What's the Magic Hour for Trout Fishing?
April 23, 2018
If you only have a short time to go trout fishing, the last hour of daylight might be your best bet. Here's why.
After a hasty dinner of warmed-up beef stew, I leave my wife and kids swatting mosquitoes around the campfire. A fruitless afternoon has been spent casting to skittish trout within shouting distance and I need to catch a fish if only to know that I can.
The evening air is still except for a distant yip of a coyote. Barely enough light remains to make out a well-worn trail that twists and turns through shoulder-high growth. Securing a place to cast between overhanging willows, I am startled when an eager trout rushes from the opposite shore to torpedo a practice cast. Three more trout are hooked and landed before I snap my fly off on a tree during a frantic backcast.
Undeterred, I tie on a new pattern and land the largest trout of the evening, a splendid hook-nosed male, and stumble back to camp guided by the light of a quarter moon. The pleasant smell of fish is on my hands.
What is it about the last hour of the day that turns complacent trout on? That special time when wind lessens, light dims, birdcalls turn to twitter, and fish become more active. It's as if nature expends a final burst of energy before settling down for the night.
One key factor in an end-of-the-day spike in trout feeding activity is the abundance of aquatic insects. Tracking their seasonal development and hatch time is one step toward capitalizing on the evening bite. Equally important is knowing which factors motivate trout to come out of hiding.
The daily rhythm of activity for each life stage of aquatic insects is predictable. The adult life stage flies over the water's surface and touches down briefly to deposit eggs. This behavior makes the adults vulnerable to feeding trout, as are spent adults that fall to the water after the task of egg-laying.
While adult insects are most visible to anglers, trout are equally interested in larvae and nymphs. Scientific studies show that bottom-dwelling larvae and pupae get suspended in the water column and are carried downstream in the current immediately following sundown.
Adult caddisflies and midge flies emerge through the water column throughout the day with transformation from the pupae stage often peaking during the evening. Mature stonefly and mayfly nymphs crawl out of the water to emerge as adults, a behavior that follows general migration to calmer waters on the stream margin. Acceleration in these in-water activities in late afternoon and evening will trigger trout feeding.
Hoping to attract egg-bearing females, adult male insects gather in mating swarms next to the shore. These swarms typically occur near streamside foliage and areas sheltered from the wind. When mating swarms congregate on the surface of the water in late afternoon and dusk, hungry trout are attracted.
Don't let multiple insect hatches, a common occurrence in many lakes and streams, confuse your angling approach. One evening I cast to a current seam in an iconic river where large trout rose, one after another, feeding on what I assumed were stonefly adults. I'd seen a few trout taking them, but my hand-tied version of the same appearance failed to attract.
Careful observation revealed that trout were not keying on large, high-calorie stoneflies, but rather on more abundant caddisflies blown into the water from overhanging alders.
On another occasion, I arrived at a small lake to observe trout crashing into bulrushes that lined the shallows. The water surface appeared littered with spent spinners. However, try as I might, trout refused to take a Pale Evening Sparkle Dun offered dry on slow retrieve. After close observation, their preferred insect prey turned out to be actively mating damselflies.
Severe weather, such as a cold front, may cool surface water temperatures, slow pupae activity, send adult insects into hiding, and quash the evening bite. Then again, hot muggy days followed by an early evening cool-down period often results in a feeding frenzy.
TROUT MUST EAT
Quiet-water trout are constantly searching for something to eat. Stream trout have it easier. They hold station waiting for food to be delivered to them.
In both scenarios, trout spend the majority of their time near the bottom looking up. Insects and other prey located high in the water column or floating at the surface appear conspicuous to them when silhouetted against the evening sky. During that brief period of low light, fly patterns having defined silhouettes and contrast are more likely to induce a take than are those constructed of metallic or reflective materials. Imparting motion to your fly may also get the trout's attention.
One downside to surface feeding is exposure to predators. The need for trout to remain close to cover is one reason angling is more challenging in the middle of the day. Trout feel more secure when evening shadows form to provide cover. They come out of hiding and lose their inhibitions.
At twilight, trout line up in places that appear vacant at high noon. They are not leader shy, less likely to spook when a cohort is hooked, and generally not bashful about what pattern you toss their direction. The same fish that spooked on a 3X tippet in the middle of the day might smack the same offering at the last vestige of light.
When evening sun slips behind the hill and splashy rises turn to sips, trout have switched from feeding on flying insects to forms residing below the surface. A pupae pattern suspended under a strike indicator or retrieved wet on a slow mend can deliver your fly at a desired depth.
Montana Trout Hookset
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Casting a bushy dry fly with a trailing nymph pattern also allows you to maintain a constant depth along a chosen drift line. In any case, the dry fly should imitate an insect appropriate for the season.
Master angler Dave Hughes suspends a wet fly or pupae pattern off the stem of the dry fly, on about 18 inches of tippet when trout are taking both the adult and emerging pupae form of the same insect. This setup gives feeding trout a choice and allows the angler to figure out which version the fish prefer.
Evening feeding frenzies aren't limited to those stimulated by a specific insect hatch. The last hour of the day provides one last opportunity for trout to load up at the buffet table before the eatery closes for the night. Consequently, matching the hatch is not always necessary. Trout are predators. They eat whatever food is available and are often attracted to something different, particularly if the offering is large and resembles a favorite food such as minnows.
Gear anglers might try crankbaits or spinners as an option for fooling evening trout. Tiger-stripe, two-tone, chartreuse and other color combinations having contrast work well under conditions of low light. Vary depth of presentation and impart action with quick retrieves.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
The sound of plates clanging mixed with that of boat hulls scraping across the gravel launch. Flickering campfires suggested that other campers had settled down for the night. What got my attention, however, were rising trout.
I tried the usual patterns and picked up two small fish. Then I saw the splash of a large trout feeding at the edge of the cattails. When I cast to it, it sucked down my fly and jumped twice before diving into the weeds. Eager to put something on my stringer, I waded in past my waist, worked the fish loose and tossed it onto the bank. The water felt unseasonably warm so I continued to cast, feeling my way along the edge of the cattails, hooking trout after trout.
Then, just like that, the action quit. The sound of slurping trout was replaced by the sound of frogs calling. I backtracked along the trail and found my catch covered in dirt and pine needles. Rinsed in lake water and gutted, the trout would be fried and served with bacon and eggs for breakfast.
Admittedly, I've heard stories about anglers who use headlamps with a red filter to stretch the magic hour where night-fishing is legal. Clear skies and favorable lunar events can also lead to fishing later than what you promised. This leads to one last example, about a time when a full moon rose bright over a small lake.
Several aggressive takes led to long searing runs with big-shouldered trout taking my fly line down to the backing. Who could quit given all that action? I had promised to be home by dark, but forgot to factor in the time it took to paddle back to the launch area, hike to my truck, and make the drive home. Luckily, I arrived in time to quash my wife's rescue call to the county sheriff.
If there is a take-home message, it's to eat dinner early and save those dirty dishes until after dark. Twilight is when trout abandon their senses and twilight is when you should elevate your fishing game.
Some fishing is good enough to get into trouble over.
Editor's Note: Dennis Dauble is author of the natural history guidebook "Fishes of the Columbia Basin" and short-story collections: "The Barbless Hook" and "One More Last Cast." Learn more at DennisDaubleBooks.com.
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