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Fall Fly Fishing in Montana

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By Bill Buchbauer

This time of year you may be chasing deer and elk up in the hills, or drinking away the days until ski season arrives in the bar. What many fail to realize is that amazing fishing opportunities exist in Montana during October and November. Beautiful crisp mornings combined with clear cool water conditions and brilliantly colored vegetation make fall fishing my favorite season to chase large brown trout. Guide boats filled with summer tourists are long gone, and I find peace and solitude on the water.

During their fall spawn, brown trout become beautiful colors that match the landscape. These large fish also become more aggressive and move out of reservoirs and into smaller streams and side channels on larger rivers. The shift in location makes the big browns more available to fly fisherman. Fall fishing for big browns is a lot like hunting. To succeed, you must first find the right water, then locate the fish and finally, present your flies properly.

Fall is also great time to explore sections of rivers that are too warm to fish during the summer and too high and muddy in the spring. With cooling water temps that drop into the low fifties, rivers like the lower Madison, Jefferson and Missouri can come to life and give anglers a chance at truly large fish. Fishing sections of rivers above lakes and reservoirs in the fall are also a good bet. Large fish that live in the still water will journey into the rivers to spawn and feed.

Focusing on side channels and getting out of the boat and wade fishing also offer opportunities to catch big browns: they look for slow to medium speed riffles and runs below and over gravel bars. Fishing right over spawning beds is frowned upon, and anglers should be wary not to step on the lightly colored deposits in the gravel known as reds. Fishing just behind obvious reds in the deeper water however, often produces fish that are staging for spawning and feeding on the eggs from the spawning fish.

The browns exhibit an aggressive territorial response this time of year and often chase streamers, especially on cloudy days. Small baitfish such as sculpins and crawfish steal eggs from the reds and provoke attacks from the big browns. Egg patterns fished right on the bottom can be very effective this time of year. Small mayfly nymphs and midges will also take fish if presented properly.

Fish will concentrate in the same places year after year. Finding these hot spots is part of the challenge and discovery of fall fishing here in Montana. Chances are, no one will tell you about their secret spot.

Once you’ve located a run, it’s worth spending time staging fish. First, try swinging a streamer through the run such as a Zonker, a JJ Special or your favorite bugger. Often this method will attract the most aggressive fish. Next, try dead drifting a San Juan or an egg pattern with a small nymph dropper such as a Copper John or Lightening Bug under an indicator. Use plenty of weight placed four or five inches above the egg pattern to get the fly down on the bottom. In the cold water, sometimes fish will not move very far to take the fly. It’s important that the fly is right on the bottom and moving slowly with a drag-free drift. Don’t give up after just a few casts. Often a fish will suddenly take, even after multiple presentations. Takes can be very subtle, so set the hook on any hesitation of the indicator. Strong tippets and heavy gauge hooks may be necessary for landing a big, hard fighting fall brownie.

Fall fishing is a great way to pass the time until the ski lifts open. Take advantage of the nice weather and beautiful scenery, and head out to the river. You’ll probably be the only one around, and you just might hook into that fish of a lifetime.

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