In early September, many trout fishermen in Central Pennsylvania have called it quits for the season. For some, fall and the coming winter mean it’s time to hang up the rods, clean the reels, and sit down at the vise to replenish our boxes.
However, this means that there’s more room on the water for the angler willing to fish as the seasons change.
Public waters that are usually very pressured become more solitary as the temperatures decline.
The overgrown weeds and obstacles on the banks start to wither away, making deep pockets that were inaccessible in July, fair game in October.
Fly fishing in the fall can produce large, aggressive brown trout that are on the move and preparing to spawn, so it is worth it to devote time to being out on the water as the leaves change and the wind picks up.
Fall conditions, particularly colder water temperatures, mean that brown trout begin their journey to spawn.
They will swim up the main channels of rivers and larger streams, and are more aggressive, defending their territory when holding beneath undercuts and in deep pools.
Beautiful Fall Brown Trout
This behavior can be quite impressive to witness. This territorial and aggressive nature makes strikes during this time of the year explosive and exciting for the fall fly fisherman.
Safely Fishing the Spawn
While the fall season can be very worthwhile and exciting to fish, we must remember that the trout are getting ready to spawn and are under even more stress than in the summer. A lot of this stress comes from having to build a redd.
For those who do not know, a redd is a spawning bed that female trout create with their tails in loose gravel to protect and shelter their eggs while awaiting fertilization from a traveling male.
It is a known fact that trout will hold here, sometimes many of them, and the redds are easy to spot with careful attention to where you’re wading.
The eggs need very oxygenated water, so flow will be key, and these piles of loose gravel can be from about one foot in length to much larger. One very noticeable thing about redds is that the stone the trout use to build them will be meticulously clean and range in size from pebbles to quarter-sized pieces of stone. In clear water this makes them easy to spot and should make them easy to avoid.
Do your best to keep from wading on top of the redds, and don’t cast to fish that are holding on them.
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The changing and sometimes unpredictable conditions of the fall mean that food sources for trout are changing, too. Early fall is the last hurrah for terrestrials, and while hatches are still happening their duration is sometimes shorter, sometimes late, and by far less diverse than in the spring and summer.
Don’t put the dry flies away for the rest of the year yet; they still have their place when the leaves are falling. Due to the aggressive nature of trout during the fall, baitfish become a main course on the menu.
However, smaller terrestrials are also numerous in early September and Olives replace caddis as the main hatching prey, at least for a short time.
Concerning nymphs, there is always more going on in the water than outside of it, even if you can’t see it. Flip some rocks, take a peek and do some careful observation of what’s flittering around in the disturbed silt and grime.
Best Fall Trout Flies
Streamers // The Wooly Bugger
My box for fall trout is varied but there are a few staples I keep specifically on hand during this time of the year, and one is the venerable and extremely effective Wooly Bugger.
As previously stated, the fall months bring about aggression and a need for high protein meals in spawning trout, and this streamer pattern, while always effective, is even more productive for me during the fall.
I find that I get more strikes when I start the fall season fishing smaller buggers in more natural colors.
As the water and air temperatures continue to decline, I start to size up my Buggers and use more unnatural colors to entice larger, hardier browns to strike.
Whether on their way to spawn or after they’ve finished the deed and are looking for a last large mouthful as they depart the redd.
Tying The Wooly Bugger
Lately, I have grown fond of using beads for the head of my buggers to add some flash and added weight. I fish smaller buggers on nymph hooks in size 12, and use reddish-brown chenille for the body, with similarly coloured maribou for the tail, and black schlappen for hackle.
One single strand of root beer Krystal Flash makes an eye-catching addition to the tail. These smaller buggers can be fished with a jerking, intermittent retrieve like other streamers, but I find that they produce just as many strikes when dead drifted like a nymph.
I also make sure to tie up some of these smaller size buggers on jig hooks with slotted tungsten beads as well.
The versatility of this pattern and the numerous ways to fish and tie it are surely reasons why it has stood the test of time and remains a standard in every fly fisher’s box year-round.
Size up and add extra flash and longer hackle as the weather gets colder.
Barry Ord Clarke’s beadhead Wooly Bugger is perfect for fall, and his simple but effective pattern can be used to produce effective buggers in various sizes and colors.
Barry Ord Clarke’s beadhead Wooly Bugger
Terrestrials are nearing the end of their lifecycle by early fall, but they can still produce big bites on the surface. I tend to size them down during September and usually abandon them completely by mid-to-late October.
A simple Japanese or Black Beetle pattern using foam and peacock herl is always effective, especially when fished near the bank and next to limbs that have been blown into the water from high winds during early Autumn.
I tie these with a triangular blue sighter on top, since the leaves are changing and often falling into the water in various shades of red, yellow, and orange. The blue makes it a little easier to keep an eye on a size 14 beetle floating amongst all the debris dropped from the trees.
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To increase my chances of a strike, I will often tie a flying ant or mosquito in size 20 or smaller, with or without foam, as the dropper off of the beetle and fish two flies at once. While initially challenging, fishing two flies at once can increase your hookup ratio dramatically, and like everything else concerning fly fishing, it gets easier with practice.
Fly Fisherman Magazine has a standard beetle pattern that can be expanded on with various other materials (pre-molded soft-plastic legs, antennae, wing case, etc) and tied in a variety of sizes.
If you don’t have some version of a flying ant in your box, you should. They work anywhere, from high mountain streams to the edges of grassy islands in the middle of the Susquehanna. Jim Misiura gives a great tutorial on this fly here.
Some anglers just can’t (or more often won’t) stop using dries. I find the ‘Dry or Die’ mentality admirable, but also a true test of patience for me, especially in the fall. Still, I cannot deny the satisfaction of watching a brown blindside a dry fly as it listlessly floats in short circles near a calm pocket of water.
This guide would not be complete without mentioning the October caddis. It’s right there in the name, after all. This fly as well as an X caddis are my go-to choices when I do see trout still attacking the surface.
The color and flash on both patterns make them a bit easier to see when the sun is out, which is also when fall insects are the most active (here in central PA, from about 1-4:00 PM).
Barry Ord Clarke’s October Caddis is my favorite, and while there IS deer hair used here, this pattern is neither difficult nor intimidating, and extremely productive. The deer hair used in the pattern makes this fly float like a cork, and it will work well with a dropper if so desired.
Barry Ord Clarke’s October Caddis
It doesn’t get much simpler than tightline’s X caddis. Once you tie a few of these, it becomes almost second nature to produce a dozen, and they work great tied big or small, though I do tend to tie them in a 16.
Euro-nymphing is becoming more and more popular in the US, and on several occasions this spring I met many anglers old enough to be my father, that were applying the technique to the streams and creeks of PA for their first time ever. I cannot deny the deadly effectiveness of this technique.
I have seen it produce fish where my dries and streamers failed all day. Long leaders and tippet attached to a two-fly rig fished on the bottom, with the tungsten beadheads of these nymphs slowly ticking along smooth rocks, can make even the pickiest brown attack. If you haven’t yet, consider trying this strategy in the fall.
The Perdigon reigns supreme for me as the anchor fly, and I usually attach a smaller soft hackle pheasant tail nymph along with it. Barbless jig hooks ride hook-point up in an attempt to lower the rate of snags that is commonplace when fishing this way, but remain prepared for them still.
A strike indicator can help you to discern a take from a snag, and can suspend your nymphs above the bottom to fish different parts of the water column.
Trident Fly Fishing has a killer Perdigon pattern that is easy to learn and can be modified with any numbers of materials you are sure to have if you tie.
The pattern is also very easy to learn, and since I tend to lose a lot of flies when fishing in this way, the ability to crank out a dozen in a hurry is very useful.
Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail
The soft hackle pheasant tail has been around forever and put simply, it works everywhere, even when not fished in the euro style. That said, it should be in your box since it has a variety of applications outside of euro-nymphing. Fished traditionally, it will work in the dead of winter just as effectively as September.
I always have a variety of these on hand when nothing else will work. InTheRiffle has a great guide to mastering this pattern, and adding or subtracting the beadhead is a matter of taste. The fly is deadly fished either way.
Reeling it in!
Fall is one of my favorite times of the year to fly fish. The oppressive heat of summer fades more each day, and it is easier to be out on the water longer.
Being present while the leaves change and set the landscape ablaze with fall colors can be breathtaking.
There is no better place to observe them than in the solitary and quiet places most other fly fishermen won’t see again till the spring.
Mornings get colder, the days get shorter, but there are still exceptional trout to be had during these fall months. For me though, the fish are almost secondary to the atmosphere produced by the changing of the seasons.
There is nothing better than packing a light lunch of apples and venison jerky along with a Thermos full of hot coffee and enjoying them next to the water.
Fly fishing can be a reflective and contemplative endeavor at any time of year, but the sights and sounds of the outdoors during the fall only seem to enhance these sentiments. Go out and enjoy it while you can, before fall turns to winter, and we wait patiently for the waters we fish to come alive again in the spring.