Phew! Summer is finally over. It was a unique one in southwest Montana—record numbers of visitors to our area, a historic closure of the Yellowstone River, low streamflows and warm water temperatures stressing our fisheries—but thankfully fall is here and cooler water temperatures prevail. As the days grow shorter and tree limbs slowly become bare, the habits of local fish change as well.
In my soul I believe trout fishing’s heart belongs to chilly mornings, fishing hatches during the gentlemanly hours of the day, and a river feeling frigid against the skin. But with the change in season comes the need to change your angling skills.
Here are some tips to get the best out of your fall fishing:
Consider going smaller. A primary hatch in fall is the emergence of Blue Winged Olives. This late season mayfly is a smaller version of the same hatch that occurs in spring. Expect to fish sizes 18s and 20s to imitate both adult dry fly patterns and nymphs. There are various species that hatch in the fall, but unless you want to impress your Latin professor from your days at Yale, all fall mayflies are commonly referred to as Blue Winged Olives, or Blue Wings, or BWOs once you’re standing in your local fly shop.
Adjust your tackle appropriately. If you’re going to fish smaller, be prepared to use lighter tippets. This is important for two reasons. With a smaller fly, a thinner tippet diameter allows your drift to be more natural. Second, with a more natural drift, your fly has a better chance of being eaten. Imagine you’re a trout in the Gallatin or the Upper Madison River. By October, you’ve witnessed a plethora of bad drifts by a varying degree of unskilled anglers. To consistently catch fish in the fall, the presentation of your fly must be natural. Fishing lighter tippet will help.
Supersize it. For seasoned anglers, fishing streamers and larger baitfish imitations is an obvious adjustment. Brown trout become more aggressive in the fall months as they prepare to spawn. Rainbows and cutthroat trout also become more opportunistic. Anglers targeting lakes or fishing in rivers dependent on lakes—such as the Madison River upstream of Hebgen, or the river “between the lakes”—should use sink-tip lines and weighted flies in the larger holes or deeper runs. Patience here is key—get to your spot, ensure your fly is getting down to the necessary depth, and continue fishing as these larger fish come and go as they migrate upstream.
Upgrade your gear arsenal. There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear. By gear, I mean your entire outfit from socks to stocking cap. Technology has evolved to create fabrics that offer a lot of warmth with very little bulk and materials for outerwear and waders with exceptional water and wind resistance. From friction-fused microfibers to extreme vapor fighting powers, manufactures are winning the war against the elements, but like any technology, it’s only as smart as its user who chooses to use it or not.
Manage the clock wisely. As the nighttime low temperatures dip into the 30s, it will take longer for water temperatures to rise and make for hungry and happy trout. A good rule: if the night-time low is below 30 F, hit the water no earlier than 9 or 10 a.m.; if above 30 F, 9 a.m. is doable but you might have cold fingers for awhile before you hook a fish. If you’re planning to fish dry flies, early and late in the day will work against you on two levels: fall hatches mostly occur midday and visibility can be challenging with a later sunrise and earlier sunset.
Be willing to roll with it. Recently, I guided some new clients. Despite my suggestion to wait until the day-of to decide, we spent a lot of lip service weeks prior discussing where we’d go. I’m a firm believer in fishing the best water given the current conditions. Naturally, our angling itinerary changed.
We ended up on spring creeks the day we were supposed to be on the Madison due to wind on the Madison and overcast skies in Paradise Valley; and we fished the Madison on the day slotted for the Yellowstone because rain muddied the section they wanted to fish. Rain, wind, colder temps in one area versus another, and even day of the week (weekends being busier) should all play a role in choosing the best places to fish this time of year.
Healthy rivers and streams are essential to a fulfilling life in Montana. They offer recreation and habitat for wildlife and play a valuable role in our economy. They provide water for crop irrigation and homes to wild trout. When protected and managed appropriately, our rivers can sustain these diverse interests. A lot of thought is needed to ensure the future health of rivers and streams. But every now and then, it’s OK to just go fishing and enjoy it. Fall is an ideal time to do just that.
Pat Straub is the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana On The Fly,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky, he is co-director of the Montana Fishing Guide School, and co-owns a guide service on the Missouri River.