Effectively fish streamers, woolly buggers and large flies

By Patrick Straub Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist

Fall is here. The morning’s frost can be found on pumpkins, cottonwood trees are changing colors, and baseball playoffs and football upsets delight sports fans. The next several weeks also serve up some of the best big-fly fishing of the season. It’s the time of year it’s OK to say to your angling buddies, when rigging your rod, “I’m going to fish a ‘bugger all day,” in hopes of hooking a pure specimen. Say this in the heat of summer and you’ll get scoffs and cross-eyed looks as you tie on 18 inches of 1X tippet and a three-inch long articulated baitfish imitation.

Committing to one fishing method during the day can be a risky endeavor, but it can also have its rewards. I know, as I often commit to fishing dry flies while other guides use weighted nymphs and a strike indicator. I catch fish, but I sacrifice numbers to see fish rising to a dry fly. But during fall, if you want to catch a big trout, learn to fish big, subsurface flies that imitate smaller baitfish or large aquatic foods.

Understanding the habits of big fish. Fish grow large for a reason – they are very predacious in nature. Brown trout are more aggressive than most trout species, and as temperatures drop and the days get shorter, browns stage to spawn, making them easier fishing targets. They actively seek out prey while protecting areas that may become spawning grounds. Use this to your advantage – shorter days mean less daylight, making these fish feel more comfortable than normal. The low-light conditions of fall mornings and evenings are ideal for catching big browns.

Once brown trout grow beyond a foot or so, their feeding habits change. They actively seek out and ambush smaller trout, as well as larger aquatic food like crayfish and large stonefly nymphs. Target water offering ample “ambush-friendly” habitat such as undercut banks, log jams, fast-flowing banks with underwater structure, and deep holes at the end of shallow runs.

Adjust and upgrade your tackle. Stouter leaders and tippets, sinking fly lines or leaders, and a few other non-traditional gear adjustments are key. Getting your fly down to these large fish is essential, especially on our area freestone streams such as the Madison and the Gallatin. Select larger flies like bead head woolly buggers and arm yourself with ample split-shot for weight – if you’re fishing in Yellowstone National Park be sure to use non-toxic weight, as lead is prohibited. If you’re fishing a large river like the Yellowstone, choose a 15-foot sinking leader or sink-tip fly line, which will cover most depths. For smaller waters like the Gallatin and Madison, a shorter 7- or 10-foot sinking length will perform well. Choose one with a sink rate between 2.6 and 3.5 inches per second.

For leaders choose stronger tippets. The hope is you’ll need a 15-pound test line because you’re catching monster trout, but regardless you’ll likely be snagging structure and want line that won’t break when you have to yank a hook off a log or rock pile.

DSC_0003Choose bigger, bolder flies. To target trophy trout, use flies that trigger a big fish to react impulsively. Articulated flies – or flies tied with a joint in them – exploded onto the angling scene several years back, dominating most hard-core streamer anglers’ fly boxes. Sculpzillas, The One and Jointed Urchin are popular and examples of flies that have over-sized eyes. When a larger fish is chasing baitfish, the eyes offer a prime target for the predator. Bushy or bulky heads are important, too. Frenchy’s Fathead, a local favorite, is tied with a thick deer-hair head that pushes water as it’s stripped.

The next few weeks around Big Sky are truly special for local anglers as the pace is quiet and unhurried. The favorite runs and holes on our rivers are often free of other anglers, but even if you see someone in your favorite spot, most likely you know them. Enjoy these next few weeks of solitude, and hopefully your biggest fish of the year.

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 and with a partner operates a guide service on the Missouri River.