Fall has arrived, along with lower air and water temperatures. For many trout anglers — especially sportsmen who hunt as well as fish—that’s a signal to put away the fishing gear and reach for a bow, rifle or shotgun.
There are good reasons for that reaction. The fishing gets both more difficult and uncomfortable as the weather cools in the fall. Trout fishing can be tough as fish get lethargic at this time and are less willing to feed on the surface or chase lures beneath it. Standing in water in the fall can get very chilly, even in waders, and you are also likely to be buffeted by winds.
Thus, many sportsmen take to the woods and fields to pass the months until spring rolls back around.
For those of us who choose not to abandon the water, there do remain a few reasons to be optimistic. First of all, the streams are far less crowded as we approach the fall equinox. Even more important, though the metabolism of the trout slows down, the fish still have to eat. While enjoying the benefit of the first of those factors, we just need to adjust our angling tactics to take advantage of the latter.
To catch more fish as the fall deepens, you need to adopt the mantra of thinking “slow, deep and big.” Let’s take a closer look at what is meant by that slogan.
TAKE IT SLOW
Slowing down your fishing is a key factor for fall angling, and it has two connotations. To begin with, fall ordinarily is a dry time of year, which equates to falling water levels in streams and rivers. By late September into October, water tables have dropped to their lowest points of the year, as well as the flows becoming very clear from lack of rainfall.
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Under such conditions, trout become even more wary than at other times of year. While you may be able to see the fish in some calmer pools, they likely will spot you as well. This is a time of year for moving slowly whether you are on the shore or wading. It is also a very good idea to mask your movements using rocks, logs or other structure.
Whenever possible, avoid being silhouetted against the sky, or casting a shadow out on the water on sunny days.
During this season, you need to spend more time reading the water ahead, as well. Figuring out the best lies in the pool or run before getting too close makes planning a line of approach more successful.
The water clarity also calls for making longer casts. The closer you get to where the trout is holding, the more likely you are to spook the fish. Along with those long casts, you want to downsize your line to make it less visible in the water. For fly-casters that means going to lighter and longer tippets. An extra 2 feet is a good idea when dealing with these conditions. Spin-fishermen may need to drop down as light as 4- or even 2-pound-test line.
The other part of the slow-down equation is to work your lures more slowly. With colder water, the trout move less and with less hast when feeding. Don’t expect them to chase a fast-moving bait at this time of year.
Fly-fishers are better served by utilizing dead-drift tactics, so nymph or wet fly patterns move no faster than the current. For the spin-fisher, retrieving a bait as slow as possible works best.
Crankbaits should have a tight, slow wobble action, so they emit plenty of vibration for the trout to sense. If using in-line spinners, Panther Martin versions that have the shaft running through the spinning blade work well, since the blade will spin even when simply suspended in the current.
Deep water has differing meanings, depending on whether you are fishing a smaller stream or a large river. On rivers, it could mean getting a bait down to 10- or 12-foot depths, while on a small stream it could be looking for a run that is 2 feet deeper than surrounding waters.
When trout are not active, they almost always are near the bottom of the stream and lying in spots where they don’t have to fight the current. Since fall water levels are low, trout are often herded into deep pools at the bend of a stream or in washed-out areas below shoals. Of course, if there are deeper runs with less current downstream of boulders, logs or other obstructions within the riffle areas, those too draw in the trout. The bottom line is, you need to forsake the shallows and find deeper waters at this time of year.
To compound this situation, with fewer insect hatches going on and a dearth of terrestrial insects in the colder months, trout have less to draw them to the surface even when they are feeding.
Those factors mandate the need to get your lures or flies down deeper in the water column. That can mean adding a bit of lead to the leader while fly-fishing, or even using a sinking line on bigger waters.
Another advantage to fishing deep in the fall is to avoid the detritus in the water. Leaves falling from trees can clog the current during this season. Usually, they are swept along by the faster current near the surface, or once waterlogged are laying on the bottom. This typically leaves a relatively clean band of water just off the stream bed.
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Fly-casters dead drifting their offering can float the flies amid the leaves at the same speed with the current, thus avoiding excess fouling. In such a clogged stream, the spin-fisher is at a disadvantage, since retrieving a lure almost guarantees picking up leaves on the hook. A better option is to toss a small micro jig of 1/32 ounce, tipped with a tiny swim-tail grub. Bouncing such an offering along the bottom can avoid too much fouling, as well as allowing for very slow movement of the bait.
As the fall progresses and the air temperatures continue to fall, the deeper portion of the stream provides a bit more insulation for the trout. This acts as another attraction to hold the fish in the deeper runs and especially near the bottom.
BULK UP THE BAIT
While low clear water presents a scenario calling for finesse, that doesn’t always apply to the terminal end of the tackle. As noted, the trout are not going to move far to chase baits at this time of year. But, a big bit of forage can overcome that reluctance. This is when the fish instinctively know that lean times are coming in the winter months and they need to pack away some calories to tide them over. A big meal easily caught can be too tempting to resist.
On a number of occasions, I’ve fished with novice anglers in the fall that benefitted from fishing “big and ugly.” Not having chased trout very much, they had tied on a big and outlandishly colored spinning lure, at which most seasoned anglers would have scoffed. Yet, a big brown lazing in the depths would inhale that bait, earning the beginner top rod honors for the day.
If bigger flies and lures can be delivered to the water without too much disturbance, they can be effective. A good spinning lure for this type angling is a wobbling crayfish imitation like the Rebel Wee-Crawfish. At 2 inches long, it is big by trout-fishing standards and can quickly dive to 5- to 7-foot depths and produces good wobbling action when retrieved slowly.
For fly-fishers the options include bead- or bullet-head Wooly Buggers, or similarly weighted Muddler Minnows. The Muddler is a good imitation of a sculpin, which is one of the more substantial baitfish in most trout streams. But, don’t overlook big stonefly nymph imitations. Those nymphs are found year ’round in trout waters and offer a good mouthful for the fish.