Not really summer, not really fall

By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist

As kids return to school, the nights get longer and the mornings cooler, and the number of visitors slowly wanes, the signs of summer’s exit are becoming more clear. As many of us shift from summer camps with the kids or constant motion—serving tourists, or hosting friends and families enjoying summer in Montana—the trout in our local waters are forced to change as well.

If our angling summer is defined by hatches—salmon flies are the kick-off, PMDs are the second act, caddis the interlude, and spruce moths the grand finale—the next few weeks are indefinable in all aspects. Our rivers, and the feeding habits of their trout, are now in transition.

After a lifetime of fishing in Montana, I’ve come to enjoy the last two weeks of August—but there has been a learning curve. Here’s some advice I’ve learned over the years.

Long-sleeve jackets and blue sky. Is it summer or fall? Do the fish care? Not on the Gallatin River, which is a very good option during the transition from summer to fall. PHOTO BY PATRICK STRAUB

Long-sleeve jackets and blue sky. Is it summer or fall? Do the fish care? Not on the Gallatin River, which is a very good option during the transition from summer to fall. PHOTO BY PATRICK STRAUB

Early on, early off. August is still summer on the calendar and with our low flows this year, water temperatures climb fast. If you want to find feeding fish, get on the water early. Fishing at dawn is not odd; it should be the norm this time of year. Chances are very good that you’ll have the river to yourself. Plan accordingly and work to be off the water by mid-afternoon, which is the perfect time for a beer and a nap before fishing the evening hatch.

Get techy. Yes, you read that correctly. Plan to fish longer leaders and lighter tippets if you want to bring more fish to hand. Educate yourself on the various materials out there: fluorocarbon is essential for subsurface fishing; Rio Suppleflex is the best tippet on the market when delicate presentations are essential; and practice your knots, because 5X and 6X can handle most situations as long as your knot holds.

Fish right down the middle. With the low flows of late summer, fish become sensitive to light and seek solace in deeper, darker water. Shade is also difficult to find as the lower flows mean water is further off the banks. I’ve enjoyed many successful dry fly days targeting water most would think too deep for a fish to rise.

Go big and have faith in it. If getting technical with little dry flies or double nymph rigs with split shot measured to the tenth of a gram isn’t your idea of fly-fishing fun, tie on a big grasshopper and fish deep, fast water. This might be the equivalent of betting the house on black, but at least you won’t lose money. Trout still need to eat and a hungry trout will at least ponder a large terrestrial floating overhead. Float it over enough of them a few are bound to eat it.

Seek out cooler water. There are ample places to fish with cooler water. Fish a high mountain lake. Venture to a small mountain stream. Hike into the high country of Yellowstone National Park. Fish one of the Paradise Valley spring creeks. Take a road trip to the Bighorn River.

Embrace simplicity. Fish are either going to feed or they are not. For late summer fishing, my selection is small: zebra midges in 18s and 20s; tan hoppers in 8s; CDC caddis in 16s; and a Purple Haze in 18. My standard leader is a 9-foot 5X for single dries or subsurface nymphs and 9-foot 2X for hoppers. Tippet selection is 5X and 6X Suppleflex and 5X fluorocarbon for nymphing. My waders stay at home and my pack is light.

If you’re taking a picture, look at the bigger picture. Trout require plenty of clean, cold water. This summer we saw angling restrictions on most of our local waters. As longer and cooler nights become the norm, fishing will improve daily. If you plan to photograph your catch, please keep the fish as close to the water as possible.

Years ago I would dread this time of the angling year. I spent the bulk of my angling energy insisting the fish hold onto their summer habits—forcing caddis or stoneflies along steep banks or fishing PMD emergers through riffles.

These days I cherish the transition from summer to fall. As if a preview of the quieter season to come, late August is a breather for myself and local trout.

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.