By Patrick Straub EBS FISHING COLUMNIST
As fall creeps into our area, despite our desire to cling to our flip-flops and sunshirts, we can be excited for a very good fishing season. Blessed with ample summer streamflows and some of the best hopper fishing we’ve had in recent memory, 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 appropriately. We stress this often in winter but, for fall fishing it is equally important. A few more hours of sleep never hurt anyone, and for me I’m happy to be waking up at 7 a.m. instead of 5 these days. Watching a Montana sunrise is often spectacular, but for fall fishing, your time’s better spent watching the sunset on the river than stumbling for your coffee in the dark of the early morning.
As the nighttime lows dip into the 30s, it will take longer for the water temperatures to rise and make for hungry and happy trout. A good rule: If the nighttime low is below 30 degrees, hit the water no earlier than 9 or 10 a.m.; if above 30, 9 a.m. is do-able but you might have cold fingers for a while before you hook a fish.
Invest in quality gear. A local angling legend once said to me, “There is 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 did have the appropriate gear. By gear, I mean your entire outfit from socks to stocking cap.
Technology has evolved to create fabrics that offer a lot of warmth with very little bulk and materials for outerwear and waders have exceptional water and wind resistance. From friction-fused microfibers to extreme vapor-fighting powers, these fabrics 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 the change of tactics that occurs when morning frost shows-up. The most obvious and popular tactical adjustment is fishing streamers and larger baitfish imitations. Brown trout become more aggressive in the coming weeks as they prepare to spawn. Rainbows and cutthroat trout also become more opportunistic.
Anglers targeting lakes or fishing in rivers dependent on lakes, such as the Madison River upstream of Hebgen or the river “between the lakes,” should use sink-tip lines and weighted flies in the larger holes or deeper runs. Patience here is key—get to your spot, ensure your fly is getting down to the necessary depth, and continue fishing as fish come and go migrating upstream.
Dry-fly anglers will find matching the hatch becomes a little more important during these cooler months. On most of our rivers, the primary hatch is the fall blue-winged olive mayfly. A purple Parachute Adams or a Purple Para-Cripple will get it done most of the time, but it is a good idea to have a few mayfly emergers in your box along with some spent mayflies.
Be flexible. This past week I guided some new clients—despite my suggestions of waiting until the day-of to decide where to fish, we spent a lot of lip service weeks-prior discussing where to go and what would be the best option. They wanted a plan in place before they got off the plane, so we set one: Monday the Yellowstone, Tuesday the Madison, Wednesday a spring creek, and so-on.
I’m a firm believer in fishing the best water given the current conditions. Naturally our angling itinerary changed. We ended up on the spring creek the day we were supposed to be on the Madison because of wind on the Madison and overcast skies in Paradise Valley; we fished the Madison on the day slotted for the Yellowstone because of rain muddying the section they wanted to fish. Rain, wind, colder temps in one area versus another, and even the day of the week—weekends being busier—all should play a role in choosing the best places to fish this time of year.
Each spring I look forward to fall, and not just because the finish line to another guiding season is in sight, or because I get an extra hour of sleep each night not having to be on the water shortly after sunrise. It is because in my soul I believe trout fishing’s heart belongs to chilly mornings, fishing hatches during the gentlemanly hours of the day and a river feeling frigid against the skin.
Patrick Straub is a 20-year veteran guide and outfitter on Montana’s waters and has fished the world over. He now writes and manages the social media for Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures. He is the author of six books, including “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing” and has been writing The Eddy Line for seven years.