First published in California Fly Fisher Magazine, October 2011
As I sit on the bank of the South Fork Snake River on a warm breezy summer Idaho day, it is a bit difficult to imagine a time this fall, just a whisper away, when I will view my breath forming in front of my face in the canyon of the McCloud as I cast an October Caddis dry to a visible rise, or expectantly swing a Muddler across a promising glide for illusive steelhead on the Klamath. The leaves will have turned golden or a brilliant red along with the elephant ears on the local freestones and columns of geese will form long lazy V’s overhead on their way to warmer climes.
Summer fish on the Snake River this week have been feeding as if they were teenagers devouring a pizza. Fall trout and steelhead in the streams in the shadow of Shasta are often more discerning, acting as if they are fine diners at a fancy restaurant, enjoying a bit of reflection before they sample their next morsel. They’ll rise only to bump the fly as if to say, “send it back it’s not quite well done enough.”
Choosing a fly in fall may be a more important factor than in any other season. Gone is the greedy feast of spring and summer. Gone is the high off colored water to help disguise your approach, sloppy cast and inaccurate patterns. Hopefully we’ve enjoyed the spring and summer months and taken the opportunity to refine our technique and tactics as fall is the time to put it all to use. While proper presentation remains paramount, by the time fall arrives trout have seen it all, and they will more frequently refuse a fake. The first runs of steelhead also arrive in our Northstate rivers having run a gauntlet of flies on their journey from the coast, so offering a unique pattern that still stimulates a grab can often be the difference between a satisfying and disappointing outing.
Nearly fifty fall seasons have passed since I first cast a fly and my fly selection has matured over the years. I now take some time to sort out my summer seasonal flies and replace them with fall favorites, five of which I will review. The flies I most often employ are similar to those others use but often feature a little tweak or technique that sets them apart. I hope to share not only why I selected these flies but how I most enjoy fishing them and hopefully stimulate your thinking about the flies you fish to help maximize your fall fly fishing pleasure.
October Caddis Dry
The October Caddis is the most anticipated hatch in the fall in Northern California. The bugs are large, size eight on most rivers, and provide the last big meal before winter sets in on local trout streams. They also can be used to draw strikes from Steelhead who perhaps recall feasting on these morsels before migrating to feed on even larger fare in the salt.
For most every season, until recently, I relied on a Sofa Pillow as my go to dry fly to represent the October Caddis. This was a pattern in a similar style but predating Kaufman’s now much more popular Stimulator. The Sofa Pillow is typically a bit more heavily hackled and traditionally was tied in a rusty/brown orange color, rather than the rainbow of colors now offered in the Stimi. Both the Sofa Pillow, which I still carry, and the Stimulator manage to catch a significant number of fish in the fall as October Caddis dry imitations.
I have recently switched to a new favorite, Ken Morrish’s October Caddis imitation for a very simple reason, I catch more fish. It is a no fuss pattern that employs an extended foam body that floats high like a cork and a heavily hackled forward portion that allows skilled anglers to bump, skitter, skate and dance the fly across the river much like the naturals.
Many anglers have described their frustration to me in their efforts to get trout to eat a dry offering during the October Caddis hatch. While Kenny’s pattern has increased my success, how I fish his pattern has improved it much more. The first important consideration to understand is that many more fish are eating egg laying October Caddis than the hatching winged insects. The bugs most often crawl to the shallow, still margins of the river to pupate and hatch which is not often were trout hold to feed.
If you observe the egg layers you might notice that they most often dip and dive to the surface to drop their eggs, only becoming available for a few split seconds before taking off to dip and dive again. As they tire they sometimes stick to the surface for a longer period but rarely attain the long still drift of a mayfly through a glide as it dries its wings in preparation for take off. Most anglers however, cast their October Caddis dries as if they are fishing a mayfly hatch, with long drag free drifts through classic runs. They will also cast well upstream from fish they observe rising, presumably to avoid spooking the fish and also to perhaps adjust the alignment of their drift. This technique will at times catch fish, as well as some large ones, but rarely many.
While, like others, I can not resist offering my October Caddis to fish in the heart of these classic runs that produce so well during a may fly hatch, I will rarely post up in the run as I do for a mayfly hatch and fish to rising trout until they no longer show. Occasionally I will use a caddis dry as an spotter fly to fish to rises with a dropper when the light does not allow me to see my tiny dry, soft hackle or mayfly emerger alone. Most often if I am fishing a run like this with an October Caddis, I am using it as an indicator fly in a “Hopper, copper, dropper” rig to stealthily nymph the run and am pleasantly surprised when a nice fish eats my caddis “hopper bobber” fly.
To rig a Hopper, copper, dropper, I typically keep the leader short, six to seven feet to 4X with the first bead head dropper (often a pattern with a wire body like Copper Johns and Iron Sallies), tied with twenty to thirty inches of 4X off the bend of the dry fly hook. The second dropper is tied with nine to fifteen inches of 5X off the bend of the first dropper. I will fish the shortest leader and tippet lengths possible to acquire the depth and manage the stealth I am after, as I find it much easier to cast and avoid tangles. I will also cast the shortest line possible while trying to keep an open loop. I enjoy more success when I move my feet and constantly adjust my position to get as close as possible to the fish rather than lengthening my line to cast with my feet planted.
Which brings me back to the point that the best dry fly water for fishing October Caddis dries is probably not the same run you enjoyed a magical summer evening casting tiny dries to sippers during a mayfly hatch. Short, choppy, broken up runs and pocket water is the water I most often target when fishing October Caddis dries. I prefer to I stay on the move, casting to likely holding spots rather than looking for risers. If I do see a fish rise, I try to hit them on the head, just a foot or two upstream from the riseform. The fly landing on the water is what most often triggers the strike. Because the egg laying adults touch and go, fish learn to strike when the bug first lands and ignore bugs that are far from their lie as the bug likely will fly off before drifting within range. After my fly drifts four to six feet or at the most eight, I will usually recast, again trying to land the fly on the spot where I believe a fish is holding rather than dead drifting it down to the fish’s suspected lie.
For fishing broken water like this, I most prefer to fish the October Caddis dry alone on a seven and a half foot 4X or 5X leader. This allows me to bump the fly when it enters the prime zone to help it look alive as well as skitter and skate it to illicit strikes. If the action is slower than I can stand, I will then add a small tungsten bead nymph dropper twenty inches or so off the bend. The beadhead droppers I most often fish are Pheasant Tails, Birdsnests, Hogan’s S&M’s, Two Bit Hookers, Morrish’s Iron Sallies, Copper John’s, and my favorite fall beadhead nymph, Mike Mercer’s Micromayfly which I’ll discuss next.
Before I detail the Micromay I would like to mention that the October Caddis has served well on occasions for early run steelhead, particularly when the fish have arrived in low clear water. I will nymph as described above but will also use this dropper system to cast to sighted fish New Zealand style, with a partner keeping an eye on the movements of the steelhead and coach the angler who casts and presents the offering. A small weighted glow bug or Pettis Egg pattern dropped below a caddis dry when cast to Steelhead holding downstream from Salmon can be very productive in the right conditions. This can be one of the most exciting ways to fish and can get even more stimulating when an adult Steelhead decides to rise to eat the dry!
While I carry and use Mike Mercer’s top producing nymph, the Micromayfly, all year round, this pattern really comes into it’s own in the fall. Autumn is the time of year that Blue Wing Olive Mayflies take center stage and this nymph is one of the better imitations. Perhaps more importantly the oversized beadhead allows it to sink faster to the point where the trout most often feed.
I carry Micromays in sizes fourteen to eighteen in olive, brown and black, with the small olives getting the most action in the fall. As I mentioned previously, it is one of my favorite flies fished as a dropper off a dry, and particularly as the last fly in a hopper, copper, dropper rig. I will nymph extensively with it in a two fly rig both with and without indicators on most all rivers that hold trout in the Northstate. It has accounted for some surprisingly large fish, including the largest trout on the Lower Sac I have ever seen, a fish in excess of ten pounds that ate a size sixteen fly!
I will also fish Micromays for steelhead on nymph rigs, particularly when fish are holding in deep slow crystal clear runs and have become highly selective or even stale. This has more than once saved the day. For these patterns I prefer to tie them on a size fourteen or sixteen hook that is 4X strong, a Mustad R90, to prevent the hook from opening and losing a hard earned fish. For both steelhead and trout I allow this fly to swing up at the end of a dead drift and then give it a few twitching retrieves to beg a dance when no other approach seems to turn the trick.
The Prince Nymph is another versatile nymph pattern that has its place in my trout box year round and my steelhead box in season. I carry it in sizes eight to eighteen with beads and sizes ten to sixteen without. I have come to prefer Fred Gordon’s version that has amber colored biots for the tail and wings. It is a bit more subdued than the standard white wing versions and the fish seem to appreciate this aesthetic. Fred is a local artist, fellow guide, great guy, and good friend which also gives me a good feeling about fishing it.
If there is such a thing as an attractor nymph, this pattern for me would be it. It does a good job of imitating a fair number of underwater critters that fish like to eat though no one critter in particular. In fall, fish might take it for an October Caddis case or Isonychia Mayfly in large sizes, immature stoneflies or caddis in medium to small sizes as well as mayflies in tiny sizes. Or perhaps they just mistake it for a snack, a chip, cracker or cookie that looks tasty?
On nymphing rigs for trout, a Prince Nymph most commonly finds it’s place as the upper fly in a two fly rig with a smaller beadhead nymph such as a PT, Birdsnest, Micromay or the like below. I most often dead drift it with and without indicators but will let the fly lift up at the end of the drift and retrieve it in shorts strips to mimic swimming insects before recasting.
When nymphing for steelhead, most local’s standard rig is “legs and eggs,” rubberleg patterns and glow bugs. Most often for me if I decide to take off the rubberleg or egg, it will be replaced with a Prince Nymph. I have found that a surprising number of fish will eat this fly as it lifts and swings at the end of the drift. This has become so effective at times that I on occasion swing a Prince style wet fly with switch rods. As I mentioned in discussing the Micromayfly I will tie this pattern on a heavy hook. I discovered the hard way that a size eight or ten Prince Nymph tied on a 2X strong hook will bend open under the pressure of a good sized steelhead so now I prefer them tied on steelhead grade hooks to avoid suffering the same fate.
My standard swing fly in the fall is a classic wet. There are too many flies that fit this description to count as folks have been fishing them on the west coast for as long as they have been fly fishing for steelhead. Some of the standards include the Silver Hilton, Skunk, Green Butt Skunk, Purple Peril and some folk’s new favorite, the Paris Hilton.
The pattern that I now use most was inspired by Dec Hogan. I read Dec’s book “A Passion for Steelhead” and met him and visited when he returned home to the Northstate to present a program to the Shasta Trinity Fly Fishers, a Redding fly fishing club. In a chapter on flies he describes his favorite summer fly he calls the “ No Name Summer Fly.”
Dec explains that while the ingredients for his recipe remain similar for each no name fly, each fly will be unique, a bit different from the previous version. The fly will most often have a tail, body of dubbing or chenille, some ribbing, a hair or feather wing, a hackle and thread head. The materials and colors used are up to the creativity of the tier.
This concept has created a renaissance in my tying. I began tying early in my fly fishing career and actually sold some of my creations while in my early teens. Recently as a guide I would tie flies for myself, my family as well as guests that I could not find at the fly shop. While we enjoyed fishing the flies, tying them becomes a chore. The task most often involves tying as many well made flies as quickly as possible so I might turn in and get some sleep before getting an early start guiding the following day. I now enjoy tying steelhead flies and in particular, my Klamath Classic, unique flies named after the river I fish for steelhead most frequently.
I tie the fly on steelhead hooks sized four to ten that include a tail, perhaps a tag, a body of dubbing, herl, floss, or chenille, a hair or feather wing, a few turns of hackle, a thread head and if I really like the way the fly turned out, I might even include jungle cock eyes. I often tie a fly with an overall objective, say a big bright fly or small drab fly, or find a material new to me and design a fly to incorporate it. While the steelhead may not fully appreciate the aesthetics, enough of them usually do that the added creative aspect makes my fishing more enjoyable.
The preferred method is to fish these flies a bit below the surface with a dry fly line, long leader and cast them quartered downstream swinging them across likely steelhead holding water. As fall progresses and water temps drop into the low fifties and forties, fish often become more reluctant to move up to eat a fly and we’ll employ light sink tips to run flies deeper in the water column. I most often fish as far upstream on the Klamath and Southern Oregon steelhead streams as steelhead can travel so they have seen a number of fisherman and their flies on their journey. While the techniques I use are the same as many of these anglers, the fly I use is unique, sparking what I hope is a bit of curiosity to entice a grab. If not, at least I am casting a fly I enjoyed tying.
If there is something more exciting in our sport than seeing an adult steelhead take a dry from the surface I have yet to experience it. I feel very fortunate that in our part of the world the annual cycle brings us the magical, illusive steelhead, and in late summer and early fall, some of them are willing to rise to a waked or skated fly.
When conditions allow, skating, chugging and waking a dry steelhead fly is the most exciting fishing for me. Fish are willing to take flies on the surface in temperatures from the low fifties through the mid sixties, with water clarity good enough for the fish to readily see the surface. The fly is attached to a floating line and long leader, ten to fifteen feet tapered to six or eight pound test and cast across and downstream, how much across and how much downstream is dependent on the current speed. This is an ideal technique for those new to swinging flies for steelhead as the swing is so visual, allowing anglers to understand quickly how the angle of the cast and mending of the line affects the speed of the swing. I prefer two handed rods and have been fishing switch rods in this style since the eighties. I cast them both one and two handed overhead as well as spey style.
The goal is to cover as much water as efficiently as possible to find a player. If a fish rises but isn’t hooked, I’ll give them another cast or two and then switch to a smaller dry. If that fails, I’ll switch to a small Klamath Classic, and then a larger Klamath Classic, making a couple casts with each. I might add a sink tip and make a couple more casts with the large Classic or go back to the original fly that drew the rise and make a few more casts before continuing to move downstream through the run. On the second time through I will flick my rod tip causing the fly to pop or chug much like a bass popper to try and tease the fish into striking. If this fails, I’ll mark the spot and return in my next fishing session hoping the fish is in a more playful mood.
My Muddler fishing is not limited to steelhead in summer and fall. Trout in our local freestones, the Upper Sacramento River, Pit River, and particularly the McCloud River will eat streamers and the Muddler has a place in my streamer box. I have found that Kelly Galloup’s version he calls the “Zoo Cougar’ to be particularly attractive to large Brown Trout on the McCloud. It is my go to fly particularly in any situation when a weighted streamer will hang on the bottom. I fish it attached to a fast sinking tip with a short, three to five foot leader made with OX tied to 2X tippet. I use an open loop knot to allow a bit more movement. Kelly’s design has more movement than conventional muddlers which adds to the attractiveness.
Swinging the fly through riffs, around structure and through the shallow heads and tailouts of runs will get some impressive fish to grab. I will most often add short strips or tease the rod tip to add some action. Do keep in mind that a good portion of the trout we catch with other methods will not be in the game as only the larger fish are being targeted when fishing these big bites. The simple formula that the more water you cover the more fish you catch is doubly true with this method. This technique gets really exciting in the fall when large Browns can be sighted in the low clear water and you can watch them chase and eat. Do tie your knots with care!
With the Halloween and Thanksgiving holidays on the horizon I hope the recipes I have offered help provide a bit of magic to your fly fishing feast this fall.
Here are the tying recipes for five flies if you’d care to tie some for yourself or a fellow fly fisher:
Fall Fly Pattern Recipes
Mike Mercer’s Micro May
Hook: Tiemco 3769 sizes 14-18
Bead: Copper Bead, sized a bit larger than normal
Thread: Uni Thread 8/0 color to match fly
Tail: Ringneck Pheasant fibers, color to match fly
Abdomen: Stripped Peacock Herl
Ribbing: Small wire, silver or copper to compliment fly color
Wing Case: Turkey Tail
Wing Case Strip: Pearl Flashabou
Thorax: Dubbing to match fly color (Brown, Olive, Black)
Legs: Ringneck Pheasant fibers, color to match fly
Collar: Dubbing to match fly color
Hook: Tiemco 5262 or 300 sizes 2-10
Thread: Uni Thread 6/0 color to match fly
Tail: Mottled Turkey
Body: Gold Tinsel or Diamond Braid
Rib: Gold Oval Tinsel (optional)
Wing: Mottled Turkey over Natural color Squirrel
Head: Spun Deer clipped to cone shape with some tips facing back to hookbend
Zoo Cougar (Kelly Galloup’s Muddler style streamer)
Hook: Tiemco 5262 or 300 sizes 2-10
Thread: Uni Thread 6/0 color to match fly
Tail: Marabou, color to match fly
Body: Diamond Braid, color to match fly
Wing: Mallard Flack over calf tail
Head: Spun Deer clipped to cone shape with some tips facing back to hookbend
Hook: Tiemco 3761 sized 8-18
Bead: Gold (Copper for Gordon Prince)
Thread: Uni Thread Black 6/0 or 8/0 in small sizes
Tail: Brown Turkey or Goose Biots (Amber for Gordon Prince)
Underbody: Black Dubbing
Body: Peacock Herl
Rib: Fine Gold Tinsel
Legs: Brown Hackle
Wing: White Turkey or Goose Biots (Amber for Gordon Prince)
Morrish October Caddis
Hook: Size 8 Tiemco 100
Thread: Uni Thread 6/0 Black
Body: 2mm Orange Foam
Rib: Black Thread
Wing: Stacked Elk Hair
Nose: 2mm Tan Foam
Legs: Brown Hackle, clipped on bottom thorax style
Klamath Classic Steelhead Wet Fly
Hook: Tiemco 7999 or 202sp
Threaad: Uni Thread 6/0 color to match or compliment fly
Tail: Hackle Fibers or Pheasant Crescent Feather
Body: Chenille or Dubbing, color of choice
Rib: Tinsel, color of choice
Hackle: Rooster or Hen Neck or Duck Flank feather wound
Wing: Paired Rooster or Hen neck Feather, or Polar Bear substitute, color of choice