October 22, 2020
The light on the water was the color of pewter and the leaves along the shore glowed orange-gold. We waded this October tailwater carefully, keeping our flies out of the willows and junipers and in the current seams that folded around the rocks.
On October tailwaters, a person soon learns that the best way to catch fish in the absence of a hatch is to go small and heavy. For me on this morning, that meant a tungsten-beaded No. 16 Flashback Pheasant Tail and a No. 20 Beadhead Bubble Back. My friend Jeff Perin, a fly shop owner andconfessed fly snob, rigged with a Beerhead Baetis with a trailing a Prince Nymph. The trout seemed to throw up their fins in surrender. I caught them on the Bubble Back while Perin took them on both the Baetis and the dropper. At one point he caught 10 from one seam. As the day wore into afternoon, trout began to take blue-winged olives on the surface and we traded our nymphs for dries.
If there is one best month of the year, it is October. In fact, I’d trade out all the other months for one September, one November and 10 Octobers.
Indian Summer Hatches
Across much of the West, October is shrugging off summer. Snowmelt has slowed from the tops of the mountains. Nights are cooler now. Killing frosts stop the growth of new grasses. The smaller caddis hatches taper off and terrestrials are fewer and farther between. The streams run clearer and shallower and the trout seek out the cut banks and other darkened, shaded spots for cover. These are the last best days of the season and there are three hatches to watch for in this best of all fly-fishing months.
In many parts of the West, blue-winged olives (BWOs) could show on any afternoon, but overcast days are best. With consistent cloud cover, look for a hatch of BWOs at about 2 p.m. When the adults are on the surface, instead of fishing dries, try emerger patterns like the Loop Wing Emerger, CDC Emerger or Winger Emerger. Prior to the hatch, trout may be feeding on BWO nymphs. A No. 16–18 Olive Baetis, Beerhead Baetis or Kelly Galloup’s BWO Nymph will produce during this period.
Save the very precise, delicate dry imitations for that portion of the hatch when the fish seem to exclusively feed on top. Use gossamer tippets and the smallest, softest-lighting flies. Sometimes it pays to fish two Parachute BWOs in tandem or a dry and an emerger. This is when the fish are most selective. A coarse fly fished in calm water may be ignored while feeding trout splash all around.
When expecting a hatch of BWOs, you’ll save time and catch more fish if you have two rods, one tied up with a nymph rig and the other with a very light leader and a small BWO dry ready to be put into the game.
Look at the rocks in the shallows of any Western freestone stream and you will almost always find the undersides of them encrusted with little insect cases made of very small pebbles. Inside each case is a caddis larva, a creature biding its time until the leaves begin to fall, the water temperature drops and light penetration diminishes—the signals to the caddis that it’s time to hatch. Scientists call them Trichoptera limnephilidae dicosmoecoes. Trout call them delicious.
If an angler was to pump a rainbow’s stomach in September or October, they would find caddis—adults, emergers, larva and cased larva. The bugs are on the move and, often, easy pickings for the fish. Many fly anglers use caddis emergers and larva patterns, but imitations of the cased caddis are often overlooked. Trout do not overlook them. A good imitation is Tungsten Cased Caddis.
The larval stage can be imitated by patterns such as the Dirty Bird, Caddis Larva and Mike Mercer’s October Caddis, but this is a rich field and there are a lot of options.
Adult caddis may also be found in the shoreline brush, and the big bugs sometimes skitter across the water. Good dry options include Stimulator-style patterns in yellow and orange, and Rainy’s Foam October Caddis. Keep a selection of dries sized from No. 8 to No. 14.
Unlike a lot of other dry-fly situations, a big, bushy October caddis pattern can be improved with a bit of action. A good play when wading is to cast upstream, let the fly drift back as you gather line, then lift the rod and make the fly skitter across the surface as it drifts downstream.
Bumping downriver in a drift boat, it’s easy to keep the rod high and the line off the water and impart a bit of fluttering movement as if the egg-laying female has gotten too close to the surface. This is especially effective in tailouts above rising trout.
A hatch of midges in late October or early November can lead to one of the most frustrating—or rewarding—days in an entire fishing season. As with a BWO hatch, the smaller patterns are most likely to work. This is the time for a long leader with a 6X or 7X tippet. Have trouble tying that small? Me too. That’s why I bring magnifiers tucked into a shirt pocket. Blood knots and improved clinch knots are both made much easier with magnification.
A midge hatch will turn opportunistic trout frustratingly selective at a moment’s notice. This is another good time to have a second rod rigged and ready. When a cloud of midges is over the water, fish will be feeding on the adults as well as on emergers that are still trying to make it out of the water. Two rods, one rigged for adults and the other for emergers, will help you catch trout faster.
Casting tandem rigs with tiny flies can be super frustrating, especially if there is wind, but be patient for as long as it takes to get dialed in. Good patterns include the Poly Wing Midge, Sprout Midge and Josh’s Reaper Midge.
Prospecting With a Hopper/Dropper
We tend to forget about grasshoppers when the calendar turns to October, but those easy meals are still fresh in the minds of trout, and there are still hoppers on the shoreside grass. Grown sluggish now, hoppers are subject to being blown into the water by sudden gusts of wind. In the waning days of Indian summer, trout are especially eager for a big, easy mouthful, and they’ll often jump all over a hopper.
If a fish refuses to turn to a dead-drifted hopper pattern, tie on a dropper. The tippet material should be fluorocarbon. Use 15 to 24 inches of 4X for an October caddis larva or emerger. Or downsize to 5X through 7X and tie on a No. 18 mayfly nymph, such as a BWO Split Case Nymph or BWO Looped Wing Emerger. If midges are prolific, tie the dropper with a chironomid pattern, Nos. 14 to 18. Good choices include patterns with gills or tufts, like a Jujubee Zebra Midge or a Yankee Buzzer.
Suspended beneath the hopper, the mayfly or caddis emerger is subject to micro-movements from the surface. This type of action, transmitted to the dropper, is imitative of the struggling natural.
On a trout stream, with the shortening of the days and decreasing temperatures, the fish sense time is running out on major food sources. Trout are looking for bulk-up protein, and a big hatch of little mayflies or midges, or an October caddis struggling to dry its wings at the surface, means groceries.
Quigley’s Film Critic BWO
Bob Quigley left a legacy of great fly patterns that many of us have fished over the last decade or more. Because of his ground-breaking work, we look at trout flies in a different way than we did before he started tying.
Quigley’s Film Critic mimics a mayfly nymph caught in the surface tension, its legs dangling beneath and its shuck not fully shed. It’s the moment when a mayfly is most likely to be sipped by a cruising rainbow. It comes in various colors, but this one imitates the blue-winged olive.
Tie this Film Critic with brown thread on a No. 16 or 18 Tiemco 2487. For the shuck, use copper Z-Lon and two mallard fibers. Build the body with brown Antron dubbing and rib with red Ultra Wire and a single strand of brown floss. For the hackle post, use dun poly yarn. For the hackle, employ grizzly. The thorax is insect-green Antron. To finish, touch up the wingpost tips with a black marker.
October On Top
Your last chance to try it dry
There are three good hatches in October. Use these patterns for them.
- Morrish October Caddis Adult, Rainy’s Foam October Caddis: Yellow, burnt orange, insect green; No. 8 to 14
- Parachute BWO, Quigley’s Film Critic BWO: Blue-gray to olive; No. 18 to 20
- Josh’s Reaper Midge, Griffith’s Gnat: Brown, black, grizzly; No. 18 to 22