The Changing of the Guard

November 2, 2011

The Changing of the Guard

The following is a little article I put together a month or so ago for the folks at Bozeman Magazine, and since it's still fall I figured that I might share a few pics from this year during my favorite season of the year... Cheers.

With summer waning as mornings get crisper and cooler and days shorter, it brings me around to one of my favorite times of the year, fall. Fall conjures up images of overcast drizzly days and Blue Winged Olives buzzing around the back eddies of your favorite fishing haunts all amidst some of the most picturesque backdrops of burnt oranges, golden yellows, and rich crimson reds of the changing tree lines. As autumn settles in there’s a shifting not only in the weather and seasons, there’s a change in trout both physically and behaviorally. For those of us who enjoy streamer fishing, it’s a welcome change as the water temps begin cooling, brown trout put on their feedbags before they begin to chase one another around spawning beds in their annual mating rituals. When the calendar begins reading months that end in “er” it’s a signal that it’s time to grab those big ugly streamers and rods that feel like telephone poles and head to the big rivers in search of big brown trout.

My Favorite Fall Fisheries
If summers are for small creeks and finding new spots to check out, then fall is the time to return to the more familiar big named rivers in search of bigger fish. Not that you can’t occasionally find a big fish or two in a small stream somewhere, but if you’re interested in catching truly massive trout don’t go looking in areas where you can skip a stone across the water… Therefore in the fall I split my time between wading and floating the bigger rivers in the area that have the potential to give up bigger fish on average. The Madison, Yellowstone, and Missouri are the three rivers that come right to mind during the fall months for me in Montana when I want to go try my luck at a truly huge fish. All three rivers are far from a secret. They probably account for well over 30% of fishing pressure in the state of Montana, but all three rivers are popular for good reason as all three have the pedigree for producing large trout.


Now if you aren’t into finding large trout, then there are numerous other places to go and search out excellent hatches of Blue Winged Olives and find smaller eager fish trying to put on some weight before winter and nobody will make fun of you. But if you’re searching out the big fish, then you’d better be prepared to put in your time on the big rivers. The Yellowstone in Paradise Valley in the fall is home to some of the largest fish in the state. Over the years having spoken with long time residents of Livingston and fisheries biologists and spending a fair bit of my own time on the river I’ve come to the conclusion that in the fall as the browns get ready to spawn, the largest concentration of 6lb+ brown trout spend at least part of their time in the water from Grey Owl to 89 bridge. Past that, you’ll have to spend some of your own time on the water figuring out where, because I’m not telling! As for the Madison you have the entire Upper and Lower sections to fish, not even mentioning the section inside of Yellowstone Park that holds a majority of the fish coming out of Quake Lake to spawn in the fall. So you’ll have plenty of places to explore the Madison. As for the Missouri, I’m no expert, and don’t claim to be, but I’ve heard more than few times over the years from old timers that the Beaver Creek area is home to some whoppers and where better to find some big browns than a small section of river between two lakes. But don’t be fooled, there’s plenty of bruisers in other places along this meandering giant body of water because after all the Mo is fed by the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin, which isn’t too shabby of a list of rivers in its own right.


The Thinking Behind Fly Selection
If you’re going to go searching for a needle in a haystack then you might want to read on and find what you should be tossing when looking for these yellow bellied beasts. Personally I’m not going to throw a streamer pattern anymore in the fall that isn’t big enough to entice the appetite of a 24” or larger brown – a friend recently shared a study that indicated that piscivorous (fish eating) species prefer prey that is close to 1/3 their length and will commonly handle fish half of their body length. So, a 6\" fly is perfect for an 18\" fish and if you start hunting for fish in the 2 foot class, well do the math – 10” long flies aren’t too big, trust me. Now that we’ve covered size, it’s time to address pattern choice and coloration.
One of the most fascinating aspects of fishing is the ability for individuals to personalize their own fly selection and have similar success in nearly identical situations and rivers. What fly selection boils down to is having something that looks like food or strikes the curiosity of the fish at the right place at the right time. There are patterns that have proven themselves effective over the years and just because the pattern is old doesn’t mean it has stopped working. Trout don’t have the ability to “learn” like you or I, but they can become “conditioned” to respond to certain situations with caution.

Therefore if you are angling on heavily fished waters, you might think about tying some of your own flies for something different to show the fish or using a pattern that entices a response rather than looks exactly like a food item. At the beginning of autumn I prefer to fish patterns that bare a resemblance to food sources such as minnows, sculpin or other baitfish because the fish are feeding based on instincts to sustain themselves through the rigors of spawning. The further you get into the fall the more likely it is that brown trout are striking at flies out of aggression and when defending their territory browns will lash out at anything nearing their spawning beds. That is the time to throw the brightly colored patterns that move water and garner the attention of large fish – let your imagination run wild here because the pattern is really up to you at this point.

So as you begin thinking of your fall hunting pursuits, don’t forget about the big rivers and the big fish lurking in them. They’re definitely worth a day or two away from chasing critters in the mountains. Because in my mind there’s nothing quite like the sting of cold water on the hands gripping your trophy brown wrestled from the depths as you take a deep breath and feel the crisp air of fall.


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