It’s official. The aspens are changing, nighttime temperatures are dropping, and fall is in the air here in Colorado. That can only mean one thing: more good fishing.
Even though summer is coming to an end, there’s no reason to pack up the waders and store the fly rod. There are fish to be caught throughout the fall. Even though summer usually reigns king in the fly fishing world, fall offers its own unique opportunities to hit the water.
1. Streamers, streamers, streamers
Probably the most well-known fall special in fly fishing is streamers. Though they can be used during the summer as well, streamers shine in the fall. This can be especially true for big browns, which often aggressively attack fleeing baitfish. While some of the favorite summer bug hatches are starting to wind down, the streamer “hatch” is in full swing during September and October.
You can fish streamers in a variety of ways. Swinging them, casting along the shore, or simply casting straight out and stripping back can all produce good results. Try mixing these techniques up to see what the fish are preferring in your area.
Another tactic to explore what’s on the menu is to double up on streamers. You’ll need a strong enough rod to handle it (casting two large streamers on a 3-wt probably isn’t the best decision), but a 5- or 6-wt should do just fine. Tying one streamer to the bend of the other with around two feet of line in between will allow you to test multiple patterns at once. Try to include some variety (large and small, or black and white, etc.).
Also, remember that fluorocarbon line can be your friend for streamer fishing. It’s strong and sinks easily, allowing you to keep your streamer from staying near the surface. For more info on fluorocarbon line, check out the article on Leaders and Tippet.
2. Stay in bed
I’m sure no one will object to the following trick to fall fishing: sleeping in. During the summer months, the key is usually to fish early and fish late. With warm water, fish will be munching on nymphs and emergers throughout the morning, and getting to the river at noon can seriously cost you.
In the fall, however, cold nighttime temperatures and brisk mornings mean the fish will take a while to “wake up” and start feeding. Odds are, getting to the river at first light won’t land you many extra fish. Instead, take your time in the morning and make sure you’re on the river by the time it actually starts to warm up. This could often be between 8 and 10 in the morning, depending on the weather.
3. Watch your shadows
There are lots of things that can give away your presence while fishing. Bright colors, movement, sound, water disturbance, and shadows can all tip fish off to your location. Some of these are important year-round. You wouldn’t go stomping around your favorite run, since it’s obvious that the sharp movements, shifting rocks, and heavy splashing would spook fish. In the summer, though, shadows often aren’t a huge deal. The sun rises high overhead, and your shadow will probably stay pretty close to your body.
In the fall, things are different. Low sun angles mean long shadows, and these can spook fish before you even realize you’re casting them. To fix the problem, be aware of how your shadow is being cast and where you can stand to keep it off the fish. This may mean crossing the river to the opposite bank, or positioning yourself upstream or downstream of where you would normally stand.
4. Use light tippet
Some beautiful things about fall are the changing leaves, spawning colors on trout, and gin-clear water. The problem, though, is that gin clear water, and typically low flows, can be tough to fish. One way to get an edge is to use light tippet.
Light tippet isn’t that important in late spring and early summer since runoff generally clouds the water. Even in the middle of summer, thunderstorms are frequent and can disturb the water enough to get away with thicker tippet. Additionally, it’s generally a good idea to use thicker tippet on scorching hot days to avoid playing fish too long.
By fall, however, water levels have gone down, clarity has increased, and cooler days and nights keep stream temperatures in check for trout. This means lighter tippet. There’s less need to haul fish in as fast as possible, since the water will be cool enough for a speedy recovery. Plus, you’ll need all the help you can get when it comes to fooling fish.
This is another good argument for fluorocarbon line, which is less visible underwater. Even if you’re just nymphing, using fluorocarbon tippet can still help conceal your rig.
5. Fish ants
In addition to streamers, terrestrials are great flies to use through fall. Though terrestrials, in general, can be fished through much of the summer and fall, ants in particular are a great choice for the early autumn months.
You’ve probably seen flying ants at some point during your fishing career. These ants aren’t a particular species, but rather a specific type of ant within a colony. When it’s time to mate, winged ants leave the colony to mate and establish new colonies. When this happens, massive numbers of ants leave at once, causing what’s called an “ant fall” on streams. Fallen ants are a favorite meal of trout. Ant falls can happen through summer and fall, but are most common in early fall. So, if you’re having trouble getting a fish to take your mayfly, give an ant a try.
6. Learn your hatches
Knowing which bugs to expect in fall can be extremely helpful on the water. Most fishermen know which hatches to expect throughout the summer, since many spend ample time fishing and can notice the patterns. In fall though, unless you go regularly, you may not know which fly box to grab.
Although nothing beats seeing what’s hatching on the particular river you’re fishing, while you’re fishing it, looking at hatch charts for your area can give you a good leg up. Orvis has a Western Hatch Chart and an Eastern Hatch Chart that make it easy to figure out common hatches through October. Some insects, like the midge and BWO, can hatch throughout much of the year, including fall. BWOs, in particular, are known for hatching in fall. Meanwhile, other familiar bugs like the drakes and some caddises, are summer hatchers.
Taking 15 minutes to learn which insects hatch in September and October in your area will give you a great start when you head out to fish. To make things even easier, you can have a separate fly box that includes only the flies (including streamers and terrestrials!) that you know are good during the fall.
7. Prepare for weather
This one seems obvious, but is also one of the easiest to overlook. Fall has different weather than summer. And, since fall often seems to show up overnight, it can be easy to end up underprepared on what appears to be a nice day.
Once mid-September hits, I like to make sure I keep a warm jacket on hand even if it’s warm when I start fishing. If the fishing is good, I hate to have to pull myself off the river because it got cold.
In addition to just getting chilly without an extra layer, it can be hard in the fall to get hands warm after dunking them underwater for a fish or snag. Even stripping line in can make fingers damp and cold. In colder months, I like to carry a pair of rubber Patagonia gloves. There are plenty of options for insulated rubber gloves, and these are perfect for stripping in line and dunking hands underwater. And, since they are smooth rubber instead of scratchy fabric, I’m less worried about scraping off fish slime while using them.
Fall can be a fantastic time to fish if you’re willing to learn some new tactics and give it a try. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with colorful fish, wonderful fall colors, and solitude on the water. You’ll get to fish during midday, feel big browns demolish streamers, and go back to enjoy a hot beverage at the end of a productive day.