Alter when and where you approach the river for better shots at fall fish.
[by Jason Randall]
LABOR DAY ALWAYS MARKED THE END of the “aluminum hatch” season on the Michigan rivers where I cut my angling teeth, although during a recent visit, I saw more inner tubes than canoes. On the Muskegon River, an unnavigable flotilla of rubber doughnuts interconnected by sunburned arms and legs collided with our anchored drift boat. The tubers were loudly apologetic, and well past inebriated, due in large part to the jumbo-sized cooler that sat on a raft in the center of their armada.
I’ve learned to respect the hatch—both rubber and aluminum—after two bikini-clad college girls ran me over in their canoe many years ago. Their giggling and shrieking laughter warned me of their approach, but I must have been entranced because I just stood there, watching, as they came at me on a direct collision course. I knew I was going to be broadsided because they were paddling in opposite directions. At the last moment, I turned to escape and literally sat in the middle of their canoe, which ended up dumping us all in the Au Sable River. I suppose there are worse fates.
I like fall fishing, not only because of the absence of tubers, but also because the autumn rivers are mostly devoid of anglers as vacationing families return home and the steelhead and salmon guys have moved on to larger quarry, leaving the river to me and a few other solitary trout die-hards. Fishing pressure diminishes and trout appetites rise with a “winter is coming” sense of urgency.
Catching trout in the fall boils down to two things: Find the fish, and feed them what they’re eating. While that is no easy task in any season, the low flows that typify most autumn rivers and the reduced diversity of food make this job a little more straightforward.
Find the Fish
The first order of business is finding fish—and they’re not where they were in the summer. The low water flows of autumn affect trout distribution; the riffles where fish thrived in early summer may be too thin for trout in the fall or they may be exposed gravel bars. Runs that were waist deep in the spring are often much shallower. The low flow of fall makes much of the spring habitat unsuitable and concentrates fish in the remaining water in contrast to the higher spring flow that tends to distribute fish over a wider territory.
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Trout tend to follow the flow, so to speak, which means we’ll often find them in the center of the river. They relate more to midstream structure and less to shoreline structure, especially in the straight sections of a river. Look for a mid-stream boulder or bubble lines in the main flow; trout will often be hugging the bottom or feeding along the trailing seams that extend downriver from central obstructions.
Around river bends, it’s a different story; trout will often congregate along the outer bank of the river bend and the short straightaway section that follows. The faster flow found there offers trout feeding opportunities and the deeper water provides security. Identify shoreline structure like logs, branches, and boulders along the outer bank; these will often shelter feeding trout.
Additionally, your favorite part of the river may be as empty as a ghost town. Trout abandon summer feeding territory in a slow upstream movement to spawning sites, and autumn anglers are wise to do the same. Depending on the climate, brown and brook trout may be in prespawning feeding patterns by mid-September and may have already begun to make their way upstream. Even though rainbows and cutthroats spawn in spring, they often lag only a little behind the browns in upstream movement in order to capitalize on the opportunities to feed just below the redds of fall spawning trout, salmon, or steelhead. During the egg-laying process, many eggs are swept away by the current into the mouths of other fish.
Although I’m careful not to disrupt spawning sites when wading, and I avoid drifting my flies through individual redds, I often find autumn trout lurking two to six feet directly downstream of nests, especially those located at the back edge of gravel flats where a drop-off provides cover for feeding trout. Redds are usually visible as blanched areas in the cobbled bottom where a female has cleared the finer silt and sediment away in preparation for depositing her fertilized eggs.