Darkness washes along the latitudes, 760 feet per second. It approaches from the west, rolling over the Bering Sea and the Kamchatka peninsula before crossing the sea of Okhotsk and tumbling over eastern Siberia. Darkness falls over tigers in the Sikhote-Alin mountain range and musk deer on the Russian tundra. It unfurls over the vast river plains along the Ob River, over the taiga and Great Steppe, and continues into the Komi Republic west of the Urals. It sweeps through sidewalk cafés in St. Petersburg before pouring out across the Gulf of Finland where viviparous eelpouts, lump suckers and spined loaches are hiding underneath rocks. Myriad mollusks and arthropods rise from deep ravines to feed in the waters the sun has nourished during the day. It darkens in Tallinn and, in the Baltic Sea, a Viking Line ship turns on its navigation lights. Darkness falls on Stockholm half an hour later. It darkens over Lake Malar, Lake Hjälmeren and Lake Vänern, and soon, a forest bordering Norway, where a couple of moose hunters in a small cabin are talking about those goddamned wolves.
Anders and I sit along a river in eastern Norway. The darkness is no more than a suggestion. The sun has disappeared behind the Norway spruces on the western bank and the only sounds we can hear are the river’s mutterings. The skies are slate gray, but a thin strip of clouds catches the sun’s rays and is dyed orange and pink. The world is closing down around us. The river’s turbulence draws lazy figures in the surface.
“It’s gonna happen any minute now.” It’s Anders’ fourth time saying it.
“Mmhm,” I reply.
Flyfishing is a world of small things. Like a pair of retirees on a park bench, Anders and I observe minutiae, hoping to understand the world a little better or recognize a world we once knew. An incremental temperature change, a gust of wind ruffling the surface or a lengthening shadow might suggest something about which fly to choose, where to cast or how to drift the fly. Generally, they don’t. The natural world unfolds before our eyes, but we make do with the things we know, with nature’s rough mechanics.
Anders and I do know the butterflies and moths’ closest relative, the caddisflies of the order Trichoptera, prefer the hours after sunset to perform the final transformation from pupa to imago. The Swedes call them night flies. In Norway they are called spring flies, although they usually hatch during summer.
The caddis pupa must sense the approaching darkness on the riverbed. It’s sporting a house of sorts, an open cylinder built when it was a larva of a secretion emitted from its mouth. The house is built of sand or organic debris floating in the current, arranged in strange and often distinct patterns that identify the insect down to family. It’s an alien architecture. Almost simultaneously the pupae in a given area begin to chew their way out of their houses and swim toward the surface. They are often grayish brown or black, with bottom halves that run to clear green and yellow hues. At the surface, the larval skin breaks and a grown insect crawls out. Four hairy wings. Six legs with long spores on the calves. Compound eyes and two prolonged antennae. Some take flight immediately; some use the larval skin as rafts where they dry off; still others start flurrying toward dry land along the surface. A good caddis hatch will inevitably lead to a trout angler’s reason for being: a surface dotted with rising trout.
“There’s one!” Anders points with the rod tip. “It’s swimming.”
I can’t see the insect, but I can see a V-shaped wake in the surface film about three feet from the bank. It dissolves in the current almost immediately. The moon has appeared like a membrane against the bleak sky, white and translucent. I lean forward to get a better look. We sit perfectly still.
Even in southern Norway, the sun’s center is never more than 12 degrees below the horizon from mid-May through July. Scandinavian summer nights are not black, but graded blues that lighten toward a horizon so tentative it looks like it might shatter. Astronomers call it nautical twilight. Both the horizon and the clearest stars are visible, a phenomenon sailors depended on when navigating by the night sky. Not until the sun dips more than 18 percent below the horizon would you call it actual night in astronomical terms. Between September and April, day gives way to actual night, and once you get away from gas stations, streetlights and neon signs, the sky is black. Natural darkness is rare in our increasingly on-the-grid world. During a blackout after an earthquake in Los Angeles in the ’90s, worried Angelenos kept calling a local observatory and reporting strange phenomena in the skies. They had seen the Milky Way.
In the woods, I am taken aback at all the light caught in the darkness. It’s 11 p.m. and where the river mirrors the lightest part of the sky, I can easily make out more and more caddis. They glide down the currents like sailboats adrift.
“It’s time to fish,” Anders grins.
He’s a much better angler than me. You can see it in the way he ties the fly to his leader. After threading the hook, he finishes the knot with his eyes on the river. When he heads upstream, I start out toward an elongated pool at the end of braided currents. Darkness has begun congregating in eddies and back channels.
I find the pool and sit down on a rock. There is enough light to make out a clear seam between an island in the middle of the river and a channel closer to my bank. After a few minutes a rise appears on the far side of the seam, just upstream of the tailout. I fumble with my fly box and tie on a size-12 streaking caddis and when the fish rises again, as carefully as before, I stand and step into the river. The water tugs at my calves and it’s evident the channel is too deep and too fast for me to get directly upstream of the fish.
I settle for a downstream cast, quartering across, and land the fly several feet above the rise. It bounces freely along the current, passes the fish and swings toward me before reaching the riffles. After a dozen drifts the fish has not shown interest. Skating the fly doesn’t work either. The fish keeps on rising, and I begin to suspect it’s eating pupae just beneath the surface. I reel in, bite off the streaking caddis and tie on a sparkle pupa. I haven’t got a strike indicator, and even in broad daylight it can be hard discerning movements in the leader caused by the currents and those caused by a strike. In the gloam I will have to guess.
When I raise my rod for another cast I hear a rise behind me near the head of the pool. I feel the sound as well, like two boulders colliding underwater—the telltale sign of a large trout. Tall trees on both sides of the head of the pool cast black shadows and I can’t make anything out but the whitewater above. I make a short cast directly upstream. I try to envision the drift. Caddis are dancing above the river and a bird diving toward the surface is silhouetted against the strip of sky between the banks. I strike when I hear the rise again and the fly whips past my head and into the air behind me.
In nature, darkness is an awakening. Caddis, moths and crickets, and many species of mosquitoes, beetles and mayflies all prefer the night. Many wild mammals are also nocturnal: foxes, bats, shrews, hedgehogs, mice, rats, weasels, European pine martens, badgers, wolverines, wolves, brown bear and lynx. The majority rummage the undergrowth for food under cover of darkness. The night is both a refuge from the searing sun and a niche differentiation. The darkness is a form of crypsis. Nocturnality is an adaptation to either avoid or enhance predation. The caddis fluttering above the river has chosen the night to avoid white wagtails and European pied fly catchers. The bat hunts at night because the caddis gambles on the dark being safer than the light.
Night has also left its mark on us. Two-hundred-sixty million years ago, a strange group of creatures called cynodonts—part reptile, part mammal—crawled the Earth. With the rise of the dinosaurs and their ilk in the Triassic Period, cynodonts began dying off. Dinosaurs relied on the sun to regulate their body temperature and became experts at hunting during the day. As the Triassic rolled along, evolutionary pressure pushed the cynodonts toward the darkness. The survivors were small; they hid in burrows during daytime. At night they hunted insects, small animals and possibly dinosaur eggs. They developed better eyesight, protruding ears and other sensory and physiological adaptations to better survive in the gloom. Their ancestors today are mammals and nocturnal specialists. Even though anthropoids and humans later turned diurnal, portions of our sensory apparatus hearken back to the cynodont’s nightly exile in the Triassic: advanced ear bones, retinas dominated by light-sensitive cells and long, narrow shelves of bone that protrude into our noses and heighten our sense of smell.
After half an hour I hook a Brown trout just shy of a pound. It’s about time. In the half-light its spots are pitch black. I unhook the fly, lower the fish back into the water and feel the tail slap my palm as it glides off. It seems too small to be the one I had heard and a few minutes later another rise confirms my suspicions. My casts are no more than conjectures. I rush a cast and the fly catches my rod. After untangling it and getting the fly line airborne again, a wheezing sound reveals a wind knot. Evolution might have equipped me with night vision to avoid dinosaurs, but it’s not enough to disentangle 4x monofilament. I curse, wade to the bank and head back. Fewer caddis are on the river and it looks like the hatch is ebbing.
I find Anders a couple miles upstream. He’s waded over to the far bank, a black silhouette against the navy forest. He makes a roll cast directly across current, mends and tracks the fly’s supposed drift with the rod tip. Midway through he instinctively stops the rod and lifts it carefully, as if to interrupt the fly’s trajectory. When the current has pulled the line below him, he strips, flicks the fly upstream and repeats the process.
After four interrupted drifts, I yell out, “What are you doing?”
“Why do you stop the rod in the middle of the drift?”
“I’m Leisenringin’ em. They fuckin’ love it!”
I have no idea what he’s talking about.
“They’re not taking dries,” he says, “but pupae. I’m dead drifting a LaFontaine Pupa along the bottom, then stopping the rod so it’s pulled up through the water column just like the pupae emerging.”
He lifts the rod as he says it, and it bends.
“There we go.”
His reel unzips as the trout peels off line and at the same moment I notice a shuddering in the air. Downstream, the sky is softening. Then I’m swallowed by a fog.
I have read about caddis swarms, hosts of adult insects flying up rivers in some sort of mating ritual. I’ve read that they can be so dense you have to keep your mouth shut to avoid inhaling them. Everything I’ve read has prepared me like taking a sip of water prepares you for drowning. The sky is all wings. In the beginning I can’t see the insects against the dark pine forest, only frenetic movement. I feel something on my hand, and when I raise it I see four caddisflies crawling on my knuckles. The front of my waders is covered in insects. I’m inside a caddis cloud. A dragonfly shoots past my head directly into the swarm. Its wings thump like a propeller. Bats dive toward the river, black only a minute ago, now glittering with frenzied movement. Caddis disappear in swirls and cavitations puncturing the surface film. The air is TV static.
“Shiiiit!” Anders yells from somewhere inside the cloud. Suddenly he’s a mile away, at the end of a tunnel. Anders with his cap, carbon rod and waders. He looks like an error—like someone forgot him in a tableau from the Mesozoic, in an illustration to an article in a popular science magazine about the age of insects. He looks like a moron.
“It’s fuckin’ wild,” I call back
And that’s exactly what it is. A wild and mute storm. It’s wilderness, not as geography, but as completed potential. The world flutters behind the flies. It is night now and small insect wings brush against my face like dreams you only barely remember as sleep lets go.
During a blackout after an earthquake in Los Angeles in the ’90s, worried Angelenos kept calling a local observatory and reporting strange phenomena in the skies. They had seen the Milky Way.
We stumble back to camp right before daybreak. When darkness leaves us, I’m in my tent. I’m sleeping as it rolls over the Anortek Fjord and across the Greenland ice sheet. Soon after, it washes along the banks of the river Kangia, where giant anadromous char full of squid, fish and arthropods from the Labrador Sea swim with the Earth’s rotation to spawn in the river where they were born. A perpetual darkness rests between faults in the Earth’s crust at the bottom of the Davis Strait, and the strange fish and mollusks here never notice the passing darkness more than a mile above them.
I sleep when the darkness envelops fishing trawlers anchoring in Conception Bay, Newfoundland, and I sleep when the darkness disappears out across the American continent. When I awake it is noon. The sun beats down.
This article first appeared in volume ten, issue two of The Flyfish Journal.