As the seasons change, consider these tips for big fall trout.
By M.D. Johnson
Silently I watched, but said nothing. “That’s too big,” I thought, the words bouncing ’round my head. Still, as my wife carefully tied the Rapala — was that a brown trout pattern? — to the tag end of the gossamer thread dangling from the tip of her ultralight, I remembered the fact that, technically speaking, she’d done more of this sort of thing than I had. Discretion, I reckoned, was the better part of the equation in this instance.
From a crouch at the edge of Turkey Creek, she expertly fired the plug upstream, dropping it into the seam I assumed she was aiming for. “Too far off,” I heard her say to herself as she finished the retrieve. Again, the seam, and again, a whispered self-critique:“Too far.” The third cast lightly splashed on the inside of the flow, inches from the soggy trunk of a long-fallen cottonwood. “There!”
Instantly, the buggy whip of a rod in her hands became possessed of a life of its own, bending and throbbing violently, while upstream, the water exploded. Briefly, I caught a glimpse. A flash. Something light and dark both. Rising, she took a step. And another, never lessening the tension on the light monofilament. Creekside now, the short-handled net appearing almost magically in her gloved hand. A smooth thrust, and the mesh comes alive.
“Big bait, big fish,” my wife reminded me as she slipped the beautiful brown back into the crystal-clear waters of the little creek. “Three pounds,” she proclaimed, “maybe three-and-a-half. There’s probably one upstream for you. Come on, lazy,” she said already on the move. This time — just this once — I was glad I’d kept my thoughts to myself.
September. While many of my colleagues have retired thoughts of angling for the year, switching gears instead to focus on doves, squirrels, blue-wing teal, and the impending arrival of another archery season, I have yet to have traded my fishing tackle for a favorite .22 rifle or fast-swinging over/under.
Why my annual delay? September ushers in some of the best, if not the best, trout fishing of the year.
And again, the query, why? With few exceptions, the explanation is both elemental and monosyllabic. Food. But hungry trout are one thing; catching them can certainly be quite another thing. Fortunately, there are solutions to tackling these oft-fickle fall fish; however, it does require stepping away from that rimfire or compound bow for at least a little while longer.
FEEDING FALL FISH
Fall fish feed. The days are getting shorter, water temperatures are dropping, albeit by only a degree or two to start, and trout recognize these changes. Like a black bear packing on the pounds prior to hibernation, trout, too, sense this need to prepare themselves nutritionally for the upcoming months when their larders may be a bit thin.
However, this need to feed doesn’t magically transform trout across the nation into ravenous 4-inch farm pond bluegills. In many waters, these survivors are seasoned veterans; some of been caught and released, while others have grown notoriously wary of 6-foot upright bipedal shore-based figures and the subsequent surface disturbances wrought by these same shapes.
Are these trout impossible? No. Challenging? Always. While there are chinks in these warriors’ armor that can be exploited, being in the proverbial right place at the right time — well, it just isn’t quite enough.
Where regulations allow, few offerings garner the positive response from fall trout that live baits do. Some purists may scoff at the notion. However, be it ’crawler or crawdad, hellgrammite or ’hopper, it’s tough to beat a live presentation when it comes to fooling cagy fish that are intent on putting on the pounds before the advent of colder weather.
Live bait needs to be — well — lively. To this end, many anglers collect their own bait, and this done as close to the outing as possible. It’s vital, too, that live baits be presented in the most natural way.
Traditionally, this translates into light line, tiny weights, if any at all, and, wherever feasible, thin wire hooks, all working in synchronicity with a light-action spinning outfit — one that combines sensitivity with j-u-s-t enough backbone to subdue that expected/unexpected bruiser brown.
Too often, the attractiveness of live bait is decreased due to the encumbrance of the tackle to which it’s tethered. This issue is often amplified in the fall as a result of low flows and high water clarity, not to mention the aforementioned now-natural skittishness of the trout themselves.
Earthworms, including the smaller redworms up to the largest ’crawlers, are usually a good bet, regardless of one’s geographic location. These are often free-drifted, sans weight. Should distance prove a necessity, a small casting bubble will not only extend the reach, but is less likely to spook fish.
Hellgrammites, the pincher-equipped larval stage of the dobsonfly, as well as crickets and grasshopppers, all abundant, effective, and easily collected yet underutilized, can be free-drifted in the same fashion.
Minnows, again where allowed by regulation, can prove the go-to bait for big trout, particularly browns in both lakes and flows. Minnows can be fished several different ways, ranging from free-drifted to floated under a quill bobber, or even worked just off the bottom on a 24- to 36-inch fluorocarbon leader behind an egg sinker. The keys when using minnows are to hook them lightly, either through the lips or just behind the dorsal fin, and to keep them well-aerated.
And finally, the crayfish is another live bait choice that doesn’t receive the attention it should in the fall. A 2- to 3-inch crayfish will work best, with anglers removing the claws. Clawless craws don’t affix themselves to the bottom as readily as do non-altered baits. Craws should be free-drifted, or held near the bottom using as light a weight as possible.
THE HARDWARE STORE
Spinners catch trout. Period. What’s more, these age-old revolving blades are difficult to work incorrectly. However, there are a few tricks to fishing a spinner more effectively for fall trout.
- First, match the spinner to the fish expected, and if in doubt, downsize. In most instances, a 00 or 0 Mepps Aglia might be perfect for small stream rainbows and brookies; a larger stream, pond, or lake might call for a No. 1 or 2, while a trolling situation for fall browns or steelheads may warrant a No. 4 or 5.
- Second, color can make a difference. Sage advice would be to pack a small section of naturals, e.g. shiner minnow, rainbow trout, brown trout and crayfish-esque patterns, as well as non-natural, to include fire tiger, chartreuse, black, and white with both silver and gold blades.
- Third, and as in a live bait scenario, an ultralight to light-action spinning outfit topped with a quick reel spooled with a quality monofilament should suffice in all but specialty situations — e.g., deep-water brown trout or Great Lakes steelhead.
The art of fishing spinners efficiently isn’t complex; however, there is a degree of skill and, often, finesse involved. Cast upstream, and the retrieve is just slightly faster than the current. Spin-anglers should pay particular attention to the bottom third of the water column, as fall trout spend a great deal of time hunting crayfish and other bottom-dwellers.
Currents breaks (boulders, for example), log jams, and depth change seams often hold ambush-minded fish, and should be investigated thoroughly. Pockets of deep water in streams and shallow rivers can be probed by casting upstream and maintaining a high rod-tip while allowing the spinner to tumble into position before the retrieve.
Spoons are also excellent choices for fall trout on larger streams and lakes. Stickbaits and crankbaits, too, shouldn’t be overlooked, with some of the best choices being crayfish imitators, like Rebel’s Crawfish, and Rapala’s tried-and-true original floating minnow.
Live bait or rainbow-hued artificial. Secluded step-across stream or a chilly dark water lake lined with pines. Squirrels can wait. Likewise, doves. And that archery gear is just fine on the rack, at least for the moment. It’s September. Trout time. Time for the heaviest fish of the season…the one waiting, even now, to pounce on that flashy spinner, inhale that ultralight spoon, or gently sip that cricket through the surface film. They’re ready. Are you?