There’s something about brittle fall afternoons and autumn’s red, yellow and orange landscape that speaks directly to a sportsman’s heart. It’s the backdrop to some of our most beloved memories hunting birds and bucks (and tossing around a pigskin) … but trout fishing?
Truth is, it’s during fall that your odds of catching a lot of trout, and some big fish at that are most in your favor. For fall-spawning brown and brook trout, the months of August through December bring about changes in feeding behavior that can culminate in hard aggression strikes, stunning acrobatics and burning drags. Sound good?
Of course it does.
Monitor The Mercury
Probably the easiest way to get in on the best fishing of the year, no matter where you live is to keep close tabs on the thermometer.
While the calendar tells us that fall arrives with the autumnal equinox on Sept. 22 (in the Northern Hemisphere), the onset of fall may arrive sooner or later depending where you live. As the days get shorter and air temperatures cool, concurrent changes in water temperature will signal a move from deeper waters to shallower prespawn feeding areas. Again, depending on where you live, you can expect brown and brook trout to enter prespawn in August or September. It can vary greatly with elevation.
“We’re fishing at anywhere from 1,200 to 6,000 feet elevation, but typically water temps will be in the upper 40s when we experience the best trout fishing of the fall,” says Sacramento-based guide J.D. Richie.
In Southern tailrace waters, like the world-famous giant brown haven of Arkansas’ White River water temperature is more constant throughout the year thanks to the water flow released from the Bull Shoals dam.
“Unlike a lot of other fisheries in the country, water temperature in the White River doesn’t fluctuate much, it typically hovers around 50 degrees. What really triggers movement into prespawn and spawn is the angle of the sun and the shortening of the days,” says Frank Saksa, ace trout guide at Gaston’s White River Resort.
“There’s a misconception that all browns move up to spawn at the same time. I’ve seen fish on redds as early as October and as late as March, but most will be December and January,” he says. “The real telltale sign is breaching. You’ll see browns leap two or three feet into the air like a whale. They’re building up roe and sperm sacs, and may be trying to readjust these. Or, it may be males vying for spawning position. There are a lot of theories.”
So rather than get hung up on calendar dates, use this general rule: Watch for that first night of freezing temperatures. Trout will typically begin feeding aggressively within a couple days of sustained cold weather. In most streams and rivers, browns move toward head-water areas to spawn in silt-free gravel-bottom areas with cool, oxygen-rich water between 44 to 48 degrees any time from September to December.
Expect the aggressive prespawn bite to last until water temperatures fall to the mid to upper 40s and the fish turn their attention to the actual spawn.
Brook trout spawn slightly ahead of browns on the calendar and will look for similar areas of good flow, including upwelling springs with temperatures between 40 and 49 degrees.
At this time, trout strike solely out of aggression, and many fishermen choose to target staging fish downstream or resting postspawners rather than cast the redds.
Now, whether trout really put on the feed bag in preparation for the spawn, winter, or simply because the water temperature is optimal for their metabolism is a matter of debate. No matter the reason, cold temperatures awaken trout from summer’s slumber. The results can be epic.
Got The Time?
During summer, fishing is typically best during the low light of early morning and evening (with varying hatch times thrown in). In early fall, concentrate on the same times, but as fall progresses and days get shorter, the bite shifts to midday when the water warms as little as a half to a full-degree.
Not only do you get to sleep in, but fishing midday until dark in the fall requires little stamina, it’s no more than a few hours. But don’t call it quits too early, the fish can get pretty grabby right before dark, continuing to feed at night.
As many experts will tell you, nighttime can be your best shot for a monster trout, so don’t overlook it. And here’s a tip to prevent broken ankles and general chaos: Make waypoints of primo trout habitat on a handheld GPS during the day to make navigation easier at night.
Dropping temperatures signal a pre-spawn move from deep and cold water areas like pools and rapids in search of suitable spawning grounds. During this move, pods of trout ranging from just a few to over 50, and including both males and females, will feed aggressively in preparation for the huge metabolic drain of the spawn. Concentrate on areas below dams and rapids, which serve as transition areas to gravel runs and riffles farther upstream.
Well traveled guide Scott Struif bases his search around core pieces of structure.
“If you find deep water, either cut-banks or pools next to gravel, that’s ideal. In a lot of smaller streams they’re not terribly far apart,” he says. “It doesn’t take much for a large brown to swim 50 yards to deeper water and then return back to a hiding spot or resting lie. Also seek out the deeper, slower stuff next to cover.”
NAFC member and Coulee Region Adventures guide Anthony Larson offers a similar approach.
“For browns, I fish the mid-point of a stream, not the headwaters or far downstream. I focus on beaver dams and deep holes, obstructions that prolong trout movement upstream during prespawn,” he says. “I also fish undercuts and man-made lunker structures. I’ll let the current move my bait right under the structures, and then jig when the drift is just right.
“For brookies, I focus on headwaters and swampy areas. The higher up you go, the better the fishing is,” he says.
Minnesota based guide Jimmy Wallner is a small-stream brookie expert. “I look for fast-moving water immediately adjacent to shallower two to three-foot-deep pools in smaller streams or tributaries. You’ll find the active-feeding brookies in riffles and behind rocks, not necessarily in the bottoms of pools,” he says.
Spot & Stalk Tactics
Although you’re carrying a rod—not a rifle, don’t abandon the hunting mindset. Think spot-and-stalk. In a lot of situations, especially in clear water and sun, stealth is key. Some anglers wear camouflage and even go so far as to paint their reels non-reflective black. Polarized glasses are a must.
And since trout face into the current, approach their resting lies from down-stream to exploit their rear blindspot. Stay low to the ground and away from the water to sneak into range.
Trout have a keen sense of sight and, depending on water clarity, can see 20 to 30 feet in front of them, not to mention acute peripheral vision due to a phenomenon known as Snell’s Window or the “trout’s window.”
In a nutshell, trout observe everything from a cone that extends up from their eye to the water surface. Because of this, a fisherman’s movements appear much closer and quicker than we might think.
Second, due to a highly developed lateral line, trout are very sensitive to vibrations, so be mindful of the noise you make on the bank or wading.
“While it goes contrary to what people learn trout fishing out West, I try to stay out of the water,” says trout expert and author Shawn Perich. “And you can fish pretty good-size water without stepping into the stream. In fall, you’re typically dealing with lower flows and you’re going to spook plenty of fish you normally wouldn’t if you insist on wading.”
No matter where you live, the key to big fall trout is up-sizing your lure, line and rod action. Consider it a small fish filter and the provider of backbone equired to muscle in the largest trout you might catch all year.
Anthony Larson is no stranger to the 20-inch plus browns of Wisconsin’s limestone spring creeks.
“It’s simple: Big trout feed on minnows and smaller trout,” he says. “For that reason I like big baits. They deter smaller fish.”
Larson’s go-to baits? Spoons that have largely been used for ice fishing—and the occasional in-line spinner pattern.
“For fall browns I use a 3/8-ounce PK Spoon customized with black fingernail polish to break up the finish. I’m fishing spoons 80 percent of the time,” he says.
When the situation calls for in-line spinners, he goes with size 4 Panther Martins.
“I size down a bit for brook trout. I like the lighter 1/8- and 1/4-ounce PK Spoons and Flutterfish in firetiger and firetiger glow. Brookies prefer the fluorescents,” he says.
Larson keeps it pretty basic with a 7-foot medium action spinning setup and 8-pound Trilene XL.
Saksa is a fan of large baits for giant Arkansas browns.
“We catch a lot of big males on XCalibur stickbaits and Smithwick Rogues. Big aggression bites,” he says. “I approach it like bass fishing and fish 8-pound fluoro and up on medium spinning or baitcasting gear.”
Richie shares the bassin’ approach on Western browns.
“We throw baits like Lucky Craft Pointers on heavier spinning gear. It’s the perfect approach for creek mouths.”
Fly It, They’ll Strike It
With all due respect to dry fly purists, there’s probably no better way to reliably catch trout day-after-day on a fly rod than by sinking nymphs. Fall is no exception.
“Work little riffles into pools with the standard Prince Nymph, Pheasant Tail and Hare’s Ear. And don’t forget scuds. Smaller and flashier stuff like Rainbow Warriors and Copper Johns work especially well if the water is turbid,” says Struif.
But if you’re set on surface-feeding fish and dainty dries, he recommends Blue-Winged Olives and Trico hatch patterns in size 16 to 20. Also consider midges and caddisflies that may hatch in fall. But since there are no universals in the dry fly game, pay close attention to what’s going on with your local hatches and match accordingly. More often than not, you’ll flnd tiny bugs. So resist the temptation to tie on what’s easy to see, when in doubt, go smaller.
Struif also recommends adding terrestrials like grasshoppers, ants and beetles to your fall arsenal. A simple but effective way to fish a ’hopper or beetle is as a strike indicator with a nymph fished underneath as part of a dropper rig—the best of both surface and subsurface worlds.
If you’re looking for big trout, though, nothing beats streamers.
“By fall, young-of-year-trout have become a food source for bigger, older fish, and streamer patterns can be very effective,” Struif says. “Some of these can be 3 or 4-inch long Clouser Minnows, big Woolly Buggers, bunnies, rabbit strips, or double bunny flies.
But bigger isn’t always better.
“You’ll want to keep your eyes open and your head on a swivel because if you go all big you could miss out on some awesome fishing. I’ve seen it where sometimes using a size 8 or 10 Woolly Bugger will out perform a big articulated streamer,” he says.
With so many big trout caught in fall, what weight fly rod is best?
“A 6-weight is a good start. As I get into bigger rivers with bigger trout and lake-run fish, a 7-weight is better and an 8-weight isn’t ridiculous. Pulling a 20 or 22-inch trout on an 8-weight rod, well, they still bend it pretty good,” Struif says.
And when it comes to leaders and tippets, fishermen can let go of some of their typical anxieties and go larger.
“I typically use a bigger leader like a 0 to 2x for streamers. This kind of fishing really allows you to go bigger than most people might think. You get an aggression bite and it doesn’t take a monster fish to snap a 3x. When going after the big target, treat it like a big target. I don’t like breaking fish off, so I’m going to try to muscle up when I can get away with it,” he says.
When Struif sizes down to a 5-weight and fishes a size 8 Woolly Bugger, he steps down to a 2 or 3x.
“And I’m carrying the appropriate tippet material to replace whatever I’m putting into the trees and brush, where the wild things are.”
Egg-pattern flies can be another dynamite way to catch fish. Saksa likes to position downstream from gravel bars and fish egg patterns for congregating rainbows and big buck browns.
“Drift an egg pattern below the shoals. The bigger rainbows sit waiting for eggs that drift out of the upstream gravel. Plus, you’ve got transitioning male browns mixed in. Find the right location and it’s a sure way to catch fish.”
Bushwhacking With Ice Sticks
Fishing guide Jimmy Wallner knows that the best brook trout water is also the most difficult to reach. In fact, it’s not unusual for Wallner to bushwhack his way a couple miles on foot through dense jack pines, tamaracks, bogs and black flies in search of trophy-size brook trout.
“A lot of guys call and want to fly fish for big brook trout,” says Wallner. “And I tell them, well, that’s great, and we can do it on some of the lakes, but the bigger brookies are in these tiny streams way back in the bush. And there’s really not a lot of room to cast. Heck, you’ve got trouble with 5-foot ultra-light spinning gear.”
Wallner’s solution? Ice fishing rods like Frabill’s new Straight Line Combo.
“They’re short, lightweight and perfect for getting the bait to the fish. They’re easy to carry through the thick stuff and you’re not snagging back-casts. They’re perfect for the kind of short-cast finesse game needed to key in on brookies in the 2-pound category,” he says.
And the finesse approach? A simple slip-float rig.
“I like light, abrasion-resistant line like 4-pound Trilene XT. I use an Ice Buster Bobber because you can trim it as necessary, a bobber stop knot without a bead, a tiny BB-size split-shot, size 8 red Gamakatsu hook, and half a baby nightcrawler. I adjust the bobber stop so the bait’s barely dragging to a couple inches off the bottom. Then, fish around headwaters and find riffles with small pools. It can be deadly. Of course, you’ve gotta find these spots first!”—JE