"Are you guys camping here tonight?" The man asked Phil through the open window of his battle worn 4Runner as he backed the boat through a campsite to a somewhat makeshift river access. The man and his teenage son were putting up a tent by the headlights of a pickup truck.
"No. We're going fishing." Phil said as he checked his mirrors dodging the birch trees.
"Really? It's dark already."
"That's when we go..."
I chuckled at this exchange as Phil Croff of Croff Craft can come across a some sort of mad man, especially when we're dropping a boat into a tiny northern Michigan river after dark. I fumbled with putting a fly rod and reel together under the light of my iPhone, cracked open a beer, and sat down on the riverbank. The woods were quiet and I could hear Phil driving away to park his rig downstream at the takeout. He caught a ride back with his wife and we pushed off into the dark like he's done hundreds of times before.
Rewinding several hours back on this Friday in late June, I had traveled from my parent's house, stopped in to see the folks at Scientific Anglers, and then headed north to Traverse City to hit the tail end of an early evening shindig at The Northern Angler with Skwala. Everyone there was planning a night out to look for the "Hex" but I had other plans. I gave Phil a call and he said that he was putting some burgers on the grill and to come out to the house. Amy was there and, of course, the pups. It takes forever for it to get dark that time of year in northern Michigan and I figured that we still had a couple of hours to kill before we'd start our mouse float.
We had dinner in the backyard, walked through the house that was in various stages of completion as he's been juggling several cedar boat builds with all night guiding sessions through the summer. We spent some time in the shop seeing his latest innovations in cedar strip boat building. It was just starting to get dark so we jumped in the 4Runner, stopped at the nearby party shop for snacks, a sixer, and ice for the cooler. Windows down, we headed down dirt roads to the river with the boat in tow.
There is just something about a night float with Phil. He has every turn, downed tree, and sweeper memorized of a handful of northern Michigan rivers and the red lights in these photographs are about the only time any lights go on at all. He methodically picks his way downstream in the dark, which years ago when I started fishing with him would weird me out, but not anymore.
As soon as we slid down from the camp, lightning bugs appeared all around us blinking quick cool white lights in a very fast short sequence without any rhythm. The moon was up and the forest was quiet beyond the sound of the river. Phil tied a foam mouse pattern on my leader and charged the glow fly line with a headlamp. I began careful and deliberate roll casts as we slowly crept down the river. The mouse swinging across the current was met with interest as we quickly caught and released several small to medium sized brown trout. It was quite a way to start the float but we were hoping for a larger trout before the night was over.
Fly fishing in the dark causes rods to take over for cones in the eyes to create a picture in your brain of what you are constantly trying to see. On this night, the waves of flashing lights from the lightening bugs created a sort of weird psychedelic experience without the drugs. My depth perception was affected the most and distances are wildly deceiving. Typically things are much closer than I first thought and it's interesting how the brain pieces together what it's trying to help you see.
Around midnight, we lost the moon and the lightning bugs were went to sleep. The woods did too. Not a flash or sound could be heard aside from Phil and I bantering. The trout had stopped rising as well aside from the unexpected rise to the mouse fly every now and then. We wrote those off as small fish that couldn't fit the mouse in their mouth. Everything had gone more or less dead.
Fly fishing in the dark is unpredictable. There are moon phases and pressure changes which are thought to have something to do with how active the fish may be but really no two nights are the same. For several hours not much happened and we continued floating downstream. We still had several hours to go and Phil figured that we might prick a trout or two before we ended the float.
Around 3:00 a.m. there was some sort of unexpected shift that happened and the lightning bugs started flashing in the woods around us again but not to the same accelerated speed in their light cadence like before. It was something though and soon after we had a rise to the mouse, and then another. Weird. Things are turning back on. Some cycle had shifted. Then, as it neared 4:00 a.m., there was a loud splashy rise and my 6-weight doubled under the weight of a larger trout. This was the one we had been looking for all night and a few minutes later, Phil slid the net under a 22-inch brown trout. There were whoops and high fives as we got out of the boat knelling on the shallow sandbar, took a few photographs, and then watched as this mouse eater slowly swam away into the dark. What a way to end the night.
Visit the Croff Craft website and be sure to follow along on Instagram which is a mix of nighttime brown trout, cedar strip boats, and running bird dogs. If you think you'll be in northern Michigan anytime soon, book a night with Phil. You won't regret it and just might catch the largest brown trout of your life on a stream so small that you wouldn't think it could live in there.
You can find a treasure trove of past T.F.M. posts of boat builds and fly fishing by searching "Croff" in the search bar in the lower right side of the page. There are some good stories there.