Late Season, Small Flies
The leaves left on the trees were mainly oak, and the rest of the leaves are gone, just like most of the fall hatches. Robb made a cast upstream in a small run. There was an unseen deep spot in the dark water. Most people wouldn’t notice it, but the trout hold there. There is just enough depth to hide them from peering eyes of anglers and birds of prey. Robb was fishing a nymph rig, but instead of the common hare’s ear or prince nymph, there were a pair of size 22 midge pupa patterns. The small indicator twitched. Robb swung the rod tip downstream and the line went tight. Then it moved. A large brown screamed downstream peeling line off the reel. The trout turned upstream and Robb began reeling him in. After two more long runs, the brown was in the net. Big trout will eat small flies and this 20+ inch brown was caught on a size 22 fly.
Many fly anglers put the fly rod up this time of year, start tying flies and dreaming of spring fishing. However, good fishing is still around. Late season fly fishing opportunities are still there if you are willing to try some small flies. Late season usually means low clear water, sunny days and small flies. One advantage to late season is the crowds, or lack of them. Most people have left the river waiting for warmer days. This gives you the opportunity to move around more and find the feeding fish. The clear water makes finding fish easier, especially when they rise, leaving that distinctive ring on the water.
Insects and flies
Late season is typically dominated by midges and blue wing olives. Midges are small flies with two short visible wings. Midges hold their wings flat against the body, but out to the sides like a fighter jet. Their life cycle is similar to caddis. They have a larva, pupa and adult stage. However, most anglers only fish the pupa and adult stage. This is when the trout have the most access to the insect.
The most common fly to imitate midges is a Zebra midge, however I will fish pupa patterns, looped wing emergers and post dries as well. The Zebra midge is a simple fly consisting of a bead, thread and wire for ribbing. I also fish a lot of pupa patterns. These flies are thread bodies with a rib, but have a dubbed thorax instead of a bead and are an effective winter pattern in black and grey.
Surface midge patterns vary. Flies can be tied down wing like a caddis, paradun style or loop winged. A black midge paradun pattern tied with grizzly hackle on an orange post can be an effective top water pattern. I have also fished a CDC down wing black caddis with success. One favorite is the loop wing emerger. This pattern I tie with a quill or turkey biot in grey with a CDC loop wing over the thorax. Trout seem to love this pattern this time of year.
BWO are also abundant on our rivers. These ting mayflies have an upright grey wing and a body that is olive to olive brown. Most sizes this time of year are 20-24. One of my favorite patterns is the BWO paradun. I use a quill body with a Turkey base feather for the post. On smaller hooks, I will use CDC or poly yarn for a post. In the fall use darker colors with more brown in BWO patterns. Keep an eye out for BWO hatches, trout seem to prefer them.
When fishing small flies, one will still need to fish from bottom to top. Although the techniques for nymph fishing and dry fly fishing are the same for larger flies, it helps to have some additional tackle. When fishing deep, it helps for an angler to have small split shot. I will use #8’s and #6’s.
For dry fly fishing, I will carry some powder floatant. Many of the best floating patterns will have CDC feathers and gel floatants will mat the fibers which ruins the fly. Dusting the fly with a powder floatant will keep the feather fibers flowing.
Lastly, I carry some Mucilin. This product is design to float lines and leaders. I find it necessary for small fly fishing in clear water. Most use it for dry fly fishing to coat their leaders. It will keep the leader floating, reduce drag on the fly and make pickups smoother. However, I use it nymphing as well. I just coat the portion of the leader above the strike indicator. Again, this makes pickups easier and helps prevent leaders from splashing and spooking trout. Mucilin is also an essential item for film fishing.
Stealthy, drag free presentations are critical when small fly fishing and the leader directly affect your presentation. When fishing small flies, size 18 or smaller, one will be using lighter tippets and longer leaders. I am typically using 6x or 7x tippet. I have used 8x and 9x before, but if I use around 3+ feet of 7x tippet I can get the drift needed to fool the trout. Most anglers use tippet that is either too short and/or too stiff to get a good drift. With small flies, the tippet section of the leader needs to be very supple for a natural drift. I also use longer leaders, up to 12’. This time of year, the water is clear, too clear and the longer leader with thin tippets reduces the chance of spooking trout.
With light weight tippets, rod selection can help with hooking and landing trout. One will benefit from using a rod with more flex in the upper section. This would include most medium action rods in the 3 to 4 wt. Two reasons for choosing a medium action rod are when setting the hook and playing the trout. With small flies, it doesn’t take much force to get the point of the hook to penetrate. The wire is thin and goes in easily. However, small hooks don’t go in deeply and one can easily pull the hook out of the trout with a stiff rod. When setting the hook, think “lift the rod” rather than “set” the hook. Once I see the strike, I think; one…two…three…lift the rod. All I want to do is tighten the line and this forces me to slow down and not pull too hard. However, one will have to manage slack effectively to accomplish this. Too often anglers having too much slack in the system and compensate by wildly jerking the rod to set the hook. One may get away with this with heavier tippets, but not with light tackle.
Once on the line, a trout may react quickly, some times faster than you can. A rod with more flex will absorb the forces of lunging fish which protects the tippet from breaking or the hook pulling out, and gives you more time to react. One will still need to use the rod and reel correctly. Keep the rod tip up with the line coming off the rod at 90°. This allows the flex of the rod to absorb the lunges of the trout. Avoid pointing the rod at the fish, this puts all the pressure on the tippet. If the fish starts to run, let out line. A reel with a drag should be set low. Just enough drag to prevent back spooling, but with little resistance. One can add resistance by palming the reel rim when needed.
Thomas and Thomas make rods that fit the bill. The Paradigm 8’ 2” 3wt is a great dry fly rod, but works just fine on small flies with light tippets. It will straighten out a 12’ leader, protect a 7x tippet and still has enough back bone to make a longer cast. Another option is the T&T Lotic. It is a glass rod, which will have more feel and protect tippets extremely well. There are other glass and graphite rod options that will work. Also keep in mind trout won’t move far for small flies and one should focus on accuracy. Most of your fishing will be short to medium distances. Long casts are less accurate, so high line speed rods are not as helpful.
Once the water has cooled, trout will move to the slower pools and runs. An anglers first task is to locate trout. Most of the small fly fishing will be concentrated in slower areas that see BWO and midge hatches. Move along the river looking for actively feeding trout. They will be easy to spot. Trout will be higher in the water column, sometimes just a few inches below the surface. You will see slow boils or sipping rise forms. Or maybe trout darting side to side. Any of this behavior indicates feeding trout. For small fly fishing, this is what you should focus on and look for in the calmer waters.
Finding trout can be easy, approaching trout can be difficult. In clear water conditions, trout can see exceptionally well. If you can see them, they can see you. Keep low on your approach, this can put you under their sight line. Don’t make waves, move slowly and try to keep a rock between you and the trout to buffer any mistakes. Also, don’t cast the line over the trout, it can spook them. Finally, attempt to position yourself so that you get a fly first presentation. The first thing you want the trout to see is your fly, not your leader.
The time of year, trout are used to seeing pupa drifting in the column and will eat small flies. A good friend of mine takes advantage of this and is effective using small fly suspension rigs this time of year. Trout are in the calmer water, but in calmer water is clear, you will need to make a stealthy presentation. This means not only reducing the size the split shot, but indicator as well. In slow water, a small split shot will be enough to sink small flies and is less likely to spook trout. A #8 split shot between the flies suspended from a small indicator can be an effective technique. However, be sure to use a small indicator.
Small indicators include, a cut down stick-on float, two balls of biofoam 6” apart or a small yarn indicator. They will be more effective than larger foam or hard indicators. Remember in clear water trout are spooky and your indicator should be as small as possible yet still float. I prefer the New Zealand Strike indicator. It can be cut down as small as you need, looks natural and is sensitive enough for the typical light strikes you get fishing pupa patterns.
Another subsurface technique is film fishing. This technique is used to target specific trout that is close to the surface. I will use a long leader with 3+ feet of 6x or 7x tippet, a subsurface pattern, mucilin and no indicator. Tie on a single pupa pattern or a size 20 pheasant tail nymph. Heavily grease the leader with mucilin down to about 8”-12” from the fly. Wet the fly so that it will break through the film and sink. Once you pick a target fish, position yourself across from the trout. Cast 2’ upstream of the trout and drift the fly past the trout. You will probably lose sight of the fly. Watch the trout, if it opens and closes its mouth, it probably your fly. Lift up on the rod to set the hook, don’t jerk. This is a targeted technique and you should focus on one fish. Keep the drifts short and recast to the same trout after the fly has passed.
Just the other day I was out small fly fishing with Chris. I spotted some rising trout in a pool about midway up. I couldn’t see the trout because of the glare, but I saw the riseform. I had a small BWO fly tied paradun style on the long leader. I crept up kneeled and made the cast. I had a nice curve in the leader, the first thing the trout would see was the fly. The fly drifted about 2’ when it simply disappeared. There was a ring on water, but I never saw the trout. I delayed, waiting a bit so the trout had time to start heading down with the fly. I noticed the subtle downward movement of the tippet. I had greased the leader to about 12” from the fly, so the tippet was floating on the water. Now it was getting pulled down…down by the trout. I lifted the rod and the Thomas & Thomas stiffened. The trout moved down into a shadow, that’s when I got a look at it. A nice size wild rainbow.
Trout angling with small flies can be challenging, but rewarding and this time of year is a great time to get out and try some small fly angling. One will benefit from the experience by becoming a better angler. You will learn to make better presentations, sharpen your skills at setting the hook and playing trout. The rivers will be less crowded this time of year, giving you the opportunity to move around and fish more water. At the end of the day, it is just good to be out and who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky and land big wild rainbow. And just think about how good you’ll be next spring during the big hatches.