Statistics show that the average sea trouter catches one fish every eight outings. Pat O’Reilly shows how to boost this average.

Most people who try to catch sea trout fail year after year. Now I know there’s more to fishing than catching fish, but when you go fishing for sea trout in the dark maybe there’s not so much of the ‘more’. The odds are against us, of course. According to catch return and licence sales data, the average angler in England and Wales catches just two sea trout per year during about 16 fishing sessions. That’s eight nights per fish. And if you don’t find that statistic disheartening, try this one: the so-called annual average is dominated by a few dozen well-above-average anglers who regularly catch eight fish per night and sometimes a lot more than that.

All this suggests that success depends on more than merely being in the right place at the right time. And indeed, talking with sea trout supremos whose catch records speak (and run to) volumes, it is clear that there is a lot more we can do to increase our chances. Making a sound strategic plan helps, they say, and then using the right tactics for the particular time of year, weather, river conditions and location can turn any ordinary angler into an extraordinarily successful sea trout fisher.

First, strategy – the things we can get right before setting out (answers to the questions what?, when? and where?) – and then tactics (answers to the question how?). Getting the kit right must help, so what do the experts expect of their sea trout tackle? It has to cast well and to fish well, and it should not scare timid fish that are all too easily spooked. Let’s deal with line colour first. Fluorescent yellow and sunset orange show up brilliantly in the dim light of evening, but they become hopelessly invisible in near total darkness. Pure white lines are certainly the most visible at night. Cortland, Michael Evans, and Orvis all supply floaters that are available in white. Seeing the end of your fly line land on the surface three feet from where you intended is a great help if you want your next cast to come that crucial bit closer to the target. (And in any case, it’s nice to know which tree is stealing all your flies.) In time, night fishers can become quite good at judging distance purely by feel, and then perhaps line colour becomes less of an issue.

On the level?
Some sea trout fishers use a simple leader comprising nine feet of level nylon attached to the fly line by means of a braided loop. They are unlikely to become members of the well-above-average club. Having been fishing for several hours without a take and then to have the rod almost snatched out of your hand by big sea trout lunging at the wake of the braided loop skating across the surface is awfully bad for the morale. When using a floating line, a needle knot leader attachment is so much better. And level nylon? No thank you. Even when casting big flies, the presentation is so much better (and casting beneath a tree canopy less error prone) when the line delivers power through three feet of a needle-knotted 35lb butt section stepped via 2 feet of, say, 20lb nylon before the 10lb tippet.

Soft option
The second requirement of an outfit is that it should enable us to fish well. In particular, when a sea trout takes the fly we need to be able to set the hook and to play the fish without putting excessive strain on the leader or the hook hold. I have left the rod, and therefore the line rating, until last, because the answer to the question ‘When?’ also has a bearing on this. Fishing for small whitling (one sea-winter sea trout) on shallow shaded streams by day demands small flies and light leaders, and a #6 fast-action rod (great for casting tight loops beneath low-hanging branches) is ideal. Such a set-up would not be much use for casting heavy tube flies, however – especially if you need to use continuous-motion casts (Spey cast or snake roll, for example) and a sinking line. A middle-to-tip action #7 or #8 rod is more suitable for late-night deep-water fishing, and the slightly softer rod also acts as a shock absorber when a big sea trout decides to grab your fly and tail walk across the river.

The rest of the preparation is straightforward: life preserver, protective glasses, torch, wading staff and pre-nightfall recce are the main safety essentials; and then you will need spare nylon and flies in their rightful fishing vest pockets.

Now for the hard bit: the tactics of sea trout fishing. Rivers are not all the same; one day or night can be very different from another; and sea trout don’t always obey the rules – that’s just another way of saying that we still have a lot to learn about the factors that affect sea trout behaviour.

FF&FT is a magazine and website at the forefront of fly-tying innovation, and I wonder if I can I really get away with saying that the fly pattern is one of the least important factors influencing sea trout fishing success? I’ll say it anyway … but with some qualifications. The size, weight, shape and durability certainly do matter, but if, for my sins, I were to be condemned to fish at night for sea trout using a pink fly with yellow spots and blue stripes (or any other combination of colours for that matter) I would not be particularly worried. If, on the other hand, I were constrained to using just one size and weight of fly, I would consider that a death sentence as far as the chances of consistently catching sea trout are concerned.

Size matters
Early in the evening, a small fly will catch sea trout while a larger fly may even scare them; I have made this mistake too many times. Bright, moonlit nights call for smaller flies, too – size 12 or even 14 may be necessary, but they must be dressed on strong hooks. On cloudy or moonless nights even a sea trout may fail to see and react to very small flies, and something big is then essential. When fishing deep water late at night, big means exactly that: a three-inch tube fly is by no means over the top. Big flies fished in the deepest, darkest places tend to catch more of the very big sea trout; small flies fished in one or two feet of water are most often taken by small sea trout of 1lb or 2lb in weight. Specimen hunters almost invariably fish deep using big flies.

It would be wrong to suggest that any fly will do for sea trout. Early in the season, running fish tend to slash at the fly, and often they hook themselves. The salmon fly (Fig 1) may work OK during the early run of sea trout when the river is high and a fish taking a fly has to turn back quickly to face the current, but in low-flow summer conditions a long-tailed fly brings nothing but frustration and failure. This, I am quite convinced, is because once a sea trout has been in the river a few weeks it is far more likely to swim behind a fly, following it for several yards before either losing interest and turning back to its lie or, at the most, nipping at the fly tentatively so that all you see or feel is just the slightest of taps on the line.

If you have salmon flies with little or no tail or wing material extending beyond the hook bend (as in Fig 2) then they should work well as summer sea trout flies too. Hugh Falkus designed his Secret Weapon (Fig 3) to solve this problem: the fish nips at the back of the dressed single hook and in so doing engulfs the small flying treble. All of my sea trout flies are tied to work in low-water conditions, and so they have very short tails or none at all. Tube flies (Fig 4) should also be tied so that the wing material does not extend beyond the hook, which can of course be a single, double or treble. Using single hooks, which can be just as effective as multiples, makes the prospect of releasing fish in the dark much less daunting.

Intercepting running fish
How you fish makes all the difference. The eight-fish-a-night supremos know where the sea trout are and they cast their flies to them. For running sea trout they concentrate on the run line – the route most of the fish take when moving into, through and out of a pool. Rivers have taught me that when seeking the run line the low-flow main channel is a pretty good starting point. That’s not a lot of help, of course, if you only get to see a river in moderate or high flows, so here are some other suggestions:

1. Concentrate on the region two to six yards above the point where the water begins breaking up at the tail of a pool, and in particular just above any downstream-pointing vee that marks the greatest current concentration.

2. In the belly or dub of the pool, the current concentration, and hence the run line, is usually close to the surface foam line (unless a cross wind is sweeping any foam and flotsam to one side).

3. At the neck of a pool, there is often another vee of turbulent water extending into the calmer surface of the pool. Sea trout about to leave the pool often surface there and are susceptible to a fly drifted slowly across the current.

Resting fish
Resting fish are easier to catch, but they can be harder to find. Once they have settled into a pool, sea trout do not spread out evenly, and most of the water is not even worth casting into. That’s not to say you won’t hook a sea trout there, but rather that they don’t rest there. You may get takes in mid-stream, but don’t be fooled: the fish have almost certainly left their bank-side lies and followed your fly for quite some distance.

Sea trout lies are three-dimensional locations. Dropping a fly onto the surface directly above a sea trout that is resting in shallow water and then moving the fly away may be quite enough to provoke a take. Fish in very deep water are less likely to take unless the fly is also presented at the right depth. Sink-tips and sinking lines are therefore important parts of the serious sea trout fisher’s armoury: they provide the all-important facility of depth control. Learning how to cast big flies on these kinds of lines is vital if you want to catch big sea trout. Every consistently successful sea trout fisher I meet has mastered these skills.

Casting accurately and turning a leader over properly in the dark takes practice, but the effort involved is well rewarded. One fly cast well is much better than a team tossed in a tangle. But the most important point of all is to get your fly right into the lie. In general, the best sea trout lies are on the deeper side of the river, hard against the bank. This is where most of the bigger fish spend the daylight hours, heads tucked beneath undercuts or into dense tangles of tree roots.

Aim for the heart of darkness
At night that far bank is a lot farther away than it appears to be, and it’s amazing how often you get a response only when your fly invades the very heart of the personal space of a sea trout hugging the bank. The heart of the darkness, right against the bank, is the target to aim for.

Dark night, big fly, sunk line … and short leader. There really is no need to struggle with a 10ft leader when casting heavy flies in the dead of night – in fact, a long leader can slow the descent of your fly so that it never gets down to where the fish are resting. Three feet of leader is usually more than enough, and I have caught plenty of sea trout on leaders half that length. A short leader makes the casting much more manageable too, especially if you are wading in a tree-lined river where continuous motion casts are necessary.

Here’s something else I learned from watching some of the finest of sea trout supremos: they are not the most patient of people. It’s not that they stumble from place to place along the river bank searching frantically for shoals of sea trout but rather that they search likely hotspots thoroughly, varying the way they work their flies until they get a response. If a long line cast so that the fly drifts very slowly out from bank to mainstream fails, they shorten the line and cast straight across the current, working the fly rapidly and jerkily (a technique that most often induces takes early in the evening). Another option is to cast upstream and across, letting the fly sink as it drifts towards a suspected lie and them lifting the rod tip to bring the fly alive just as a Nymph fisher might do to induce a take. This is a deadly method on bright moonlit nights when sea trout are more easily spooked by a fly cast straight at them, and it has the added advantage that the hook hold is nearly always secure in the scissors of the sea trout’s jaw.

Dead nights
Dead nights, when sea trout neither show on the surface nor flash their flanks beneath overhanging trees, cut down your catch average. Maybe a cold mist has chilled the surface – conditions that many sea trout experts dread, although how a fish resting six feet below the surface is affected by surface temperature is quite a mystery. Before giving up in despair, try dragging a Wake Fly (above, left) across the calm surface of the deepest parts of a pool. A tail-clipped Muddler Minnow will do, or you could construct a silver-painted cork monstrosity of the type that Falkus used. Minimalists opt for a strip of Ethafoam bound on the top of a bare hook, while those proud enough of their tying skills to allow others to look in their fly box have been known to add a token hackle. (Sea trout are impervious to such niceties.)

Top sea trout fishers have plenty of other tactical tricks up their sleeves to turn the tables on fish that are being difficult, but if you have found sea trout troublesome in the past, just the few ideas mentioned here could make a real difference. I hope so.

In summary, then, what few rules there are are little more than statements of the obvious. Go fishing when and where there are plenty of sea trout; get your fly to where the fish are; move the fly so that it does not appear as just another bit of drifting debris, and avoid spooking what is, in every sense, a very jumpy quarry.

Golden Guidelines
And finally, a reminder of the not-so-common sense, the three golden guidelines for becoming an extraordinarily successful sea trout fisher:

• Persistence is no virtue
If at first you don’t succeed, you are almost certainly doing something wrong. Try, try and try again, persisting with what has already failed, and the most likely result is continuing failure.

• Versatility is vital
Conditions change, and what affects the behaviour of sea trout is not always obvious to us. If what worked for you last time is not working now, try something else. Having a range of tactics available allows you to experiment until you find something that does trigger a response.

• The bigger the fly, the bigger the fish
If you are really lucky you might catch a specimen sea trout on a small wet fly fished just beneath the surface, but to be more consistently lucky you need to get big flies down to where the spring-run monsters spend their summers.