Nighttime is my time. I love fishing at any time, but I feel the most at home in darkness. When color is removed from your field of view you perceive the landscape using different senses; on one hand your eyes begin to hone in on nuance, picking up the subtle color changes of a gentle rise on the surface or the dark stain of a recent break. The black expanse of a grove of pines is given depth when your hearing fills in the blanks. Hollows gape and echo in a light wind, pine needles soften while leaves hiss – almost ring – in the breeze. When you really tune in and your subconscious takes over, you may find your mind practically on fire, processing sound, using sight only on an ‘as needed’ basis. It’s these times when your mind takes the wheel that it is easiest to believe that we only use a tiny fraction of our brain’s potential.
Winter is a tough season for the night angler – unless you target holdover striped bass exclusively or maybe, walleye. For those of us that hunt trout and freshwater bass, the hits become fewer and the chances of blowing that opportunity become much more likely. Complacency comes easy in the third hitless hour with your fingers frozen in the positions of holding a rod and reel.
I covered a lot more ground than usual last night, more than I ever had in this particular pond and I only had one solid hit and two nudges to show for it. Maybe it was the fact that it was a Sunday night, after a weekend of increased fishing pressure, or maybe it was the cooling waters and threatening stare of the super moon foreshadowing the whiteness of the coming winter. A light wind rose from the west, I wished I had worn one more layer.
I turned around after covering what Google Earth tells me was almost exactly one mile of prime shoreline (it felt like twice that) and began walking back toward the car. As I rounded a shallow bend in the shore I heard the low calls of a pair of owls in the trees. When you spend a lot of time outside in the quiet darkness you learn that owls all have a unique call, not to the species but to the individual. These two were keeping a good rhythm going one of them was low and somber, with drawn out annunciations, Hooo-Hooo-H-Hoo-Hoo, the other was playing for style points with a much faster and complex call, Hoo-H-H-H-Hooo-H-Hoo-Hoo. Each one replicated to a tee during each round, each one sung in a “woe-is-me” minor key.
My mind snapped to a conversation I had with my friend Keith’s wife, Lauren. She used to work for the Audubon Society and still conducts regular owl walks for groups of bird enthusiasts. I could hear her voice in my head telling me that owls can be brought in by playing, or in some cases vocally imitating their calls. She uses an iPod and speakers to broadcast actual recordings of owl calls and they come to investigate, almost without exception. Since I had a captive audience that was clearly feeling the vibe of the night, I cupped a hand to my mouth and did my best to throw my own vocal stylings into the mix.
The pair went mute. The breeze seemed to bend with their confusion as a deafening silence crossed the pond like a sudden gust of wind. Their calls cautiously resumed as I did my best to move quietly along the gravelly bank. I called again, and they called back, in sequence. I called again and the first owl rushed to fill the space at the end of my phrase, the other followed. I took a few more steps and called out, again the space right at the end of my phrase was filled. It was starting to feel like a competition. For a split second I felt a flutter of nervous excitement blooming in my chest – an osprey did once try to attack me! In the dark I thought I might never see them coming! I weighed the risks and called again; they called back quickly and, once again, in sequence.
This continued with intermittent steps until I could tell I was right below the second caller. Hidden by the blackness of a tall, gangly pine I heard the call. I don’t know why, but I assumed that this owl was the female; low and somber, not as brash and braggadocios as Mr. Style Points. She called, I called back and she took to the air, crossing the clouded corridor of the full moon as she flew, I watched the black dart, soar across the pond and settle into the treeline. I pulled my camera, knowing (hoping) that he would follow her; he didn’t. I called again, and then heard the snap and rustle of the foliage as he dropped into an iron cross and glided slowly through the same lane, as I snapped the best shot I could. His slow movement sent a message of warning as he surveyed the area before crossing the water to join his mate.
I could hear them consoling each other for the rest of the night, the rhythm and phrasing unchanged. Even after taking several casts on the way back, in some of the most productive spots in the pond, there was not a fish to be had. The owl encounter made my night. It’s the incidentals that make fishing what it is to me. I have already shared this story with my wife and daughter and I will tell it many more times in my life. If I had caught a fish, I would most likely forget that fish within a few years, but this owl encounter will stick with me forever.