Standing on my rock about 150 feet from shore, I’ve put the terrestrial world behind me. It’s chilly, and the gentle, onshore breeze finds its way through the seams of my wetsuit—the same places water intruded during the deep wade to get here. Luckily, casting keeps me warm. My fly line zips by my right shoulder as I bomb a 7-inch lure toward the horizon. The thick, floating line slaps hard against my reel, and I drop the tip to let everything settle on the surface. I tuck the rod up under my arm and strip a couple handfuls of line back into the basket. Then, I slowly draw line back to keep tension as I stay connected to my fly sliding along just below the surface in a right-to-left drift. I’m careful to keep both hands on the line with a tight grip. When the hit comes, it’ll be savage, and I’ve had too many fish escape due to the line slipping through my fingers.
The hit does come, right about in the stage of the drift where the fly is reaching maximum depth. It’s a shock wave that emanates through the rod, down my arms, and almost rattles my teeth. I haul back hard with my left arm in a savage strip-set, exhaling heavily with anticipation. The line rips through the surface tension in an audible whoosh, but nothing happens—it’s like I’m tied to the bottom. I quickly un-tuck my rod and pull back on the cork, bending the heavy rod into a beautiful U-shape and silhouetted against a meager quarter moon. I feel the fish rise to the surface under the strain. Frozen in anticipation of what is coming, I hear a lone tail slap and the rod starts bouncing as slippery line slides through my fingers, and the fish dives deep. It takes just a couple seconds before I’m “on the reel,” and the knob catches me in the knuckle sharply as drag starts to peel.
I fight her the way I always do: tip low, butt to gut, letting the meat of the rod do the work. My hand is ready to palm as I go light on the drag, and I take my time with the retrieve. The fish takes a little more line, but most of her fight is now just sulking at the edge of a drop-off, bull-dogged and stubborn. I finally turn her nose, and it doesn’t take long until I’m winching her up. She’s close enough that I can see her in the murky night.
Next comes the tricky part. Getting her close to the rock requires a high rod angle, and this is where tips are broken. I would know; I’ve broken at least 10. It’s a tense few moments as I get hold of the line, only to have her take a last, desperate run and yank it away. She goes around the backside of a rock and I’m like the center column of a merry-go-round. We go around twice before I’m able to grab the line again, drop to my knee, and slide my fingers along the leader, all the way to her lip. Her eye looks bright, and I am wary of another plunge for the depths, but it does not come. I grip the fish with my full strength, tuck the rod once again under my arm, and lift her out with both arms.
To revive the fish, I drop into the water, and we bob alongside the rock. She’s not huge, but she’s gorgeous. As I tip her, tail in hand, she’s all symmetrical lines, stark black-and-white contrasts hazed over with purples and blues, and a wild, livid red gill-rake pulsing with life. I borrow her, just for a moment, and bask in her wild alienness, before letting go and returning her to the sea. As I gently kick my feet to stay still, I watch the fish melt back into the barnacles and kelp from which she came.
Fly Fishing the Nighttime Surf
I love fly fishing the surf at night. In the dark, my senses don’t extend as far, and so the world feels smaller, more intimate. Using a fly rod syncs perfectly with this feeling and shrinks my world to a 100-foot radius from the tip of my fly rod. This means the fish I’m catching are often right in front of me. They’re not out there … they’re right here. I’m much more part of their environment, especially if I deep wade or use a wetsuit to get out to boulders or sandbars. This is further intensified by the connection I feel while holding onto the fly line as a fish hits and then streaks off for deeper water. It’s a lot like putting a lasso around its head and holding onto the rope—a lot more connected than with a spinning rod.
Though I have fly fished sporadically off and on my whole life, I was deep into the world of surfcasting with plugs before I ever considered taking a fly rod out into the salt. That has really flavored the way I approach fly fishing for stripers. To put it into a single sentence, I try to mimic what I do using my 10-foot surf rod and Lunker City Slug-Gos (or needlefish, pencil poppers, etc.) with my 10-weight fly rod and Hollow Fleyes (or jig flies, deer-hair deceivers). One critical component in this has been fishing only at night. This is really important for catching larger fish with the plugging rod, but I actually think it’s even more important for catching larger fish on the fly rod. A fly rod has such a diminished casting distance that I’m relying on the fish to be really close to shore, and this happens far more often at night.
Fly fishing at night is tricky. You’re going to get more tangles, struggle with casting distance, and feel less connected to your fly. My advice is to accept that it’s going to be worse than during the day, learn to embrace it, and you’ll get over it more quickly. It will all be worth it when you see your catch rates—and sizes—start to go up.
There are a few things that make fly-fishing at night easier. First, like anything else, practice makes perfect. You can’t get better at fishing at night if you don’t force yourself to do it. I know a lot of anglers are tempted to fish sunset and into the dark, and then leave a few minutes after a half-hearted attempt in the dusk. Don’t do this!
Hold off starting to fish until it’s totally dark because you’ll be forced to embrace it. Don’t be afraid to struggle at first—I certainly did. When I started, I carried both a surf rod, plug bag, fly rod, stripping basket, and all my flies. It usually meant carrying a giant backpack and exhausting trips to and from the buggy, but it helped me with my confidence. I could confirm fish were in the area with my lures, then switch to the fly rod and perfect my craft.
Something else that has really helped me is becoming a better caster during daylight. I am no slouch when it comes to casting, though I’m not the most accurate and I’m not too good at mending line, but I can double-haul a 100-foot cast easily. However, if you put me in water up to my waist with a 10-knot wind in my face in the middle of the night and ask me to cast an 8-inch fly 75 feet, I’m probably going to struggle. Real-world casting conditions in the surf can be brutal, so getting your timing and rhythm at night is even tougher. I’ve heard very skilled—and very honest—anglers admit that they rarely (if ever) cast more than 60 feet in any surf situation. Therefore, I can’t stress strongly enough how important becoming a good caster can be. While you may not need to cast 100-plus feet every night, having the ability is never a bad thing. Learn to double-haul efficiently, if you haven’t already, and strive to shoot backing while standing on flat ground.
I also think it’s important to learn how your flies and line behave in as many different situations as you can during daylight. I have tried to foster a deeply engrained sense of intuition when it comes to my flies; that is, if I look at a spot (e.g., a current seam, drop-off, boulder field), I can predict exactly what my fly is going to do without being able to visibly see it and often without even really feeling any tension. Put another way, if I input some kind of tug, strip, or slack, I can picture in my mind exactly what the fly is doing without seeing or feeling it. Also, since I can’t see my line on most nights, I have to use other senses to tell me what it’s doing (well, that’s the goal). it’s an ongoing process when I am carrying 50 different flies, meaning tactile senses can really help. Knowing how much tension or slack on the line makes a fly act in a certain way, again, without seeing it, helps you get the fly where it needs to go with the right kind of action and presentation. You can practice all this in a river or pond, too—you don’t need to go to the ocean to do it.
Micro-clips are a great tool for those just starting out fishing at night. I guess many closed-minded fly anglers won’t consider them, but that’s a shame. Having a little clip to attach flies to the leader makes things so much easier at night. You don’t have to worry about tying knots or trying to figure out how short your leader has become. Clips promote making changes, helping dial in your presentation and build confidence in what you’re doing, both of which are particularly important for being productive during the night tides.
Where to Begin
It’s best to start out fishing smaller, quieter spots when you first wander out into the dark. I strongly recommend estuaries and outflow mouths. They often don’t require long casts, but can have very reliable action. This means you can focus on fishing and not wonder if you’re getting out far enough or if there are fish around. The last part is particularly important. Even if the fish are small, having the feedback of getting hits means you’re doing something right. If you’re not catching, you might wonder if you’re doing something wrong or if there are no fish around, and you’ll quickly lose confidence.
Plus, you can hone your skills for “big waters” in these smaller places. This is why, despite what some others might suggest, I think it’s best to avoid open sand beaches and even jetties. Despite fish often being close to shore, fish are typically on the move, so it’s hard to know if you’re not being effective in your presentation, the fish are out of reach, or they’re just somewhere else.
If you’re looking to progress from this point and use the night tides to catch larger fish, you should be fishing the same kind of structure and spots that a surfcaster with lures would be fishing, but with some obvious caveats. You’re never going to cast as far as a surfcaster, so focusing on spots where fish come to shore is important. This typically means shoreline adjacent to deeper water, but not always. I actually like areas with a lot of structure tight to the beach. These places often have big bait, and when conditions line up exactly right, nice-sized stripers will charge right up to your toes in the suds. Many fly-rodders look for small bait because it’s easy to pattern with typical flies that are easier to cast. However, I think that’s the wrong attitude. Instead, searching for places where larger fish hunt for large baits close to shore has been the key to a lot of my success. Baits like porgy, sea bass, lobsters, large squid, and jumbo eels are all-important to a few of my best fly-rod spots.
I like places where I have some kind of current moving parallel to shore. This allows me to cast out, and instead of stripping it back, I just let the fly drift and slide it into the strike zone. This often results in my fly being in the water for much longer periods, and as a consequence, there’s more time for fish to find it and fewer casts to wear me out. Again, this makes estuaries and outflows fantastic places to start out at night. Since you’re always (well, almost always) going to be blind-casting, the fewer casts you have to make the better. Constantly casting every minute or so and then immediately stripping it right back, can get exhausting fast. Letting the current, and the drift, do a lot of the work for you can increase the number of hours you can fish, and this inevitably will lead to more fish caught.
I’m not going to rattle off a list of gear to use at night because really there’s nothing specific you need. You may want to pick up a few black flies, but I typically fish lighter colors because that’s what works for me. However, your chances of hooking a slot-size fish or larger is much higher at night.
Also, casting can be a little trickier. I’ve suggested fishing around places with larger baits, and that means using larger flies. To overcome all three of these things (the size of the fish, the difficulty of casting, and the size of the flies), I fish 10- and 11-weight fly rods matched to 450- and 500-grain lines, and even use a 12-weight when conditions call for it. While some angers might balk at this tarpon- and tuna-grade gear, I think it’s been invaluable in increasing my casting distance and fish-fighting power.
The difference between a fast-action, rugged 10-weight and a moderate-action 8-weight can be nearly twice as much distance—especially when you’re casting any fly over 6 inches. While the fight might be less exciting if I’m catching 20-inch fish, when I go out at night, If I’m going to work hard and make the sacrifices the night tides demand, I am thinking slot-fish and up. You should, too.
Finally, if you haven’t tried fishing in a wetsuit, I don’t know what you’re waiting for. While surfcasters have adopted them with enthusiasm, fly fishermen have been pretty resistant and it doesn’t make any sense! While an extra 30 or 50 feet might make almost no difference in catch rates for a plug fisherman, for a fly-rodder, it can be the difference between no fish all season and fish every cast. Frankly, I consider it one of my most important nighttime fly-fishing tools. If I had to choose between waders or a wetsuit for the rest of my life, I would choose the wetsuit. The thing is, you don’t ever have to swim—wear a wetsuit to get to deeper water that might be a little sketchy in waders (for lack of a better word). It’s been a game-changer for me, and I cannot imagine my angling life without it.