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It’s deep Autumn and fishing for Brown’s is distilled to it’s very essence. The true beauty of simplicity. ┬áMike Lawson writes beautiful words as usual about his time spent on the water.

Fall Fishing

By Mike Lawson

Fall is the best time to fish. It has always been my favorite time of the year. I like fishing after the leaves have started to turn gold, yellow and orange partly because I like the beauty of the river in the fall. The main reason I like fall fishing is because it is simple.

The river is so beautiful in the fall – not only the colors of the trees and the first snow on the mountains but the water. Stream flows are low with runoff from spring snow melt long gone. Releases from dams are less as irrigation demand drops to zero. Lower water not only makes it easier to wade and position yourself but it also makes it easier to define the best holding water. Lower water also concentrates the trout into the deeper runs and pools.

Like other wild animals, trout seem to be more active in the fall. There seems to be an urgency to store as much energy reserves as possible with the onslaught of winter. Most aquatic insects don’t like hot, dry weather. Consequently the best hatches occur in the morning and evening hours during the summer months. Mayflies and other aquatic insects don’t start to emerge until late mornings in the autumn but the hatch actually intensifies as the day wears on. By late afternoon the surface of the stream can be carpeted with tiny mayflies.

Brown and Brook Trout spawn in the fall. They usually get more aggressive before they spawn. You have a better chance to entice a huge Brown Trout to strike a streamer than other times of the season. The fall spawning season also has an effect on other trout species which spawn in the spring, like Rainbows and Cutthroat. All trout have a taste for eggs. Trout which are not spawning tend to hang near those that are in hope of getting a free meal of Huevos Rancheros.

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The thing I like more than anything else about fall fishing is the lack of other anglers. Nowadays our best trout streams are usually covered with hordes of anglers during the summer months. In July and August the best test to tell how a certain river is fishing is to count how many other anglers are on the stream. If it’s packed, the fishing is good. If you don’t see many other anglers, it might be a waste of time to fish.

There are too many other things going on in the fall. For many, fishing has lost out to school, hunting or football. For others, fishing is considered to be only a summer sport. I fall into the same trap myself because I like all of the other fun things that are associated with autumn. That just makes the days I can spend on the stream even more enjoyable. If I can get away during the week it is rare for me to see another angler. I don’t have a problem sharing my fishing but there are days when I want to be alone. As Robert Traver said in his Testament of a Fisherman, fishing is “solitude without loneliness”.

Madison River, MT, fall color-11

Solitary times on the Madison

 

Dry Flies

There is only one major mayfly to consider in late September, October and early November. We commonly call them Blue Winged Olives. There are several species which all look essentially alike which belong to a large family known as Baetis. These are small, multi-brood mayflies which emerge in prolific numbers in the spring and autumn months. They provide exceptional dry fly opportunities during the autumn months as well as March, April and May.

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Most Baetis are pretty small, down to size 24, but you can usually match them well with size 18 or 20 flies. My favorite patterns include Sparkle Duns, Thorax and No-Hackles tied with light grey wings and a medium grey-olive body. You should also have a few emerger in case the trout get real selective. Most of the time you can get away with a size 18 Parachute Adams.

One thing that is unique among Baetis species is the spinners don’t fly back to the surface of the stream to lay their eggs. Instead they swarm near the stream bank and crawl under the water to lay their eggs on the rocks below. I’ve found a soft hackle to be deadly when fished along the bank during the late afternoon and evening hours.

Baetis are prolific everywhere in the Upper Snake River Region. They usually wait until the air temperature warms up before they start to emerge. By early afternoon you’ll find the surface covered with trout rising everywhere. On the Henry’s Forkthere are lots of exposed weed beds and the biggest trout hold in the slicks between the weeds where they find the greatest concentration of insects. This makes a real challenge to drop the fly into the trout’s feeding lane between the weeds. It is even a greater challenge if you hook him because he’ll really strain your tippet when he runs through the weeds. That’s why I like to use a fairly heavy tippet for such a small dry fly, at least 5X.

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Nymphs

Even in the autumn, the trout aren’t always rising. Even if they are you’ll often need to get your fly down deep if you want to catch the largest fish. Learning to fish nymphs effectively is one of the greatest challenges to fly fishing. I believe trout are more on the lookout for nymphs than during the hot summer months.

I usually use an indicator when I’m fishing nymphs in the deeper runs. I like to use bright poly yarn. I double it back and forth a few times and tie it in the butt section of the leader with a clinch knot. Then I tie the tippet portion of the leader to the butt section with another clinch knot. This drops the nymph at a right angle to the indicator. You need to position the nymph at a distance from the indicator that is proportionate to the depth of the water, usually about six feet.

I frequently use a double nymph set up. I tie on a larger nymph for the top fly and extend another section of tippet from the eye of the top fly and tie in the dropper nymph about a foot below. I like a stonefly imitation like a size 8 or 10 black rubberlegs for the upper fly and a Prince, Hare’s Ear or bead head nymph for the bottom. Use a fairly short line and cast up and across the run, mending line during the drift to keep the nymphs drag free. Any hesitation in the indicator should be met with a sharp strike.

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I’ve caught some real big fish using this deep nymph method. One October day I fished the Upper Madison River in the park with Wes Newman. Wes has caught some big browns in the autumn when they run up from Hebgen Lake to spawn. I had never spent much time fishing this area but I tied on my double nymph set up and started hooking some nice trout. Toward the end of the day Wes really made a believer out of me when I hooked a trout that just over powered me. He raced all the way upstream to the top of the pool, breaking off 2X tippet when he reached the rocks two hundred feet above. Nymphs can also be very productive during mayfly hatches. Baetis nymphs are slender and streamlined, designed for fast swimming among the subsurface rocks and aquatic vegetation. I think the best pattern to imitate them is a size 18 Pheasant Tail Nymph. One technique that has proven very effective is to cast the nymph slightly upstream and across a rising trout and then giving it a slight twitch as it passes in front of the trout’s holding position.

Another tactic is to tie a dropper to a dry fly. I like to tie another section of tippet to the bend of the dry fly and attach the nymph 8 to 10 inches below. When the Baetis are hatching I use a size 18 Parachute Adams for the dry fly and a Pheasant Tail Nymph below. Fish the dry fly as though the nymph weren’t attached but strike if you see a swirl or movement of the dry fly.

My favorite way to fish nymphs is to sight fish. The bright autumn sun and super clear water offers an opportunity to spot trout holding in the shallow sections of the stream. The trick is to position yourself below the trout but close enough to still see him react to your nymph. This means you’ll need to stalk to within about 20 feet of a feeding trout. You can have even more fun if you share this fishing with your fishing partner. One can spot while the other casts.

You don’t watch the line or and indicator. You simply watch the trout. Drop the nymph above and to the side. Strike if you see the trout move to the nymph. I don’t like to cast directly over the trout because if the nymph drifts straight to him, you won’t know he has taken the nymph unless you see his mouth open. If you cast a foot to the side you can easily tell when the trout moves to take the nymph.

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Streamers

The fact that trout become more aggressive in the fall makes fishing streamers a logical choice for big fish. Trout hit streamers for two reasons: food and aggression. Trout feed on small fish throughout the year but they are less tolerant of smaller fish invading their territory as spawning time approaches.

The best streamer fishermen are those who understand the behavior of small baitfish. I’ve never met a better streamer fisherman than Jack Dennis. Jack credits his success to his ability to actually think like a fish. When he approaches a likely looking run he first studies the water before he makes a cast. He tries to envision where a small fish would try to go to escape if it were washed into the pool and if attacked by a large trout, where it would go.

Most of us make the mistake of casting across and down and then retrieving our streamer with a steady stripping retrieve. When you think about it, the last place a small fish would try to go if trying to escape would be to swim upstream against the current. Using Jack’s philosophy, a small fish would probably try to find the path of least resistance and turn downstream to try to escape.

Above all, you should always try to give the trout a broadside look at a streamer for as long as possible. When large fish attack small fish, they usually try to hit them in the head. They will frequently strike a small fish to stun it and then come back for the kill. One of the most deadly techniques is to cast the streamer slightly upstream and across, mending line and twitching the fly with the rod tip as the fly drifts down. With some experience you can keep the fly moving across current all the way through the drift.

My favorite autumn streamer patterns are woolly bugger variations. I like to add some sparkle by tying in some strips of crystal flash in the tail. I also like to use a marabou tail equal to the body length or longer to give the fly plenty of action. Sometimes woolly buggers are more effective if you tie in a set of lead eyes at the head. This gives the fly a lot more motion when retrieved. It dives when you give it some slack and rises when you strip.

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Places

I’m not about to give up my favorite secret spots. Southeastern Idaho has so many great fall fishing areas that I don’t need to be very specific. The South Forkof the Snake, the Teton River, and Fall River offer excellent opportunities. The Snake River from Blackfoot downstream to American Falls Reservoir is another sleeper.

My favorite waters are those closest to my home in Saint Anthony. Some of the largest trout I’ve ever witnessed in the Box Canyon were caught in October. There isn’t much dry fly fishing but streamers and large nymphs are highly effective. Koke Winter (an actual real life character featured in many of the works of John Gierach) caught a ten pounder and a thirteen pounder when he and I fished together one early November day several years ago. He caught them both on a black wooly worm.

Just below the Box Canyon is the Harriman State Park, locally known as the Railroad Ranch. I believe it is one of the finest dry fly stretches of water in the world for large trout. Some of the biggest trout ever caught in this section on dry flies have been landed this summer. Many of the most experienced long time anglers I know have caught their largest trout in the “ranch section” over the past two years, including me. Myrna Jacobs landed a 27-1/2″ monster a couple of weeks ago. September and early October may be the best fishing of the entire season on the Ranch. Another section of the Henry’s Fork that gets especially good in the fall is the stretch from Lower Mesa Falls to the Ashton Reservoir. This is a great section to float with a drift boat. On warm autumn days you can still get some good fishing with hoppers. The best fishing is usually with streamers and large nymphs. There are some real big Browns in this stretch. I hooked one in June on a dry salmonfly that just tore me up. I never had a chance. After about 15 minutes the big boy got bored and charged through the rocks, busting my 2X tippet.

Evening on the Henry's Fork

One time I was fishing just below Warm River with Gil and Arlene Bacon from Pocatello. Arlene hooked a 14-inch Whitefish and a monster Brown surfaced from the deep and started attacking the Whitefish. The big trout couldn’t quite get the Whitefish into his mouth or she would have had a heck of a battle. I know where that big Brown lives and I plan on spending some time running some streamers through his pool this fall. I’m just not sure what pattern I can use to imitate a 14-inch Whitefish, however.

If I were to pick my own favorite piece of water for fall fishing it would be the section of the Henry’s Fork from the Ashton Dam to Saint Anthony. This stretch gets excellent Baetis and midge hatches until the winter winds freeze me out. There are tons of trout per mile and lots of big fish. Besides, it is close to home. How many guys can walk out their back door and in a few minutes be hooked up to a nice trout in a world class fishery?

 

We have known Mike for ages and its worth everyones while to stop by his world renowned Henry’s Fork Anglers when visiting that holy grail of trout streams (but you already knew this).