We fly fishermen look forward to autumn, with its cool weather and big trout. But when it does, it rushes off, or at least that’s what it seems to me. Once the streams start to cool and the trout become vigorous again, how many weekends do we have before the snow blows away? And once we have managed to schedule a few free days to enjoy the season, will nature provide us with ideal fishing conditions?
The answer to the second question is “big luck”. Fall is an active time for the weather, and we can expect everything from mini heat waves to what after summer looks like deep freezes. It may be dry, or it may flow. It will probably be windy. Fall flies may or may not hatch.
Yet tons of good fish are caught each fall.
The secret to success in unpredictable conditions is to prepare in advance – to have the equipment, flies, clothing and techniques for the various scenarios ready to go. Here are some of the situations you might encounter over the next few weeks and what you can do to make the most of them.
Use the right dry flies and the right leaders in low water
In many places, summer ends with hot, dry winds, creating lean rivers and spooky trout until October. This does not mean that trout will not feed on hatching flies. But that does mean that you have to be very careful if you want them to feed on your flies. Long, tapered leaders as fine as you dare – 6 times or even smaller, unless you’re particularly likely to get into heavy fish – and small, dry or emergent patterns are usually the order of the day. Blue-winged olives are the most common mayflies in fall rivers, and slender, floating flies like parachutes or Compara-duns are the best styles to use. Throwing upstream to be behind the fish and out of sight is always a good idea. Throwing downstream can be even more effective, especially in calm water; make sure you leave a little slack in the cast so that the fly will naturally drift into the trout feeding lane.
Not all fall aquatic insects are tiny. In the East and Midwest, you can still find Isonychioa mayflies in sizes 12 or even 10. More likely, however, you will see what are often referred to as October caddis flies. The real October caddis is a western hatch, but similar large caddis flies are found all over the country, usually in an orange color suitable for Halloween. As with all caddis, a soft wet fly representing emergence is a better bet than a dry fly, but both will work.
How to be prepared: Floating fly line; 12 foot leaders; 6X and 7X tippet coils, preferably fluorocarbon. You should have parachutes, Compara-duns, cripples or RS2 flies in sizes 18 to 22, as well as a few brown mayflies in 12 and large dry orange chunks or soft-hackles, also in 12, for caddis. Pheasant tails or other slender nymphs of the same size will be needed if the fish do not come up. Before the truly cold weather sets in, beetle, hopper, and ant models will pick up trout when no aquatic insects are active.
Catch underground trout in high water
All it takes are the remnants of a tropical storm or a line of severe thunderstorms in front of a cold front to blow away your favorite streams. You can still find rising fish in stretches that remain relatively calm despite the increased volume and flow, but rivers swollen by rain usually require ground fishing. For many anglers, this is not disappointing. Fall is a great time to fish for weighted nymphs or streamers, where the big trout are. Rivers rich in rain can seem inhospitable to trout, but with the exception of the most extreme flooding, trout generally hold themselves comfortably and eat well when their rivers swell. The heart of the current may be too strong for them, but pockets of “fresh water” will provide them with a safe harbor.
I remember a vivid example while fishing a wide river in the southern Adirondacks of New York. The main channel was running hard enough to float an F-150, but I found a side pocket not much bigger than a pool table, stripped a Woolly Bugger of olive just below the surface and I caught trout after trout. Most of the time you have to explore these pockets with nymphs and easily sinking streamers. Be careful, because every pocket or seam can hold a fish. Use heavy nymphs or streamers on sturdy leaders, throw them well upstream so the fly has sunk near the bottom when it hits your target water, and try to keep a tight line to detect the impacts.
How to be prepared: Full floating, plunging or sinking lines; 7-9ft leaders for nymphs, shorter for streamers, tapered to no less than 4x, and don’t be afraid to go heavier, especially with near-invisible fluorocarbon. Tungsten pearl-headed caddis pupae, ephemeral-style nymphs like the Frenchie and golden-ribbed hare’s ear, squirmy worms and mop flies, as well as your favorite streamers can produce.
(Of course, nymphs and streamers are very effective in the deeper sections of streams at their normal level. This is especially true in the fall, as trout feed voraciously, as bears force-feed. berries to gain weight for the long winter ahead.)
Make the most of the spawning behavior of fall trout
In late summer and fall, the six species of Atlantic and Pacific salmon leave their “oceans”, whether freshwater or saltwater, and move up their native rivers. to spawn. These fish often bite less from hunger than from aggression. They team up, hunt rival suitors and guard the nests of egg thieves. And while the rainbow trout, known as the rainbow trout in its migratory form, spawn in late winter and spring, it too often travels up salmon rivers to the fall to join in the fun and feast on drifting eggs dislodged from the nests.
Salmon and rainbow trout fishermen in the Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes are familiar with this situation and have developed specialized tactics and equipment for it. Equipment and tactics translate easily into our local trout streams as resident trout spawn too. Bouncing patterns that mimic salmon and trout roe along the bottom, with the help of one or two split shots on the leader if necessary, is a very effective approach as the days get shorter and the water cools down in 40s. These flies need to be deep and a strike indicator can really improve your chances of catching and hitting on time. Streamers from Woolly Buggers to Game Changers will draw the wrath of the procreation-obsessed trout, and a downline with a low leader will cause flies to swim among the trout rather than glide overhead. But there is also the dedicated breed of anglers who swing large wet flies, like Intruders, with two-handed rods, hoping with remarkable patience to find a fish ready to climb out of the creek bed and attack. You can do this with trout, and you don’t need one or two hands. But it takes patience.
How to be prepared: Floating lines are great for indicator nymphs and will do the trick for weighted streamers; if this is an option, an intermediate or full well line is ideal for streamer fishing. As with high water, there is no need for finesse leaders. Glo-Bugs, Sucker Spawns, and other egg patterns aren’t generally weighted, so have an assortment of split plans to help them sink. Large trout are often fished this time of year, and a weight of 6 wouldn’t be too much, but your standard trout rod will probably do.
Dress for the cold fall weather and long days on the river
The rain at the end of October is a different experience from the summer rain. The precipitation won’t necessarily ruin the fishing, or at least not until the rivers start to look like chocolate milk, but getting skin-soaked in cold weather will likely ruin the fun. River valleys sometimes protect anglers from the worst fall winds, but in the open countryside, gales will upset your temperature (not to mention your cast.) Know the forecast and dress accordingly.
How to be prepared: Good cotton-free socks and a base layer under wool or fleece pants and tops will keep you warm but not sweaty. A modest puffy down or synthetic puffer jacket under a good, breathable rain coat will usually do the trick for outerwear; your waders, of course, will help. At the end of November, you’ll probably want a warm hat and gloves, with or without fingers, depending on your preference. Feel free to roll up and walk 10 or 20 minutes if you have chills; the fish will still be there when you return. Finally, if the fording is difficult where you plan to fish, consider some extra traction for your feet, whether that is good quality slip-on or screw-on crampons, and a fording stick. Falling into cold water can be dangerous. Stay upright and enjoy the whole day.