Late fall can be a tough time to know what to do in the mountains—the trails may be too wet for mountain biking and there’s typically not enough snow to ski. Many mountain folk will refer to this time of year pejoratively as “mud season” and escape to the desert to catch the last gasp of warm weather before winter sets in across the Northern Hemisphere. But for those of us with an appreciation for solitude and the simple joys of casting a fly, last call on some of the best fly fishing of the season has come.
We’re spoiled for choice when it comes to productive fisheries this time of year here in Park City. Between hungry trout packing on weight in the high mountain streams of the Wasatch and Uintas, and our local tailwaters still producing world-class fly fishing opportunities, this is a good time to get out and enjoy some peace and quiet in either venue. And depending on which adventure you choose, we’ve compiled a few tips to make your fall fly fishing trips successful.
Tailwater Tactics for Fall
If you’ve spent a good chunk of your summer fishing tiny dries and midge patterns on the Middle Provo, Weber, or Lower Provo, fall is the time to branch out and fish some, should we say, more exciting patterns. For me, this is the time of year when I like to test whatever articulated monstrosities I’ve concocted at the vise. Male brown trout become increasingly aggressive as they prepare to spawn, making those big, unruly streamer patterns much more effective. I’ve found brown, yellow, and white patterns with a hint of red to be particularly effective, or really any combination thereof. With that said, don’t be afraid to give a classic olive bead head wooly bugger a try if you aren’t getting any eats on bigger, flashier streamer patterns.
When fishing streamers—especially weighted articulated patterns—it helps to fish a heavier weight rod (6- or 7-weight). The added power and stiffness from said rods will help cast those heavier, more wind-resistant patterns on cloudy, stormy days, which also just happens to be when streamer fishing is at its best. It also helps to have a sink-tip fly line. The main goal here is to get your fly down in the water column as quickly as possible to trigger that predatory/territorial response that will elicit an eat.
Trout will typically hit a streamer on the first cast or not all. As a result, you’ll want to cover a lot of water and minimize false casts as much as possible. When working a cut bank, you’ll get the most action if you’re able to drop your fly as close to the bank as possible, where trout will hold tight and quickly hit a streamer if it’s stripped through their feeding zone. That said, if you’re working a deep run or hole and get a subtle hit, it can be effective to move on and then double back on that same spot after letting the fish rest.
While streamer fishing can be great on our local tailwaters this time of year, it’s not unheard of to get completely skunked on streamers. This is why you’ll want to have the usual fare of sow bugs, midges, and mayflies ready to go. If it’s a busy weekend and fish are seeing heavy pressure, streamer fishing may not be your best bet or even realistic. On days like that, you’ll want to have a rod with either a nymph rig or dry fly setup ready to go.
Many of the tailwaters near Park City tend to be very mossy after the summer growing season. As a result, I typically avoid heavy bounce rigs and use less weight than I typically would with in-line rigs during the summer. The reduced river flows this time of year further negates the need for overly heavy nymph rigs. This will help keep your flies up and out of the moss and presentation on-point.
It’s also not unheard of to get some BWO hatches in the fall, so be sure to keep some dry and emerger patterns in your fly box—just in case you start to see some noses coming up. The main point is to stay flexible and let the weather, temperature, and river flows dictate which tactic will work best, instead of trying to force a particular method, regardless of what’s actually effective on that given day. Don’t be dogmatic in your approach or tactics. Just because streamer fishing is supposed to be good, doesn’t make it so.
High Country Tactics for Fall
Fish in the high country aren’t nearly as selective as they are on our local tailwaters. Better yet, fall’s low light and long shadows make it easier to sneak up on skittish trout in these skinny streams. Dry-dropper rigs are typically the most effective method this time of year, with most of the action happening on your bottom fly. Actual hatches can be far and few between on high elevation streams late in the fall, due to the cold temperatures. That’s not to say, however, that you won’t be able to lure a few opportunistic trout up with an attractor pattern like a small stimulator, Adams, or mosquito.
Streamer patterns fished on a dead drift or stripped through a deep pool or beaver pond can be particularly effective on high mountain streams in the fall. I typically opt for smaller, more subtle streamer patterns (read: wooly buggers and leaches) on small creeks and streams—keep in mind the fish and water you’re working are both substantially smaller than any of the tailwaters near Park City.
One last thing to keep in mind when fishing small and technical creeks and streams is that it pays to be stealthy. I can’t count how many times I’ve haphazardly walked up to a small creek only to see what would’ve been the fish of the day dart away from the bank to never be seen again. My advice is to take your time, scout ahead, and try to cast from a distance before disturbing the water. You’ll be amazed at the quality of fish that can be found hiding out in small creeks.
Fall Fly Fishing Ethics
If you’re fly fishing in the fall and targeting brown trout specifically with streamers, it’s essential to be able to spot and avoid redds. As brown trout prepare to spawn, females clean gravel beds (or redds) to lay their eggs. These are sensitive areas and essential to maintaining a healthy population of trout in a fishery. As such, it is considered unethical to target spawning trout on redds and to disturb these sensitive areas. It’s also important that all anglers respect these areas and give them a wide berth to ensure our local fisheries remain healthy and productive for future generations.
For more information on specific fly patterns, fly rods, fly lines, or guided trips, stop by the Jans Fly Shop on Park Avenue in Park City to get the most up-to-date information on what’s working on our local rivers. Tight lines!