The days are getting shorter, and for many of us the changing colors and cooling weather are a welcome sign of things to come. The transition of seasons always brings a freshness and anticipation for new outdoor opportunities that accompany changing weather patterns. Excitement tends to build for fly anglers in particular, as the prospect of cool waters, ideal flows, and hungry fish looms ever closer. Steelhead anglers are showing their Spey rods the light of day for the first time in months, while fish of all sorts increase their activity and feed more consistently now that they’re through the warmest and most stressful months of the year. With poor Steelhead numbers throughout the Columbia Basin, don’t overlook the other angling opportunities that Fall provides. From big and aggressive Browns, to Rainbows gorging themselves on the eggs of various spawns, there is excellent potential find good numbers of high quality fish before the cold of winter sets in.
Throughout the Fall, most rivers across the West will hold relatively low but cool waters. Low flows means that much of the structure in a river will be visible to anglers, improving our ability to accurately predict where fish are holding. This is the time of year during which every pocket, riffle, and slot reveal the nuances that create disturbances in flows in which fish thrive. There is little more satisfying than picking through a stretch of water with confidence that is constantly reinforced by finding fish in every expected pocket. For the proactive angler, the knowledge accumulated from days of fishing low flows will provide benefit when the same body of water is flowing higher and more difficult to read.
Along with changes in water conditions, Fall is also a time when trout begin to feed differently and look to new food sources. As the number of cloudy and overcast days increases, we tend to see excellent opportunities to fish dries as PMDs, Drakes, BWOs and Caddis remain active through the crisp autumn days. For those species of Fish that spawn in the Fall, including Browns, Brookies, and Bulls, the month or so leading up to the period of active spawning is a time of increased aggression as hormones and a need to build energy stores can drive fish to throw caution to the wind. For anglers this can only mean one thing: big ugly streamers. There is arguably no better time to target fish with a streamer than the pre-spawn period for these species. Additionally, truly massive fish that remain reclusive and nocturnal through much of the year are more likely to be fooled by a well placed mess of rabbit fur and marabou.
It is important to note that while targeting these Fall spawning river dwellers, there is a fine line that should not be crossed into targeting actively spawning fish. As anglers and stewards of healthy trout populations, it is important for us to realize the negative impacts we can have if we disrupt the processes that will bring the next generation of fish to our rivers. Actively spawning fish are typically territorial and maintain their aggressive disposition, and we should use judgement to avoid fishing or causing disturbances in areas that contain actively spawning fish. Even when fish aren’t actively spawning, it is of utmost importance that we maintain a watchful eye to avoid walking across the redds that are the haven of the freshly laid eggs which will eventually hatch into the next generation of fish. For those not familiar with the appearance of a Redd, look for areas of clean gravel that are typically distinctive in color when compared to the majority of the river bottom. Redds can be as small as a couple of square feet, or be so large and numerous that they render entire sections of river un-wadable. It is difficult to overstate the damage that can be done by a single angler walking through a Redd, literally crushing future salmonids one step at a time.
This abundance of spawning activity by various trout and char species also means alternative food sources for all species in the river. Rainbows and Cutthroat will alter behavior and track trout, Whitefish, and Kokanee in order to gobble up the nutrient rich eggs that are inevitable washed throughout the river system. For fish, this can be one of the best opportunities of the year to pack in an abundant and high quality food source, and egg patterns can be the fly of choice during the peak of spawning activity in the right areas.
Now is the time for us all to enjoy the end of the heat that makes full day outdoor activity through the summer months a bit of a struggle. We can enjoy crisp days and beautiful colors as we head to our favorite rivers in hopes of finding great numbers of fish, or the single giant which will provide memories to last a lifetime. The change of seasons also means that the cold days and fleeting daylight hours of Winter are soon to come. While there is opportunity to get out on some piece of water nearly every day of the year, many of us will soon find ourselves at the tying desk, waxing skis, and wishing we’d spent just one more afternoon enjoying the balance that Fall brings to Central Oregon.