By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist
Fall fishing conditions are dominated by low flows, cooler water temps, and daily fluctuations in weather conditions.
During just one recent week on the water, I rowed my boat in shorts and flip flops, wore two layers of long underwear and my down jacket on a Gallatin walk-and-wade excursion, and peeled off layers while guiding a Paradise Valley spring creek the next day. I call these variable conditions “weather roulette.” It’s only fitting that the method for the most success is also dictated by the day’s weather conditions.
As a young guide in the ‘90s, I forced my angling hand. I often ignored the immediate conditions and went straight for what worked yesterday. As I’ve grown older and my dislike of blindly fishing weighted flies below an indicator has grown, I’ve learned to pick apart the weather forecast to choose fishing scenarios that fit my current angling style.
Not being one to judge another’s desire to get enjoyment out of fly fishing—what matters most is you get outside and just go fishing—I do not look down upon those who do not follow my progression. In fact, my house is just as glassy as others’, as conditions often dictate I hang an indicator and bob it down the river.
Here’s some advice on matching angling method to current conditions.
Fishing the dry fly. The most obvious reason to fish a dry fly is rising fish are prevalent. Before you approach the stream, look for rising fish. If you see feeding trout, fish a dry fly. Observe the type of rise form. If they’re splashy, consider fishing a caddis dry fly. If they’re subtle or you see a nose or a tail, perhaps they’re eating mayfly duns or emerging mayflies. If you don’t see rising fish, observe the water. Are insects in the air or on the water? Perhaps insects like salmon flies and grasshoppers are hanging out in the bushes. If enough bugs are on the water, in the air or on riverside structure, keep the floatant handy and fish a dry fly.
Fishing the nymph—blindly or by sight. Too often people commit to blind-fishing nymph rigs without riverside observation. If you fish nymphs, do it as a result of accurate and up-to-date first-hand knowledge. If you know a hatch will not occur for a few hours or not at all, then a nymph rig might be the best first choice. The “they don’t eat dry flies here” excuse is not enough for me. I’d rather hear “you might catch more blindly fishing nymphs than prospecting with dry flies.”
Seeing a fish eat a dry fly on the surface is enjoyable and exciting, but decoding what is happening underwater takes patience and a higher level of problem solving. At first impression blind-fishing a nymph rig may seem like an easy way out, but the opposite is true—there’s a lot more going on below the surface than on it. To successfully fish a deep nymph rig you must tackle the trio of fly selection, how deep to fish your flies, and where to fish your flies.
Sight-fishing nymphs requires increased skill in seeing fish and more technical rigging. There are certain waters where this is an essential skill, like Paradise Valley spring creeks and the Gallatin River.
As hatches occur, fish may or may not break the surface yet still feed on active nymphs. A long leader with flies fished shallow under a small indicator can be very effective.
Fishing the streamer. Anglers who consistently catch big fish often consistently fish streamers. Big fish eat big flies. Few experienced anglers argue that. Committing to fishing streamers should be based on a few factors, a primary one being whether you’re a good enough caster to handle a heavy fly and often sinking or sink-tip lines. I would choose streamers when I know a hatch will not occur, it is too windy to blind fish a nymph rig (indicator, weight, and two weighted flies often tangle more), and I’m in need of a big fish photo to update my digital world.
Whatever style you choose to use, fish the way you want. I’m a firm believer in angling faith—faith in fly fishing is good for the soul and the psyche; faith in fly fishing is good for conserving our local resources; and faith in making individualized angling decisions will help you get the fishing enjoyment you want.
No one way of fishing is correct, because angling success is in the eye of the rod holder.
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, he is co-director of the Montana Fishing Guide School, and co-owns a guide service on the Missouri River.