both.
In either method, you want to get the fly as close to the bank as you can, and you want it to slap the water with an audible splat.
The first technique involves using a Garside Gurgler. (Or a soft Tex Mouse) You slap the fly out close to the bank at 90 degrees, and start stripping slowly, in 18-inch strips. Most casts won’t be more than 20 feet, and sometimes they will be less than a dozen feet from the bank. With the Gurgler, you are stripping upstream. Not to worry. If the trout strikes and you don’t feel it, keep casting. The fish will keep attacking until it takes the fly, or decides it’s not worth the pain. Remember, rodents do not swim like torpedoes in the water, so slow stripping is essential.
The second technique features the use of a Houghton Lake Blaster (or Houghton Lake Special) or even a heavily greased zoo cougar (color not an issue, though black is probably best for silhouette purposes). Here you make the same cast, only the fly will be swept downstream and you simply hold the rod tip high to make the fly wake and count to 7 or 8 as the fly goes to the bottom of the pull-drift. If casting right handed to the right bank, you sweep your arm and rod across to the left and up above your left shoulder. If casting right handed to the left bank, rod tip up an sweep from your left shoulder to up above you right shoulder. As with the other technique, strike on sound or feel. I’ve also found that sometimes you can actually delay the strike, lift the rod tip slightly (if you have all the slack out) and feel the fish before you cross it’s eyes. I’ve heard that some guides in Alaska believe Rainbow trout attack mice tail first and that’s the first tug you feel, and the second bump is the full-body-take. I don’t know what the real facts are, but I know that sometimes if you resist the heavy strike-right-away, you can still hook the fish.
Kelly Galloup once told me that big browns head-butt bait fish to stun them, and then turn leisurely to pick off the floating victim, thus if you can delay your strike and let the brown make the full-body pickup, you can slam him with great vigor. I’m simply not wired for such patience. Kelly’s assertion came from snorkeling and observing fish over a long periods. There might have been mescaline in that water. I can’t say.
If one believes the fish hit the rodent tail first, then fishing with a fly that has no tail means no delayed strike on your part. Duh.
The thing about this sort of fishing is that you need to be comfortable in total darkness. If you’re not, stay home.
If you’re the kind of person who imagines all sorts of creatures closing in when you are in darkness, don’t even bother going out.
The big bugaboos in this thing are that strikes are so few and far between, thus, you may find it hard to pull the trigger when you’re moment arrives. Not to worry. You will usually get more than one chance as you move from hole to hole. Sometimes a nice gravel flat near a hole and cover is also good in the darkness, but you need to scout all this before you start trying to night-fish the water. Don’t fish 6-inch skinny water or fast riffles.
Most strikes come early in the fly’s drift, but some will not happen until right at the end. Brown trout know a mouse in water is an easy target and apparently they sometimes observe before indulging. I used to do the same thing in bars when I was young and looking for whachamacallit in all the wrong places. I’m too damn old for whatchamacallit nowadays.
Rules of the road. Do NOT wade at night where you have not waded in the daylight. Know the limits of your area and abide by them.
Check your fly and leader after every strike or fish caught and released.
Slack line is your enemy. Keep it tight at all times.
If you’re in a boat, somebody can get out and hold the boat and ease it down the river, and by easing, I mean very very slowly — so you can smack every inch of the target bank.
Because this sort of fishing takes place in summer when river temps are warmer, get the fish in, and released as quickly as possible.
What precisely are the fish eating? I’m not sure: Rodents. Hell how many different ones can YOU identify? I have been told with great authority of a certain water vole that has a territory on two sides of the river and swims back and forth all night from bank to bank, and these being (allegedly) the chosen night-meals of brown trout. From an evolutionary standpoint this behavior seems suspect, but I’m a simple writer, and clearly not a scientist. Some fishermen also talk about plain old mice, moles, lemmings and even rats. But I’m not sure what’s in our waters other than generic rodents and the fish seem to eat these with laudable gusto.
Funny thing : I’ve never caught a brown trout at night on a fly designed to look like a realistic mouse – you know, little eyes and little ears etc. I think all those design elements are to catch anglers, not the fish. The things I look don’t look like anything in the light and apparently only look like rodents in the deep night.
Oh yeah, one more caveat. It’s not probable, but it’s possible you could bump into bears, bobcats, moose, or wolves at night. Not to worry. Just keep fishing. Even if the worst possible scenario unfolds, continued focus on your casting will keep you happily and productively engaged until you die.
Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.