Night Fishing with Lures – “Old School” – Fewer and fewer anglers lip-hook a live bully and flop its fat torpedo shape out into the current.
By Paul Corliss
Methods of fly fishing change and evolve constantly, yet often turn full circle. Where once a team of small wet ﬂies ruled supreme the Halford dry fly men bullied them slowly away into the shadows. With a degree more subtlety and common sense the Skues sunken nymph exponents carved out a large niche and to varying degrees, there has been interwoven the spinner and the feather, hair or fur lure. Of them, the spinner seems the most constant. Never gaining ascendancy over the current fancy, just quietly plodding along doing the job, generation after generation. The colour and shape may change, the principle is reasonably constant. Here is night fishing with lures (streamers).
However, it is the lure I want to talk about and its context in the South Island fishing scene. The North Island and the standard deep sunken Rotorua/Taupo lures are recorded ad nauseam in New Zealand angling literature. While the new generation of nymph and dry fly artisans abound in the south among them are many who have not fully experienced the lure style of ﬁshing, nor the depth of loyalty towards it. While the references I make are generally related to Canterbury I am sure there is application throughout the south, to one degree or another.
Night Fishing with Lures
The legions of anglers who plied their lures at dusk and dark night are still operating throughout the province. Lure fishers are generally more dedicated to that form and carry on a long and proud local tradition. Many ﬁsh no other way or if so, only on occasions. They seek each other’s company at the creek mouths and have a smoke or pipe with their chat between runs. They slide repetitive cast after cast of sinking line into the night, and sometimes the day, and swing their big chunky lures across the current before stripping or palming the line back in fitful jerks. The imitation of smelt, cucumber fish (silveries), bullies and whitebait is the art, perseverance is the virtue.
The names change as northern imports and foreign fancies intrude but the old favourites retain their loyal followers: the Hope’s Silvery and Hope’s Dark, Mrs Simpson, Grey Ghost, Craig’s Nightime, Red Shadow, a range of rabbit and possum lures and some even still tie the Hart’s Creek lure and the Brunton series of flies from the 1950s. Different body colours and sizes from 8 to 2 allow for variety within the proven range. Fewer and fewer anglers lip-hook a live bully and flop its fat torpedo shape out into the current.
The majority of the lure fishing in Canterbury is done at the stream mouths that flow into Lake Ellesmere (Waihora), though Little River flows into Lake Forsyth, the Rakaia and Waimakariri Rivers have their own enthusiasts.
High country lake fishing with lures is common but not usually an exclusive ﬂy method. The mouths of Lake Ellesmere rivers are the traditional mecca for exponents of the lure at night and the most famous of all is, of course, the Selwyn River. A lot of anglers fish this river and the adjacent L2 exclusively, particularly if their hut is located nearby. Hart’s Creek has gained a deserved reputation for huge fish in recent years and the Halswell River has its followers. My personal preference though is the Irwell River, a stalker’s delight by day with dry or nymph and, if you strike it right, a real charmer on the lure after dark. An excellent spot for Night Fishing with Lures.
I started out fishing this small river mouth with two big lures on a sunken ﬂyline in the season of 1979. Opening night was terrifying. I had not quite got the hang of casting, it was pitch black, my two sodden and heavy lures felt like lead spikes and there were twenty others flailing and swishing all around me. Not surprisingly l was singularly unimpressed and unsuccessful but I persevered.
Believe me, it gets better. The crowds thin after the initial euphoria of opening week, confidence and a measure of skill are acquired and the ﬁshing improves, particularly later in October and November. Restricting yourself to a single lure, which can be changed if not delivering the goods, reduces the tangles and frustrations that can occur at night and does not majorly reduce your chances. Lake levels play a big part and the opening of the lake can be the signal for whitebait runs and their harrying packs of sea-run browns. It is a prime time for night fishing with lures.
I regularly fished the mouth on my own when a shift-worker and was able to experiment with the best times. It is a comfortable cast wide and pushes a short channel into the shallow lake. While the early evenings through to about 11 p.m. is the most popular I found that often the better runs were anywhere between midnight and 5 a.m. These could occasionally extend through until the blush of dawn rose above the silhouette of Banks Peninsula and casting to sighted swirls became possible. Most of these times you have the place to yourself through the presence of a huge range of wildlife can provide a company of sorts. A slight nor’easter or an impending southerly are conditions that regularly produced action though too strong a wind from any quarter makes it hard work.
Alone in the pitch black can take a bit of getting used to. All around are the sucking slurps of feeding eels, the gusts of wind playing and rustling through the scrub and willows and most chilling, the screams of juvenile heron shattering the night calm from their high nests among the old-man pine. The ink-black of the night can weigh heavy but away across the lake you can see the twinkling dots of farmhouse lights on the Peninsula and occasionally be privileged to experience the awesome sight of skies lit brightly by flashes of lightning as a nor’west storm rumbles and brews over the Alps.
Eels abound in the rivers and lake and can be an absolute pain when you expertly strike a good one. The line becomes beslimed, the lure next to useless and you are out of action while you huddle over your small torch and set up again with numbed fingers. The shock of a dripping rat running fearlessly over your waders after you have disturbed it nibbling on your fine trout lying on the bank can be a little unnerving.
I recall a night when, with my brother Ken, we were attracted by the splash and swirl in a small bay next to the mouth. From memory it was late spring, the lake was high and the night reasonably warm as we waded over to investigate. Expecting a massing of feeding eels in the muddied waters we were amazed to stumble into the middle of flooded reeds and see an unexpected riot of colour in the torchlight. Oblivious to our presence were some twenty to thirty fat goldﬁsh!
Presumably, they were spawning in the high waters and we estimated their weight between a pound and a pound and a half. While McDowall’s “N.Z. Guide to Freshwater Fishes” indicates the wild populations to be predominantly bronze/gold in colour, several of these goldfish were clearly bright orange, orange and pearly white or black and white, as found in the ornamental domestic breed.
Their bizarre appearance reminds me of a delightful excerpt from that classic in angling literature “A Summer On The Test” by. W. Hills. He is talking of the occasional huge goldfish found in the wild in England and how they originate by being washed from ornamental fountains and ponds by swollen rivers. The majority are eaten by pike but some become “six pounds of flaming orange fire and the most heathen thing that ever swam in a Christian river.”
If some of the foregoing make the experience of night ﬁshing with lures unattractive then that is not what is intended. The night is alive and vibrant; whether in company or alone you will not want for pleasure or incident. It is certainly a different experience from the more popular daylight trips upriver with nymph and dry, but an important side of flyfishing that brings its own joys and sensations.
The action can often be so fast and exciting that you only notice your surroundings as you pause for a coffee and a dram. The trout can arrive to feed then mysteriously ghost away for another hour or they can be there, ravenous, all night. I count the numbers of coils as I retrieve them (this soon becomes second nature) and then know when and where to expect a hit if I have had a hidden tug and have not been able to connect. The browns are generally fat and in top condition. A four-pounder is common and, as indicated earlier, places like Hart’s Creek can produce double-figure fish more regularly than many would suspect. If you click the map above and zoom in you will be able to read the names of the inflowing streams.
This style of fishing does produce well and the reason for its success is that the trout are gorging on the small ﬁsh that congregate around the cold water of the river mouths. The reason for your high chance of success is simply that you are fishing exactly the right lure in imitation of the preferred food at exactly the right time. Once landed the flapping silver sea-run brown trout will often disgorge whole bullies, their stomachs similarly packed like the proverbial sardine tin.
Looking back through my diary I see regular catches at the Irwell mouth of six or more trout at a time. The average is about three pounds; the biggest l have landed is 9 and a half pounds. The potential fruits of this method of fishing are most dramatically highlighted by the accompanying photograph. One of my fishing mates, Keith Loader, the master exponent of a big cast and dry humour, holds aloft his fourteen pound three ounce brown. Keith took this deep speckled beauty on a size 4 Hope’s Dark lure about a mile up from the Selwyn River mouth. Taking trophy trout of this size by any method is commendable and lure ﬁshing can certainly provide that opportunity.
Details for accessing the different mouths and lower reaches in Canterbury can be best obtained from that excellent little publication Fishing Access,” a guide produced and available from the North Canterbury Fish and Game Council. I am sure other fish and game regions will supply advice for their area. Pick your weather and conditions right and enhance your chances of success, the new season is upon us. If you are not from “the old school” and have not tried it yet I recommend you give night fishing with lures a go, you will not be disappointed.