I wish there were nine months of October. It is a period of transition and the unpredictable weather keeps us on our toes and dictates what our pursuit will be on any given day. The aspens have turned a glowing gold, the elk are bugling, fish are bulking up for the long winter and for the most part, the summer crowds are gone, leaving the outdoorsman with some space to think and connect with the rivers and mountains that spurred us to move here. There is not a more beautiful time to be in the Northern Rockies and the opportunities to fish and hunt are endless.
With an elk tagged and a year’s worth of organic locally sourced elk in the freezer, firewood cut and stacked and the house somewhat prepped for the winter, it's time to play hooky and fish the many rivers that shine in the fall. They offer very different conditions than what most anglers experience during the summer. Gone are the simple choices of throwing foam or larger mayfly patterns. The autumn season is when the opportunities and fly choices change by the hour.
This has been an odd year for me. Not in an ordinary sense – I’m speaking of the rod choices I have made to fish the last few weekends. Most people that fish with me know that I fish a lot of even weight rods. During the spring and summer, 4- and 6-weight rods dominate. When October comes those rods go away and the 5- and 7-weight rods come out.
When the day starts off with spitting snow and temps in the high 20’s, my 7-weight X rod with RIO Intermediate Streamer Tip will almost always start the day in my hand. Large pre-spawn browns and voracious cutthroats seem to be most active in miserable, low light conditions. When floating. hitting the banks with large streamers and erratic retrieving will induce some incredible chases and hopeful hookups. This is a highly visible experience and no matter how cold it is, you will sure to be warmed up when seeing a dark torpedo come out of hiding to take a swipe at your fly.
When it comes to fly choice for streamer fishing, you really need to think of what your expectations for the day are. Large, articulated streamers seem to be all the rage right now, and it is because they work… for big fish. If you only want to target big fish, certainly go this route but remember, smaller fish are less likely to chase a 6-plus inch fly, while using a smaller version will more likely ensure eats from all-size fish, including the jumbos. My preferred method is to use 3 - 5” streamers with little-to-no weight. The combination of medium size flies and my rod setup, I can cast all day with ease and usually experience non-stop action.
As the sun shines and the day warms up, the baetis will usually start to hatch in force after noon. The 5-weight Sage MOD with a RIO Trout LT is an ideal setup for presenting size 18 - 20 flies on 5X tippet to trout in slow moving water. This is the 5-weight that can combat some wind while protecting delicate tippets that are required at this time of year. Dry fly fishing at this time of year requires stealth and patience, which most people find frustrating, especially after casting streamers all morning.
A cool sight to see, baetis tend to blanket the water on a good day and the fish will pod up in seams and slower water to capitalize on this bug buffet. This is not to say they are not selective, as I spend many days scratching my head while they refuse my carefully selected imitation and eat real deal right next to it. With all the natural competition it is best to observe what is going on, possibly finding a single fish outside the pod, watching the timing of rises and figuring out the best presentation. My philosophy is that after the first cast, your chances of getting that fish go down 50%. By observing the behavior of the fish, tying on the right fly and getting in position for the best possible cast, you can up your odds of feeding the fish every time.
By far my favorite angling pursuit in the fall is to swing flies for steelhead. For the last 7 - 8 years, a good bit of my October and November days on the water have been in search of this anadromous species. It is an itch that I just cannot scratch enough, not for the fish but due to trying to master two-handed casting techniques. Because of this I finally acquired a Sage 3-weight ONE Trout Spey to increase my opportunities. The rivers around my home are well-suited for swinging small wet flies and streamers, and this is the year to take advantage while the steelhead numbers are down (another story for another time; in the meantime, please make yourself aware of the problems with NW steelhead runs and what you can do to help with conservation efforts). Plus, all the cool kids are doing it.
A small 3-weight two-hander, floating line and soft hackles tied with a grouse or pheasant feather you harvested the week before is a reality with Trout Spey, not just something you would expect to read in a great sporting novel. An effortless way to cover runs that may have high banks or brush that don’t enable a backcast, two-handed trout fishing is a very effective tool for anglers to take advantage of. For many years, fishing with a brace of soft hackles was thought to be the most effective way of trout fishing. While my experience is somewhat new to this game, I am seeing results and enjoying more time on the water.
Enjoy the fall and all it has to offer. For me, this short period supplies me with great memories and fly tying materials that will get me through the winter.
Sage Ambassador, Rob Parkins is the Hard Goods Buyer for JD High Country Outfitters in Jackson, WY. He is also a Board member of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association and Co-Chair of Idaho Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. He lives in East Idaho with his wife, Pam, and black Labrador, York. If he isn't enjoying the great outdoors, he can be found at the tying desk attempting to figure out the intricacies of using a whip finish tool.