The Best Fall Fly Fishing Destinations in the West
Fall in the Rocky Mountains is one of the most beautiful times of the entire year. Mornings are generally brisk, days typically warm, and rivers can be fishing as well (if not better) than any time of the year. As summer crowds return to demanding careers and schedules filled with school and extracurricular obligations, western rivers are offered increasingly rare moments of respite from high-season traffic. Between having the chance at a quiet river to yourself coupled with opportunities for productive days on the water, fall can easily be some of the best fishing days of the entire year. If you have yet to experience everything the West’s fall fly fishing season has to offer, then please do yourself a favor and make the pilgrimage, at least once, to one the great trout rivers of Montana, Idaho, or Wyoming.
Fall Fly Fishing Weather
When September arrives in the Rocky Mountain West, it often brings hints of fall with it. It’s not uncommon to wake up to frosty waders or boots that spent the night outside. But once the sun emerges and temperatures begin to rise, by mid-morning and for the rest of the afternoon, the weather can easily be similar to any other day of the summer. Don’t be fooled though. If fall weather in the Rocky Mountains is consistent in anything, it’s for being consistently inconsistent. Fall weather is notorious for changing on a whim and at the drop of a hat. One minute it can be windy and cold, maybe even snowing – and the next, it can be sunny and hot where reapplying sunscreen becomes a necessity. Being prepared for every weather scenario is a good rule-of-thumb for anglers; pack waders, extra layers, and a warm hat in addition to any hot-weather fishing gear. Trust us when we say there’s nothing much worse than shivering through an otherwise spectacular fall fishing day.
We’ll be the first to admit that we’re a little biased here. But there’s good reason that we’re located in Bozeman, Montana. With access to all the state’s great rivers, Bozeman offers the perfect community for any serious angler. The summer months are filled with anglers from every part of the world wanting to experience Montana’s fly fishing (don’t get us wrong, summer still has incredible fishing), but come fall when summer crowds start to disappear, anglers can thoroughly enjoy the treasures of Montana’s rivers. Brown and rainbow trout start to spawn and bringing a large territorial brown to net is not uncommon. Keep in mind though that since browns and rainbows are spawning, it’s important for every angler to respect the redd. Being mindful of spawning fish is a matter of ethics, conservation and respect for our incredible natural resources. If it’s questionable whether or not you may be fishing a red, please err on the side of caution and choose a different fishing spot. Adhering to strict ethics around fishing redds during the spawning months corresponds to healthy fish populations not only in the current season but for proceeding seasons. In other words, a little bit of good behavior can go a long way ensuring Montana’s rivers remain healthy and productive for the enjoyment of everyone and for years to come.
Montana Fly Fishing Rivers
Flowing from the base of Yellowtail Dam in Fort Smith, Montana, the Bighorn River is unquestionably one of the gems in the world of fly fishing. Anglers can pursue browns and rainbows that will be sipping insects off the surface during different hours of the day.
When eventually arrives on the Bighorn River, the cooler temperatures bring on hatches with the dropping mercury. A cool overcast day in September can produce prolific hatches throughout the day and over the next several months tricos, mahogany duns, blue winged olives, and midges will be the prevailing hatches. These hatches will require anglers to par-down their tippet sizes requiring 5, 6, and even 7x. Feeding trout will find a well-presented fly irresistible; anglers should present their flies mostly downstream with a slow drift moving widthwise across the river. Remember that trout are inherently spooky and fish should always be approached with a little commotion as possible. A well presented dry fly can be irresistible for a feeding trout. Presenting your fly should be done mostly down and across with a slow drift. Remember that trout are spooky and you should try to sneak up to them with as little commotion as possible. For anglers that would rather fish streamers, October on the Bighorn can be a great time to find big hungry browns and rainbows. Whether wading or floating, dry flies or streamers, Montana’s Bighorn River is spectacular during the fall months.
Mention the Madison River in a circle fly fishermen and you will almost certainly spark a conversation of countless fishing stories; whether the conversation surrounds the rich and storied history of the river or someone fondly recalls a spectacular day below Three Dollar Bridge, the Madison River is a cornerstone in the history of fly fishing and is close to many angler’s hearts. The Madison’s status as a world-class river isn’t being revoked anytime soon and for anglers wanting to experience some of Montana’s best fall fly fishing, the river can be one of the best around. When trout from Hebgen Lake begin swimming into the Madison and other feeder streams to spawn, anglers from all over the world congregate in West Yellowstone for a chance at catching a trophy trout inside Yellowstone National Park.
Anglers fish for these Hebgen-run trout similar to steelhead using a swing-and-step method. When fishing a run in the Park during this time with other anglers around, there are several things to keep in mind:
1. Do not stake up at a pool or run and continue to fish it. Make a cast and then take a step downstream. All the fish are moving upstream!
2. Do not step in below an angler that is fishing! Walk above everyone else and step in line. Give other anglers at least 100 yards of space.
3. While inside the Park, remember that only a single barbless fly is permitted!
Additionally, make sure to have a Yellowstone National Park fishing license that can be purchased at any number of the fly shops located in the Park’s surrounding communities like Gardiner and West Yellowstone. Fishing licenses can also be purchased at any of the Park’s visitor centers. Not only can a Park license be purchased at a local fly shop or park visitor center, but inquiring about flies and tactics at any of these locations can prove enormously beneficial. But unless an angler is advised differently, a typically good fly option in the Park is any traditional wet fly or large soft hackle. But above all else, proper presentation is the most important.
The upper part of the Madison River runs outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. The upper Madison hosts exceptional hatches of baetis and October caddis between Hebgen and Quake lakes as well as the slide section. On cloudy days anglers can find trout in pools behind rocks, along banks, and other structures that offer protection to hatching baetis and which break up the fast water. In this case, the challenge is not so much finding feeding fish, but rather getting a drag-free drift with tiny dries.
A useful trick for achieving a drag-free drift is to add another foot or two of tippet. Longer tippet lengths will give the angler a larger margin for error when it comes to spooking wary trout. Basic fly patterns like comparaduns and parachute-styles in sizes 18-22 usually get the job done. If it’s too difficult seeing the tiny dry fly, be sure to tie on a large October caddis and drop a baetis dry a foot off the back.
At the end of the day, anglers will be hard-pressed to find a river anywhere in the world with such rich history, culture, and world-class trout fishing to boot as the Madison River.
The Missouri River
The Missouri River near Craig, Montana is reputed for great dry fly fishing and high numbers of fish per mile. Often referred to as a “giant spring creek” due to consistent water temperatures and steady flows from Holter Dam, the section of the Missouri near Craig has great hatches year-round. With regular hatches and rising trout it’s no surprise that the Upper Missouri is a world famous fishery. When crowds disappear in the fall, anglers can find themselves surrounded by beautiful landscapes and casting to pods of hungry trout. In cooler fall months like October, baetis hatches will cover the river below Holter Dam. And similarly, overcast days will host an hatches of small insects that trout will sip off the surface. Be sure to use flush-style patterns such as comparaduns and parachute dry flies that fish key in on. Identifying rise forms on a slow-moving, flat surface river like the Missouri is important to angling success.
During the baetis hatch for example, it’s rare to actually see the fish’s head or nose. Anglers should instead look for unnatural boils of water on the surface which would indicate a feeding trout. Keep in mind that oftentimes during hatches (such as the Missouri’s baetis), trout will feed just below the surface. As baetis nymphs float in the water column filling with small gas-bubbles to shed their exoskeletons, the helpless nymphs will remain buoyed in, or slightly below, the surface film until they emerge from their shucks. For predatory trout, the suspended nymphs offer an easy meal.
A dry fly pattern that’s easily seen by the angler will be the best choice for rising trout on the Missouri. Use a pattern such as a parachute and then drop a small pheasant tail (without a bead head) about a foot behind the dry. Apply floatant to only the tippet section between the dry and the nymph so the second fly sits just beneath, or in the film. Fishing with two flies enables an angler to fish two different stages of a hatch.
Anglers may find it challenging to cast to and land fish on the Missouri during the fall. With an influx of vegetation in the water, keeping flies free of weeds and hooked fish away from the precarious weeds will result in more eats as well as fish-to-hand. Anglers that opt for a heavier tippet size can put more pressure on a fish that’s fleeing to thick vegetation; control the trout’s head by tilting the rod sideways and exerting pressure to steer it away from precarious vegetation. It’s remarkable how much pressure a full to mid-flex fly rod can put on a fish even when using 5 and 6x tippet.
When fish aren’t rising on the Missouri be sure to switch out dry flies for an indicator or large olive, yellow/black and white streamer with a scud or midge larvae beneath. Fish tight to the bank and be sure to methodically cover all fishable water.
Check out these lodges:
Missouri River Ranch
Missouri River Trout Shop
The Lodge at Eagle Rock
The Henry’s Fork
Every year anglers from around the world travel to Idaho to fish its fabled waters. Idaho may boast a seemingly endless supply of fishable waters, but there are few, if any, that come close to having the notoriety and reputation of that of the Henry’s Fork. But once fall descends on the Henry’s Fork, Island Park empties of summer crowds, and anglers trade fly rods for rifles and bows, the fall season can be the perfect time to find some picky risers on vacant stretches of river in one of the West’s most spectacular landscapes.
In recent years, hatches of blue-winged olives have brought fish to the surface on the famous Railroad Ranch section of the Henry’s Fork. The larger rainbows in this stretch of river tend to focus on the mahogany duns that can be found intermixed with the prolific hatches of baetis. Mahogany duns are just that — mahogany in color, and usually a size 16. A sparkle dun with an olive, Antron shuck is a favorite of many anglers in pursuit of the mahogany dun hatch. But as is the case on other rivers, proper fly presentation is a necessity.
When water levels are relatively low during the fall months, trout are instinctually wary of overhead predators like osprey’s and eagles. Because trout are cautious this time of year, fly presentations, if possible, should made without stepping in the water. Be sure to utilize long light leaders on sections like the Ranch; make sure to stay patient and try to time presentations with each rise of the fish. The Ranch is not an easy section and landing a fish of any size in this section is something to raise a glass to!
Similar to Montana’s Bighorn and Missouri, the Henry’s Fork is inundated with weed beds that can make fishing challenging. Check flies regularly for weeds and vegetation and once hooked up with a trout, be sure to control the head with side pressure while steering the fish away from thick vegetation and avoiding any chance of the fly dislodging from its mouth.
Aside from the Ranch, the lower Henry’s Fork around Ashton and St. Anthony can be extremely productive in the short window before snow starts falling. The lower river is a terrific section and countless anglers and guides recommend it for the fall months. Not only can the streamer fishing be phenomenal, but a trophy-sized trout on a small dry is a unique opportunity.
Considered “The Last Frontier,” Alaska has a landmass larger than California, Texas, and Montana combined. The breathtaking landscapes give way to meandering rivers and endless miles of fishable water. July and August are considered the busy season, but for anglers seeking solitude, fall is the perfect time.
Not only are rivers less pressured, but by late season rainbow trout will have reached “football” sized proportions after gorging on salmon eggs, smolt, sculpins, and rodents. Once the first salmon start to die off in September rainbows can even be seen ripping flesh from the cararcasses, indulging themselves with the rich protein source throughout Alaska’s river systems. But it’s not only rainbow trout that benefit from the yearly salmon runs; Pacific Salmon reintroduce tremendous amounts of biomass and nutrients into Alaska’s ecosystems and sustain creatures big and small, throughout the entire food chain.
From the largest of grizzly bears to the smallest of sculpin, every participant in the ecosystem is in search of food before the onset of the long winter. Rainbow trout are no exception. Salmon eggs and flesh may provide easy meals but rainbows will still find streamers and mouse patterns irresistible. When water levels are low in the fall, anglers can even sight fish for large rainbows with streamers, mice, and egg patterns. Like a saltwater fish, Alaskan rainbows will peel off line testing drag systems and straining 7 and 8WT rods.
Since most of an Alaskan trout’s fall diet consists of protein-rich foods such as salmon flesh, anglers should utilize pink and white bunny fur flesh patterns. Bunny fur offers some options and can be fished in a variety of ways. Many larger trout in search of a big meal will find bunny fur incredibly appetizing. A larger “dolly llama” pattern in the white/ pink colorway is a great option; it can be dead drifted, swung, or stripped. Other dolly llama color options such as black/ white are yearlong producers. Additionally, swinging smaller intruder-style streamers can also prove very effective in certain situations.
Alaska is famous among fly fishermen for its late-fall opportunities to fish with a mouse pattern for large trout. The Mr. Hankey is a favorite option: it skates and floats well and the fur and whiskers on the underbelly give it lifelike motion. Deer hair variations with a wider profile can also work well and push more water than the Mr. Hankey. Anglers should note that Alaskan trout tend to react more so to disturbances in the water than to fly coloration or pattern details. But don’t think mouse fishing is easy.
Mouse fishing can be a frustrating pursuit as trout will strike or “nip” patterns to first stun the mouse before making a full eat. Early hook sets are common and patient anglers will find more success waiting for the second hard take before ever setting the hook. The trailer hook underneath the main fly body can be advantageous in getting more fish to hand. Sure signs of a great day mousing are teeth marks and scars across the top of a mouse pattern!
It’s difficult finding many places as beautiful as Canada in the fall. As countrysides transform with the changing seasons, broadleaf trees change colors with reds, yellows, and oranges hinting at the approaching winter. During the fall, rivers around Fernie, Banff and Calgary can produce phenomenal fly fishing for any trout angler. For anglers wanting to fish Canadian rivers there are several requirements to keep in mind.
Anglers visiting British Columbia must:
1. Acquire a British Columbia Angler # on the BC Fishing website
2. Purchase a one-day, eight-day or annual fishing license
3. Purchase a classified waters day permit IF fishing a classified water section during the period in which it’s labeled “classified” (Note: Permits are sold on a per-diem basis for the date and river for which it’s issued. Anglers should purchase classified water permits on the BC fishing website prior to arrival to ensure availability.)
The system may seem extraneous and a nuisance, but the system has worked well in keeping fishing pressure on the region’s rivers to a minimal level. A direct result of the Canadian system has given many rivers the ability to retain their blue-ribbon status.
Starting in mid-August and running through the month of October, bull trout begin spawning and depositing eggs on gravel beds in shallow streams. It’s illegal to target bull trout during the spawn, but prior to spawning, anglers can find aggressive bull trout that will smack a large fly presented to them. Numbers of bull trout have been dwindling through the years and with concerted efforts to bring their numbers back up, anglers should handle the fish with care and release them quickly.
For fly fishermen looking for more dry fly options, both The Bow (outside of Calgary) and Elk Rivers (in Fernie) should be considered.
The Elk River is a freestone river, originating from the Elk Lakes in southeast British Columbia. On The Elk River in Fernie, anglers can target westslope cutthroat trout during hatches of tricos, caddis, flavs, mahogany duns and baetis during the fall. Westlope cutthroat in The Elk average between 14–18 inches, with a few breaking the 20-inch mark.
The Bow River flows through Banff before making its way through Calgary. The fish on the lower Bow River near Calgary are notorious for putting up a big fight before reaching the net. Both brown and rainbow trout will average between 15–21 inches in this section of river, with fish over 24-inches caught regularly.
During the fall season on The Bow, be sure to have orange stimulators for the October caddis and blue-winged olive dries.
If you’re in beautiful British Columbia in the fall months of September and October you can also enjoy swinging for steelhead in secluded wilderness settings where pressure during the summer is minimal, and during fall, is even more minimal.
Keep in mind that in lots of parts of Canada, such as New Brunswick, salmon are running up the rivers to spawn. Even if not salmon fishing, witnessing the magnificent runs is something to behold.
In short, Canada should be on every angler’s list for an autumn fishing trip!
Every region of the United States has a unique fish species it identifies with – trout in the Rockies, redfish in Louisiana, and of course, steelhead in the Pacific Northwest.
Autumn in the Pacific Northwest means nickel-colored powerful summer-run steelhead are making their way from the salt up the coastal and inland rivers. Targeting steelhead is typically not a numbers game and requires a different mindset on behalf of the angler versus targeting trout in the Rockies. The Pacific Northwest is part of the country where getting a tug from a fish of a lifetime is absolutely plausible. Swinging hair-wing and intruder-style steelhead flies with two-handed fly rods is the essence of steelheading. But nymph fishing with single-handed rods and egg patterns can be equally as productive.
If not swinging for steelhead, anglers can pursue trout feeding on October Caddis and other fall mayflies in addition to lingering terrestrials. After the fall months, anglers can pursue prized winter-run steelhead through the months of December through April.
Regardless if swinging to steelhead or presenting to trout, the Pacific Northwest in the Fall is a treasure that every angler should experience at least one in their lifetimes.
The fall season brings about the turn of the hot summer and days begin to grow shorter. Autumn traditions emerge as the leaves change colors and for anglers, rivers offer a quiet retreat in the company of ducks, geese, and bugling elk. Fall offers a place of peaceful solitude for many anglers, and like what most of us are after, some great fishing.
Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures