Think small for fall: late-season trout fishing, when little things mean a lot

Trout fishing in the autumn can be extremely enjoyable and productive. Trout streams are often filled with very large trout at this time of year. Tips on successful fishing trips include using small flies such as midges and using light tippets.
There are dimples amid the drifting leaves, spreading rings from rising trout that wrinkle golden-aspen reflections in Colorado and northern California. The scene repeats along Ozark tailwaters amid the shouting red of river maples, and repeats yet again in Michigan and New England where brook trout and browns feed quietly through bright, yellow-birch afternoons. It is the end of a trout-fishing year. And it may be the best time of all to be fishing.

Fall is fly fishing’s ultimate paradox, a time when larger trout almost invariably rise to the smallest of flies. Trout streams nationwide are generally at their lowest and clearest by late season, while hatches of larger mayflies and caddisflies that dominated spring and early summer fishing have long disappeared. Midges and minuscule mayflies predominate now in both rivers and trout ponds, and that often means you’ll either conquer the unique problems of fishing with flies size 20 and smaller or you won’t catch fish.

Denver, Colorado, angler and small-fly maven George Schoenecker is a twenty-year veteran of difficult rivers such as the Fryingpan and South Platte, where small flies are often critical. As he told me when we compared notes the other day, “If you want to fish low, clear rivers or tailwaters, you’re just going to have to go to small flies and light tippets.” Fortunately, recent advances in both tackle and tactics have made this kind of microfishing much easier despite its widespread reputation for difficulty.


Accurate casting to rising trout from 20 to 50 feet away is far more important than booming for distance, which means light-line rods (5-weight and lighter) are highly practical fall fishing tools. Although slow-action or soft-tipped rods are often suggested as a means of protecting a fragile leader tippet, such protection is more a matter of learning how to strike and fight fish correctly (see below). Four-weight outfits are probably optimum for most people; these rigs are sufficiently delicate to land the fly softly on low, clear water, yet they still offer enough line mass to counter slight breezes.

Leaders will be long and light — 9 to 13 feet — as will tippets, which run from 3 to 5 feet. Long, light tippets have a two-fold role: their stretch acts as a cushion when playing fish, and exaggerated tippet length also helps in putting slack leader near the fly on the water, which promotes drag-free drifts. Tippet size relates to fly size; 6X carries flies down to size 22, 7X down to size 26, and — in extremis — 8X down to size 28.

Knotless tapers are best, with relatively soft butts in the .019-inch diameter range. Heavier or stiffer leader butts tend to force your casting loop open with short casts, which can hinder close-in accuracy; leader butts that are too limp or thin will collapse backward on themselves rather than fully extend on midrange casts. If a breeze tends to push your light leader off target, try shortening the tippet section, increasing tippet diameter by one size, or using a stiffer leader butt — in that order.

A smooth-running reel with a broad range of light-drag adjustment is essential. Hooking larger trout on microflies is fairly common in the fall, which can mean long runs against a fragile connection. A jerky drag or one that allows only high-tension adjustment will cost you fish. I prefer simple click-and-pawl drags found on Orvis CFOs, L.L. Bean’s Silver Guide series, and the venerable Hardy LRH. Remember, you’re not trying to stop a larger fish with your drag setting; you’re only trying to stay connected with a smooth, light touch until that first long run is over — at which point you’ll apply additional drag with your fingertips against the reel spool or line to work the fish back in.


The most widespread complaint about microfishing is that the tiny dry flies are hard to see on the water, which makes drift control and strike detection difficult. The most important step here is mental. Get over the notion that you have to see the fly; you only have to know approximately where the fly is. That’s a lot easier than it sounds. First, from having fished with larger dries, you already know how line, leader, and fly behave on the water. Your small fly will be doing exactly the same things — even if you can’t see it — so trust your experience. When a fish rises within a foot or so of where you think your fly should be, set the hook. You’ll be surprised at how often you’re right.

Detecting drag is even easier. The floating line and leader are clearly visible even if the fly is not. If the line or leader butt start dragging, you can safely assume the fly is, too. Add line mends or slack line to the drift just as you would when fishing larger dries.

Schoenecker, who deals with this question often as he outfits anglers at The Flyfisher in Denver, has a couple of other good suggestions. “You can grease the leader to within a few inches of the fly,” he says, to make more of the now-floating leader visible from a distance. “Basically, you’re trying to cut down the sight radius of where the fly might be when it lands. Another thing that’s come into play during the past few seasons is using a floating-yarn strike indicator. This is like the indicator used when fishing nymphs, but for small dries, use a much smaller piece of yarn placed much closer to the fly.” A floating, bright yarn indicator a foot or so above the fly generally won’t bother the trout and is certainly the most visible — if most complicated — answer.


Learning just how hard you can pull with your rod in light-tippet fishing is the most important step in learning to use small flies. Once they try this at home, most people are amazed at the system’s strength. Tie a size 20 fly to a 7X tippet on your fully rigged rod, and hook the fly firmly by hand into a nearby branch. Walk back about 30 feet, paying out line as you go. Now lift the rod and pull slightly as if you were playing a fish. Pull harder. Harder. Bounce the rod around a little as you develop a feel for just how hard you can pull before the ultrafine leader breaks.

Even a pull of about 1 pound puts a very substantial bend in a light fly rod, and your 7X tippet tests at about 2.5 pounds. Allowing for, say, a 30-percent loss in strength because of the terminal knot at the fly (even though some common knots are rated higher), you’ve still got more than 1.5 pounds of pulling power to use in fighting a fish. That may not sound like much, but it feels enormous with a light rod in hand. And what you’ve just discovered — that “feel” you’ve just developed — means you can indeed fight larger fish on light tippets with enough force to play the fish quickly and to avoid killing it, if that’s your goal.

Sudden jerks are another matter. While a steady pull can be substantial, quick yanks are tippet snappers — usually at a knot that slips and breaks. To avoid breakoffs when setting the hook, do so deliberately. Don’t yank or quickly arch your wrist when you react to a rise. Instead, keep a rigid wrist and lift the whole rod gently with your arm to tighten the line and leader. Small hooks penetrate easily; a gentle lift is all it takes.


If you’ve ever tied a small fly to a fine tippet, chances are you’ve wound up with a few tight pigtail curls of leader right above the fly — curls that no amount of massaging will straighten. It’s ugly and aggravating, and fussy fish don’t like it. This happens because as you draw your knot tight, the fine tippet is pulled under tension around the narrow radius of the miniature hook eye, which makes the nylon curl just like Christmas ribbon drawn over a scissors blade.

With a little patience and forethought you can avoid those curls. I like a double Turle knot for small fly/fine tippet connections; Schoenecker likes an improved clinch. But in either case, the answer is the same. “Instead of pulling hard right away on the standing end [main leader] to seat the knot,” he says, “I first work the knot gently down to the hook eye. Then once the knot is seated, I snug it down. No curlicue.”

Paying attention to those sorts of details will catch you more fish on small flies. And that’s especially true in the low, clear waters of autumn — when little things mean a lot.


Midges and minuscule blue-winged olive (BWO) mayflies are the dominant fall hatches from Northern California to Maine. BWOs may start by early September in northern waters and frequently emerge daily on afternoons through October; the same hatch in Southern tailwaters may not begin until as late as January.

Griffiths Gnats (sizes 20 to 26, a generic, emerger-style dry) are basic equipment on fall waters anywhere, but more specialized flies are sometimes better producers. New patterns like the RS-2 (sizes 20 to 24, a BWO emerger) and WD-40 (sizes 20 to 26, a midge pupa imitation) are currently hot on Western waters, but have so far seen little Eastern use. Both can be fished deep with added weight and a floating strike indicator — as is commonly done on New Mexico’s popular San Juan tailwater, for example — or fished near the surface to rising trout.

You’ll also want some BWO dries (sizes 20 to 26), either tied conventionally with radial hackle and upright wings, or tied parachute-style, which I prefer because there’s no vertical hackle to obstruct the miniature hook gap. Finally, midget soft-hackled wets can be deadly when fussy fish are sipping olives at the surface. Little soft-hackles in sizes 20 to 26 (olive body, dark dun or starling hackle) aren’t widely available in retail stores or catalogs, but are easily special-ordered.

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