By Chad LaChance
Many western rivers were originally explored by prospectors in search of nuggets of gold. While the era of gold prospecting may be gone, western residents have gold of another sort to seek – namely, the beautiful yellow and golden hues of mature brown trout dressed in fall spawning colors. Brown trout are not native to the region, but they have become synonymous with western waters, and fall is the most classic time for anglers to pursue them.
As with all trout, browns take on very distinct markings while preparing to spawn. Mature males grow an aggressive hooked lower jaw, their spots become more pronounced, and their overall coloration becomes more vibrant. This process occurs at about the same time as the region’s trees are taking on similar colors in fall making for some great grip-n-grin shots.
Even more pronounced than their new fancy colors, brown trout also take on a fancy new fall attitude. “Doesn’t play well with others” is probably the best description – and that’s the part anglers ought to keep in mind when targeting them. Certainly, its my favorite part of the equation. Colorful pictures are nice and all, but explosive strikes on huge lures or flies by territorial males is an epic angling experience.
By the time this article reaches publication, (i.e. early October), the transformation will be happening, beginning earlier in the north and progressing south. Mature browns will move from their summer haunts and “stage” in areas ahead of the actual spawn. Some of the biggest brown trout get that way by inhabiting reservoirs where they can thrive in still water with plenty of fish to eat. Browns are very predatory by nature and will dine on nearly any fish they can catch which leads to excellent growth rates. The reservoir dwellers will stage for the fall spawning ritual by gathering on flats adjacent to any inlet large enough for them to spawn in. Ultimately, they’ll spawn in the running water itself, but the final feeding push just prior will take place around the inlets.
Early on, they can be found on channel swings and drop offs, moving shallower to feed. Fish them on steep banks, especially outside channel swings, and points tapering into deep water. Windblown areas are often the deciding factor of where they’ll feed if all other factors are equal. As the spawn nears, they move onto the flats for longer periods. Fish the edges of the flats or anywhere a pronounced channels dissects it. Eventually they will move into the river itself.
Stream dwellers will stage in deep holes, runs, and seams adjacent to gravel bars. Their movements will be less dramatic due to the confines of their environment, but astute anglers will concentrate their efforts. The dominant fish will hold in the best spots of course, meaning areas with good cover and feeding lanes nearby. Browns seem to be more focused on cover – undercut banks, fallen trees, root wads, etc – than other trout. A river swing with a deep undercut bank on the outside and a tapering gravel bar on the inside is a prime spot.
The really big fish will do the bulk of their feeding during low light periods and anglers are wise to focus their efforts during these times. If you’re after a real trophy, don the headlamps and night gear and chase them in the dark. Be stealthy in your approach; these fish didn’t get big by being dumb. Anything out of the ordinary will alarm them and make your job that much tougher. This type of fishing is not for sissies, and as with any night fishing, safety first should be your mantra.
With any fish species staging to spawn, feeding habits will change. Early in the process, they will feed heavily and deliberately in order to sustain the rigors of spawning. As they get closer to actually spawning, feeding will become more of an opportunistic thing; easy meals will be taken in but feeding periods will be short. While they are actually spawning, feeding ceases altogether. For the record, I’m not a fan of fishing them during the spawn itself, but to each their own wherever legal.
Since it’s the aggressive demeanor and explosive strikes that define fall brown trout fishing for me personally, I prefer to target them starting in late September while they are just developing their bad attitude, and progressing through late October. The first and last hours of daylight are usually prime time to draw strikes, not to mention beautiful times to be on the water.
Night fishing is nearly always good during this time frame. In an ideal world, be on your best spot on the moon rise, regardless of when during the night it occurs. New moons can be great, but it’s difficult to present baits accurately so I reserve these nights for fishing flats adjacent to inlets on lakes and reservoirs. In that case, accurate casting is not as critical, but stealth is. Wading a river in the dark is tricky at best and should be reserved for bright nights even if bright nights are not the absolute best fishing. Bottom line, the big browns are still more comfortable and relaxed in the dark even if the moon is full.
I keep mentioning ferocious strikes from aggressive fish, but how exactly do I go about soliciting said strikes? Big, obnoxious baits are the ticket. When it comes to catching nice browns in early to mid fall, I forget all the traditional trout lures and dip into my bass fishing bag of tricks. Large jerkbaits, lipless crankbaits, swimbaits, wakebaits, and big jigs all get pushed into service, and many of them would be considered big by casual bass angler standards even. Along the same lines, fly guys should consider streamers more akin to salt water or pike fishing than normal trout fishing. Sure, browns can be caught in fall on the normal stuff, but this is the time of year I swing for the fences; hence the big “bat.”
Before I go any farther into the baits, keep in mind that your rod, line and reel need to match your bait sizes to achieve proper presentations. This is no place for your typical trout spinning rod or 4wt fly stick. I employ a 6’6” medium-heavy powered, fast action St Croix Avid spinning rod paired with an Abu Garcia Soron STX reel which is designed specifically for superline fishing. My superline of choice in this application is 15# Fireline Tracer Braid because it is very easy to visually track and nearly bombproof. I couple it with a 15# Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon leader to decrease both lure fouling and visibility to the fish. 15# sounds ridiculously heavy for trout, but it has more to do with the lure sizes than anything, and if your bait is small enough to not need the heavy stuff, you missed my whole point.
For fly tackle, a nine foot 7 weight St Croix Legend Elite gets the nod with a weight for streamer specific fly line. Leaders are short and stout and tipped with 0x or 1x fluorocarbon.
All fish bite for a variety of reasons; at this time of year, I’m trying to provoke strikes from the browns, not feed them. Matching the hatch goes out the window in favor of super sized lures, fast and/or erratic retrieves, and often gawdy colors too. For night fishing, the size stays big but more rhythmic retrieves and darker colors are the norm.
Let’s talk some specific baits. For jerkbaits (or stickbaits or minnow baits as some folks refer to them), a #13 or #18 floating Rapala is a great choice. Large Firestick Minnows, Super Rogues, and Bomber Long A’s are good too. I prefer floating jerkbaits in shallower waters and suspending models in deeper rivers or inlet areas of reservoirs. Rainbow or brown trout colors can be great, as can hot oranges and chrome or gold chrome. Fast, erratic retrieves in the daylight or moderate steady retrieves at night will get bites.
Lipless crankbaits typified by a Rat-L-Trap are great choices. Try the forementioned colors coupled with very fast retrieves. At night, slow the speed slightly and run the bait closer to the surface. Half or ¾ ounce models are consistent producers.
Wakebaits designed specifically for bass can solicit heart stopping strikes from monster browns. They run just under the surface at any speed causing a “V wake” of considerable proportion. Try a Mann’s One Minus or similar on a constant retrieve. On a calm moonlit night, this can be a riot.
Swimbaits are a newer arena for me when it comes to trout, but they’ve been surprisingly successful on larger than average fish. A Sebile Magic Swimmer or similar jointed swimbait approximately 6 inches long in a rainbow trout color is a good choice. Chrome works well in bright sun.
The last bait I consider is a 5” Berkley Powerbait or Gulp! Jerk Shad rigged on a 1/4oz jighead. This lure can be fished more recklessly without fear of loss because it is more snag proof and cheaper to replace if lost. Work it quickly (I call it snap jigging), either rod tip up for shallower areas or tip down and to the side in the deeper stuff. Since the jig sinks rapidly, it’s a great choice for under cuts and deep runs. The key is pop the jig crisply – not swim it.
Large Deceivers or Clouser Minnows are good fly choices as is any very large and hydro-dynamic streamer. Since we’re provoking strikes due to aggressiveness or territorial nature, fish imitators rather then fluffy leech-type flies are my choice. Almost all of my fall patterns are taken from salt water applications and are most commonly associated with snook, tarpon and the like.
All of these baits and flies need to be presented at angles to the current if possible to be consistent due to their size. You don’t want them blasting into the face of the trout or attacking them from behind. Entering the trout’s peripheral vision is the most consistent, either from 45 degrees up or down stream. Straight across current or on the swing can be deadly too. I’ve had some great bites by just letting the lure hang in the current in an area I expect a big brown trout to defend.
If you spot a trout following your lure or fly (which can be common with big baits for trout), do not stop or slow your retrieve. Speeding up, or better yet steering the bait quickly with your rod tip will often turn followers into biters.
Since many of these baits are armed with treble hooks, I always mash the barbs to facilitate an easy and safe release. Even with barbed hooks you’re going to loose a fair percentage of the big fish you hook, but the monster strikes make it worthwhile anyway!
The old saying “big baits for big bites” is never more applicable than trophy browns staging in fall. Some folks may look at you funny when you show up at the river essentially armed for pike fishing, but let your results speak for themselves.