By Patrick Straub
Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist
A good fishing client of mine has spent the past six summers working as a campground host in the Gallatin Canyon. He and his wife travel each spring from California to our area, set up their trailer and prepare for the onslaught of visitors. I usually see him a few times in May, once or twice in June and he falls off the radar entirely after July 1, when he’s too busy taking care of other campers.
I always know summer is over when he starts calling me again to go fishing, and I’ve heard from him a lot recently.
Despite our desire to cling to our flip-flops and sun shirts, we can get excited for a very good fishing season this fall. Blessed with above-average snowpack this year and some cooler temperatures in late August, fall in southwest Montana is shaping up to be one to remember.
Here are some helpful tips to get the best out of your fall fishing:
Time your fishing. We often stress this in winter but for fall fishing it’s equally important – I’m happy to be waking up at 7 a.m. instead of 5 a.m. these days. Watching a Montana sunrise is often spectacular, but for fall fishing your time’s better spent watching the sunset on the river. As the nighttime lows dip into the 30s, it takes longer for water temperatures to rise and make for hungry trout. A good rule: If the nighttime low is below 30 F, hit the water no earlier than 9 or 10 a.m.; if the low is above 30 degrees, 9 a.m. is fishable but you might have cold fingers for awhile before you hook a fish.
Invest in quality gear. A local angling legend – who prefers anonymity – once told me, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear.” The few times I’ve been cold and miserable on the river were the direct result of poor planning on my part because I didn’t have the appropriate gear, from socks to stocking cap. Technology has evolved to create fabrics that offer warmth with little bulk, and materials for outerwear and waders with exceptional water and wind resistance. Manufacturers are winning the war against the elements, but like any technology it’s only as smart as its user. Fortunately, zipping a Gore-Tex jacket is much easier than programming your smartphone.
Adjust your fishing tactics. Fishing guides enjoy changing tactics when morning frost shows up. The most obvious tactical adjustment is fishing streamers and larger baitfish imitations. Brown trout become more aggressive in the fall as they prepare to spawn, and rainbows and cutthroat also become more opportunistic. Anglers targeting lakes or fishing in rivers dependent on lakes, such as the Madison River upstream of Hebgen Lake or the stretch between Hebgen and Quake lakes, should use sink-tip lines and weighted flies in larger holes or deeper runs. Patience is key – get to your spot, ensure your fly is getting down to the necessary depth, and continue fishing as trout migrate upstream. Matching the hatch becomes a little more important for dry-fly anglers during these cooler months. On most of our rivers, the primary fall hatch is the Blue Winged Olive mayfly. A purple Parachute Adams or a Purple Para-Cripple will get it done too, but it’s a good idea to have a few mayfly emergers and spent mayflies – those that have hatched, mated and are laying dead on the water.
Be flexible. I recently guided some new clients and despite my suggestion to wait until the day-of to decide where to fish, we spent the weeks prior discussing where to go. They wanted a plan before they got off the plane, so we set one. But I’m a firm believer in fishing the best water given the current conditions and naturally our angling itinerary changed. 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 where to fish this time of year.
Each spring I look forward to the fall, and not only because the finish to another great guiding season is in sight, or because I get an extra hour of sleep each night. It’s because I believe the soul of trout fishing lies in chilly mornings, frigid water, and matching hatches during the gentlemanly hours of the day.
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. Along with his wife, owns Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and with a partner operates a guide service on the Missouri River.