It’s Bugger Time!
Fall is the favorite fly fishing season for many anglers, and for good reason. This is the time of year when we can stand by a high country waterway and enjoy the beauty of the foliage changing colors; be refreshed by the clear, brisk air; and often times find solitude on the river, fishing waters that were crowded just a few months earlier. This can be a magical time of year, with summer over and change in the air, and fall fly fishing for Browns is a special treat.
This is when caramel colored Brown Trout are often seen making their way upstream in search of suitable spawning grounds. Joining the resident river fish will be Browns that have lived all summer in the adjacent lakes and reservoirs. These traveling Browns are often more aggressive than when you fished for them during the summer, and some different fishing methods are used. Here’s some of what you’ll need to know to catch what may end up being a trophy size Brown.
The Brown Trout is an aggressive species by nature at any time of the year, but even more so during the fall. This feisty behavior means powerful strikes, with long, hard runs after they are hooked, and violent head shakes and rolls while trying to break loose. All of that will add up to some fantastic fly fishing to go along with the beauty of the surroundings.
Browns are often found feeding alone, unlike Rainbows which tend to feed in groups, and they’ll even feed among a pod of Rainbows, grabbing your fly before the Rainbow can get to it. This means you’ll need to look harder to find the more solitary Brown, but there are several things happening that you can take advantage of in your search. It is important to understand the nature of the fish that are migrating, and how they will react to the streamer presented to them.
The first fish to travel up the river in the fall are the larger, dominant males. These males will search for riffles and deeper runs that they can stage in for up to several weeks waiting for the females to arrive. These males are very territorial regarding the area that they have staked a claim to, and they can be very belligerent in their attempt to keep other males away. If you spot a male holding in an area, and watch him for a while, you’ll likely see him occasionally get very active and start moving quickly up and down the run or darting several feet to either side. This usually happens if another male gets too close to his territory, and you can imagine what will happen if you cast a streamer or bugger into his path while he’s this aggressive.
An advantage to stalking the fall Browns is that these males can be easier to see because of the vibrant coloration many of them display this time of year. With a bright yellow and orange belly, caramel colored upper body with large black and red spots, and a large fanned tail, they are more easily spotted in the shallower water. Once caught and landed, which is no easy task with a fish fresh from the lake or reservoir, the male can be readily identified by its pointy, extended jaw (kipe), and large almost canine sized teeth used to fight other males.
Another way to take advantage of the overly aggressive nature of fall Browns is by fishing with bulkier streamers and buggers instead of smaller flies. Using these large flies not only takes advantage of the Brown’s more aggressive territorial behavior, but also imitates several primary food sources of the fall Browns, baitfish and crawfish.
Bring the right gear
Unlike most trout flies, streamers and buggers can be quite heavy, bulky, and cumbersome to cast. So, although your summer fly fishing gear might work for fall Browns, chances are you are going to want to use something more substantial. Generally speaking, the most effective set-up to use on high country streams and rivers for fall Browns is a nine foot, six weight rod, and matching reel and line weight. This rod size will be stiff enough to throw the streamers and buggers, and also have the heftier butt section needed to provide you with the leverage required for controlling bigger fish.
Matching the six weight rod with a corresponding size fly line and reel is important. Remember, if you use the reel that you’ve been fishing all summer that currently has a five weight fly line, you may need to remove some of the backing to make room for the bulkier six weight fly line. Choosing a proper fly line for streamer fishing is important, and here are some guidelines to help in your selection of the right line.
A Weight Forward, Six Weight, Floating Line (usually designated as WF-6-F) is very effective for shallower riffles or runs where the fish are not located deep in the water column. This is also the easiest fly line to cast and handle, and is adequate for most fishing conditions. If you do need to get your streamer to travel deeper, try using a fly with weighted eyes or head. Even better yet, choose one of the more specialized fly lines described below.
A Weight Forward, Six Weight, Sinking Tip Line (usually designated as WF-6-F/S) is manufactured with the line weighted heavier on the front section of the fly line than a floating line, and thus it causes the streamer to sink immediately, so it is presented quicker into the lower portion of the water column. When fishing in deeper runs using this heavier line often results in the streamer being seen by more fish, since it sinks quicker to the level where the fish are holding. Since the Sinking Tip Line is not trying to pull the streamer to the surface like a Floating Line would when retrieved, the streamer tends to stay closer to the bottom.
A Weight Forward, Six Weight, Full Sink Line (usually designated as WF-6-S) is even heavier yet, and the entire length of the fly line is weighted. Full Sinking Line is most effective when used in deep, fast moving waters. This line really gets your streamer to the bottom quickly, and works well for those fish that are holding in the deepest water, especially those hugging the bottom, where a line with more flotation wouldn’t allow the streamer to get down to them. Using this type of line in shallower areas may result in snagging the streamer on rocks, and hooking debris on the bottom of the river.
These Browns can strike the streamer aggressively and powerfully, and a lighter leader or tippet will probably instantly snap under that pressure. Seven to Nine foot 1X to 4X leaders and tippets are the best to prevent break offs when the Browns strike, and fluorocarbon material provides some additional abrasion resistance, so the line isn’t as readily cut by the Brown’s teeth or by rubbing against obstacles in the waterway. An added plus to fluorocarbon is that it is harder for the fish to detect than a standard leader or tippet would be.
It’s Bugger Time!
Streamer and Bugger fishing can be very exciting, often because it is so visual, in that many times you can see the wake of the Brown before it strikes, as it charges after your streamer. One of the keys to catching these big Browns is proper presentation of the streamer, so let’s try to understand what the Brown will see as your fly passes by.
One of the ways to attract the fish is by making it think that your streamer is an injured source of food struggling through the water. This can be done by using a stripping method that simulates a bait fish’s actions. When you cast the streamer, you want to be ready to start stripping it in as soon as it enters the water, so that the streamer has a natural action immediately and doesn’t spook the fish. So, when you make the final forward cast, make a ring with your thumb and forefinger on the hand holding the fly line, letting the line flow through the ring unobstructed. Then, when the streamer hits the water surface, immediately close the fingers that formed the ring, grasping the line and placing the line under the forefinger of the hand holding the cork grip of the rod. Now you are ready to start stripping the loose line in.
As you are stripping in line it’s a good idea to change the stripping action occasionally between short (2-5 inches) and long (6-18 inches) stripping strokes, and between fast and slow retrieve speeds, with a short pause between each stroke to cause the streamer to rise and fall in the water column. After you get a strike or follow, repeat the successful retrieval action several times to see if that really is what the fish you’re casting to prefer. This changing of the stripping stroke and retrieval speed causes the streamer to have a pulsating and erratic action, which makes it appear like it is injured, and more natural.
I Know He’s in There...
Understanding just where to look for and find the fish can really help, and here are some ideas on how to accomplish that. Often Browns can be found in the area where the river forms a drop off at the top of a deeper run. Also, riffles that have a faster flow are favorite places for male Browns to hang out just prior to the females arriving. In order to see Browns holding in either of these waters you are going to need a couple of indispensable essentials. The first is a brimmed hat that will shade the sun’s rays from your eyes allowing you to use your maximum visual potential without squinting. The second is a quality pair of polarized sun glasses.
It is truly amazing how much better you can see fish if you have a quality pair of glasses. The polarizing removes the glare from the water surface, letting you see deeper into the water. Proper colored shading of the lens also affects how well you can see fish, with many anglers preferring a brown tint that enhances the colors of a trout’s body.
When you are looking for that Brown you think may be holding in the waters above a deep run there are some tricks you can use to help spot anything that is there. One is to look for unusual or out of place shapes, coloration that matches the gold or yellow of a Brown or just seems to not match the surroundings, a shadow on the bottom cast by a Brown swimming above that spot, or look for movement.
Searching For Fish
If you haven’t been able to spot any fish then one of the best ways to find them is by covering the water in a fanning pattern with your streamer using multiple casts. By doing this you’ll cover most of the fishable water in the area you are casting from. Here’s how it works.
Let’s say you’re standing off to one side, and at the top of a nice run or riffle that looks likely to contain some Browns. Start by casting upstream of the top of the run, but cast fairly close in to where you are standing, and to a point between you and the faster running water. Cast and retrieve your streamer, changing the stroke and speed of the retrieve after each cast or two. If you don’t get a strike or follow after about six casts, then pull out several feet of additional line from the reel, cast in the same direction, dropping the streamer further away from you, repeating the casting and retrieving cycles. Keep this up until you find where the fish are holding, or until you are reaching the far bank or far edge of the run with your final casts.
Once you’ve reached the farthest distance with your casts, take several steps downstream, and with the same amount of line out cast to the far bank or far edge of the run, then make several casts and retrievals to search that new water. Repeat this process, moving downstream a couple steps each time, until you’ve fished all of the water in that run.
As you retrieve your line keep your rod tip close to the water surface, or even slightly under the surface, to make the streamer sink further into the water column, and to transmit your stripping action more directly to the streamer. Sometimes the trout will follow your streamer for some distance before striking, so keep stripping in line each retrieval until the leader is nearly touching the tip of the rod.
When you do get a strike, lift the rod smoothly up and slightly downstream to set the hook. Sometimes you strip in a fair amount of line before the Brown strikes the streamer. If so, you are going to need to keep the fish on tension by hand until you have all of that loose line played out, or until you get a chance to reel the loose line in. Reeling under these conditions is a good reason to have the wind handle of your reel mounted on the retrieve hand side of the reel while streamer fishing. Until the trout is “on the reel” you’ll be controlling tension on the line by holding the loose line gently but firmly under the forefinger of the hand gripping the rod cork handle, and letting the trout take out the loose line smoothly. You’ll need to manage the loose line with your retrieval hand, taking care to keep the loose line and the retrieval hand well away from the rod and reel so you don’t get the line tangled, or you’ll be doing an unplanned early release.
If you see a fish holding in a run, and you are going to cast your streamer to that particular fish, cast about four to five feet upstream of the fish. This will allow the streamer time to sink to the fish’s level in the water column. Retrieve the streamer so it swings directly in front of the fish, passing it through the fish’s feeding zone. (For detailed information on techniques go to the Guide’s Corner menu selection of the extremeflyfishing.com web site, or see the May 2004 issue of High Country Angler.) If you see the fish following, but not striking the streamer, try stopping the retrieve momentarily. When the streamer stops and sinks towards the bottom this is often too much for the Brown to take, because it thinks its food is going to the bottom to hide, and it may be enticed into striking your fly.
Using these methods, and by getting plenty of streamside practice casting and retrieving streamers and buggers (it’s a tough job but somebody has to do it), will lead you to more success in hooking fall Browns. It won’t take long for you to catch the excitement, and you’ll want to grab your gear and head for the river whenever you hear someone say, “It’s Bugger Time”!
Reprinted with permission from High Country Angler