The Where, When and How of Catching Fall Trout
August 09, 2018
Fall sees brown trout begin moving toward their spawning areas. (Shutterstock image)
Watch football or catch fall trout? There's no question, when you've got the goods and the know-how for tackling your local trout stream.
The calendar is about to trip to September. Summer days are drifting away, soon to be replaced by crisp mornings, cool nights and days warmed by the low-angled sun. This time of transition affects the physiology and behavior of small stream and big river trout in predictable patterns. Trout fishermen who understand those patterns catch fish. Those who don't, watch football.
When the water temperature is still near summertime highs, plan to get on the water early, before the sun has gained full strength, or hit the river once shadows return and the water begins to cool. The trout will be more active at these times. Conversely, as the calendar continues to slide into October with fewer hours of daylight, have a second or even a third cup of coffee before pulling on the waders. That extra time will give the sun a chance to burn the chill off the water, activate the fish food and, thus, the fish.
By the end of summer, trout spook easily after being harassed and pressured for months. The low, clear water they now swim in opens their best sight window of the year, allowing them to spot carelessly wading, brightly clothed humans standing in the water waving a shiny stick. Stealth is your best friend. Wear clothing that blends with the surroundings. Wade slowly and carefully. Better yet, fish from the bank from a sitting or kneeling position and keep the rod low until fighting a fish.
Trout key on movement. A belted kingfisher jetting overhead puts the trout into hiding, but it soon learns to ignore most of the inanimate objects entering its sight window. Every day all manner of bits of vegetation floats across the trout world; even a gentle breeze brings more to the water's surface. To survive, a trout needs to be able to separate the edible from the flotsam. Edible stuff struggles, wiggles and moves; so should your fly or lure.
Trout eat other fish eggs. On West Coast rivers where anadromous fish run, resident trout gobble eggs washed out of the redds of spawning salmon, steelhead, bull trout and sea-run cutthroats. On rivers that have fall-spawning brown and brook trout, resident trout slurp up eggs that wash from their redds, too. Eggs, both real and artificial, rolled and tumbled along the bottom catch plenty of resident trout.
The West is home to big rivers that run high with spring snowmelt. By September their torrents are reduced considerably, even those where flows are controlled by dams. As the season progresses, insect hatches are fewer in number and the bugs are smaller. Blue-winged olive mayflies and midges dominate the space over the water. Fly-fishers who match the hatch cover those bugs from size 18 down to frustration-inducing size 24.
Leaders need to be extended to 12 feet with a 6X-8X tippet. Choose flies with premium hooks. Use quality tippet materials. Make precise casts. The fish likely won't move out of their feeding lane to chase a tiny bug, because there's just not enough calories to justify the energy expended. Drop it on their nose, and they're likely to eat.
There are exceptions to tiny fall trout foods. Terrestrials, those land-based bugs that come in a wide range of sizes, find themselves in the water by ill-timed flight, a poorly directed hop, or another mistake. They are prime fall food until the first hard freeze kills them off. Grasshoppers, beetles and ants both crawling and flying) should be fished along the river's edges and eddies. Concentrate on the shady side. Shadows provide some sense of security to trout feeding in shallow water.
Another exception to the little stuff is the October caddis. This full-sized orange-bodied bug brings big trout to the surface. Fish the pupa imitation until the hatch is in full swing, then tie on the pattern in a size 10 dry fly.
Fall sees brown trout begin moving toward their spawning areas. When they do, they swim in the river's main channel. They will hold for a bit near structure (submerged rocks, undercut banks and deeper pools) before continuing on toward feeder streams. And before they are on the nests, streamers and Rooster Tails are the ticket to getting what will likely be the biggest fish of the year. Downsize the fly and lure and stick with more muted colors until the fall rains color up the water. Don't downsize the tippet strength. The takes will be hard and fast. These fish aggressively defend their territory.
Home to rainbow, brook and cutthroat, high-gradient freestone streams typically feature pools and pocket water filled with log jams and boulders. When late summer delivers low water levels, trout gather in fewer holding areas. A primary tactic is "stick and move"; make a few casts into each pocket, then cover ground to the next pocket. The fish hold in the pockets because the current provides oxygen, overhead cover and food.
Always cover deep pools but expect the fish to have moved from their summer holding spots to where they can find the sparse fall forage. Terrestrials (mostly beetles, ants and crickets) enter the trout world on the edges. Those that escape immediate consumption get washed into the tail-outs, where other fish await. The turbulence of pocket water can hide sloppy casts and loud wading. Not so when fishing the smooth water edges and tail-outs. Be stealthy. Imitate the slow, deliberate movements of the great blue heron. It works for the bird, and it works for the fisherman.
If your stream holds brookies, they will be in pre-spawn mode, ready to attack most any small streamer or spinner swung through the tail-out.
Tailwaters created by bottom-release dams are an exception to the warm water of late summer. The water from the depths of the impounded lake stays cool for some miles below the dam and provides abundant forage fish and aquatic insects. Dams that regulate flows for irrigation purposes will release less water once irrigation season ends. Looking for the same type of structure that affords food and security, trout in a tailwater relocate to new hiding spots and feeding lanes. Tailwaters are known for scuds and aquatic worms that grow progressively smaller as the calendar turns.
Never easy to fish under the best of circumstances, spring creeks become more challenging toward summer's end. Where the stream's luxurious weed beds grow, so grow fat trout. Come fall, those beds have grown into thick, braided mats on the surface that hide the fish-holding water. Adding to the difficulty are bankside bushes and trees that droop over the stream and trail in the water. All this living vegetable matter makes long casts and drag-free drifts impossible. Of course, it also means plenty of streamside terrestrials and bugs that live in the weed beds.
Solve this puzzle with stealth. Move in whatever fashion it takes to get into position to make a short cast, quietly landing the fly or small lure.
Late-summer trout are educated fish, but they still swim in the usual places and they have to eat the available foods. They are smart survivors. The clear, skinny water of fall means stealth, downsizing flies and lures, and a hint of life-like movement in any offering are necessary to get them to make a mistake.