Early Running Browns

Early Running Browns

Mature brown trout run to spawning areas each fall. And you can catch these fall-run browns weeks earlier than most anglers think—sometimes months

  • By: Walter Wiese

Mature brown trout run to spawning areas each fall. And you can catch these fall-run browns weeks earlier than most anglers think—sometimes months earlier. I told my clients this as we walked down a steep hill toward some of the better water on Nameless River in Wyoming (you didn’t think I’d give up one of my best autumn fishing spots, did you?), and I could tell they were a little suspicious. In fact, I could hear them muttering:“It’s Labor Day weekend. We’re miles upstream of Big Famous River, where the browns that spawn in this river come from. Hell, we’re even upstream of where we’ve caught big browns in this river before, in late October. This guide is trying to put one over on us.”

Part of the cause of their thinking was that the trip had started as an Oh Crap day. One example of an Oh Crap day is when Big Famous River produces a single nine-inch brown on a Prince Nymph in three hours when you expected the river to produce big fish on dry flies. One must nip Oh Crap days in the bud and go elsewhere. So on the day in question, we bailed out and drove to a less-famous stream that most people know to hold eight-inch fish. Fun, but not the sort of place a guide takes experienced clients without a good reason.

The reason? This river gets its first push of fall-run browns (henceforth called“runners”) sometime in August, or two months before they spawn and a month before most people think to target them.

Early runners are never as numerous as their cousins later in the fall, and catching them requires different tactics than it will in October. However, it’s worth the effort, because you’ll have the opportunity to catch large trout; and targeting browns just as they start their spawning runs does not carry the ethical concerns that targeting them later in the fall does. (Many anglers choose not to pursue fish on spawning beds.) Not only are early runners usually found in deep water (rather than exposed in shallow water defending their redds); they’re not even sexually mature yet. In these respects, they are the trout analogues to early season bass, as they are working their way toward the shallow water where they’ll build their redds, but are nowhere near spawning form.

Wiese's Four Feather (Photo by Ted Fauceglia)

Hook: Dai-Riki 060 or other nymph hook sizes 10 to 18

Bead: Gold

Thread: 6/0 to 8/0 brown

Tail: Lemon wood duck

Abdomen: Natural ostrich herl

Rib: Small or medium gold or copper wire

Wingcase: Pheasant tail over gold, root beer or copper Krystal Flash

Thorax: Peacock herl

Legs: Pheasant tail and Krystal Flash

Early Runner Rivers
There are three primary factors that suggest a river will start getting early runners. First is good water quality in late summer and early fall. The best rivers are colder and more highly oxygenated than the waters into which they feed. When runners have higher-quality water to run into than the stuff they spend most of their lives in, they have a reason to start migrating early.

Next factor: No matter how good the water quality is, browns won’t run early if they don’t have good cover in the spawning streams. While the low light and gray skies of October and November give browns security, late August and early September feature brighter skies and higher temperatures. Rivers that lack cover and shelter simply won’t get much of a run until late in the season.


The distance the fish have to cover to reach spawning grounds also is a factor in whether they’ll run early. The Lewis River Channel between Lewis and Shoshone lakes, in Yellowstone Park, receives a fabled brown-trout run, but it’s also the shortest run in the area in both duration and length, since Lewis and Shoshone lakes cover fewer than 11,000 acres combined and the channel is only four miles long. A fish can run, spawn and be back in its home lake in less than two weeks. Other runs in the area draw fish from as far as 50 miles downstream. When browns have to cover such a distance, it’s no wonder they spread out early.

Food supply is seldom important in activating runners. The river I took my clients to has little food available in early fall besides the occasional grasshopper, one reason a 12-inch resident fish is a big catch. Runners have other things on their mind than food, and though they’ll certainly eat, they usually do it out of aggression. So don’t worry if the only bugs around are tricos—the runners won’t pay much attention.

The rivers I target also have structure that concentrates fish. Even rivers that get a lot of fish early still peak in October and November, so large rivers with few obstacles, like rapids, to give runners pause are seldom worth fishing, simply because runners are too hard to pinpoint in rivers with long expanses of homogenous water.

My favorite early runner rivers have either a pocket-water-pool or a steep-riffle-pool character. Usually, tributaries of larger rivers, or streams entering lakes, make the best early runner streams, primarily because their smaller scale makes it easier to thoroughly cover all the likely spots. For example, the Yellowstone has fish that move up to 50 miles to spawn, but they’re hard to target specifically until large numbers are in the deep runs immediately downstream of spawning gravel. A river that’s a tenth the size of the Yellowstone is a different story.

Flies for Early Runners
When we finally arrived at the first good pool on Nameless River, I feared my clients might mutiny. When I mentioned fall-run browns, they started groping for streamer boxes. But in 2007, I caught only one early runner on a streamer. Close to the spawn, runner browns are like men at the bar at 11:47 on Friday night, quick to fight. The first runners are more like guys at the bar on Wednesday after a hard day at the factory. In other words, they’re more likely to decline something threatening than to pounce on it. Something aggravating, or better yet mildly annoying, like a fly buzzing around our hypothetical factory-worker’s head, can be very effective.

I rigged each of my clients with a pair of nymphs. The stoneflies were similar to what one expects fall browns to eat, though a bit more impressionistic and less flashy; but the droppers, the“mild annoyances,” the flies that I expected to work better than the stones, were something else again.
Most of the time I use nymphs tied on size 10 to 14 hooks. My favorite specific pattern is a delightfully simple, generic pattern called a Bead, Hare and Copper. This productive big-fish fly utilizes only four materials: partridge feathers, copper wire, hare’s mask and a copper bead.

Other favorites, like my Four-Feather, are similar. They’re medium-size, buggy flies that use natural materials that move well, primarily hare’s ear or squirrel dubbing, peacock and ostrich herl, and partridge flank, wood duck, grizzly hackle and other feathers that look alive when they pulsate in the current. The primary add-ons I use are copper wire and copper beads. If I want to add some bling, I use gold wire and beads and maybe even a little pearl or silver Flashabou.
Flies tied with rubber legs, Day-Glo colors, doll’s eyes and so on usually stay in the car except when the water’s dirty or there’s an early cold snap. Even the stonefly nymphs I prefer as my“aggravators” have only black or copper beads, chickabou, dyed grizzly hackle, squirrel dubbing and one or two colors of flash chenille.

Fishing Resting Pools
That first pool we fished was what I call a resting pool. Of course, runners rest often on their journeys, and not always in pools. But they might spend a week in a resting pool, or even longer. Whenever the River Gods tell runners to stop migrating, the fish will halt for a while in a final resting pool and wait there, maturing sexually, until they move over gravel to spawn.

The river we were fishing has two primary characters: steep, raging pocket water; and pools created by ledges of rock that dam up the stream and stop the rush for a few dozen feet. Other good runner rivers might have riffle-pool or riffle-run setups. In all cases, the slower, deeper water will be the resting water, the place where the fish can pause for several days before continuing their journeys.

Runners at rest are hard to interest. They’ll seldom move more than six inches for a fly, and then often only after repeated drifts. So my clients and I stood rooted in that first pool for more than an hour, and I only had them each change flies once. I could tell they were getting antsy as I insisted, yes, they needed to make another dozen drifts down the same three-foot-wide slot where I knew the runners preferred to sit. They got a lot less antsy when they starting catching runners. The first was a 15-inch male with only the bare beginnings of a kype in its lip.

I used this fish to show my clients how to distinguish runner browns from the residents. Occasionally, a resident will reach 16 or 17 inches. Otherwise, the two populations of fish look completely different. A runner the same length as a large resident will be fatter and far lighter in coloration (even the males), and runners usually have fewer and smaller spots than the richly colored residents. As far as I can tell, this pattern is the same everywhere when browns from large waters move into smaller waters, even the Midwestern river systems where browns move from rivers into spring creeks. Though later in the fall the runners darken, especially the males, early in the run residents and runners look like different species.

Most early runners are males. My guess is they’re analogous to the nerdy sophomores who show up three hours early for the high-school dance. Of course, one of the last fish my clients caught that day was a fat 20-inch female, so there are exceptions.

Targeting Moving Browns
After my clients had caught three runners and lost two others and landed a couple of small residents, the fishing in the first resting pool died. Rather than moving to the next immediately, I took my clients to a stretch of water where it’s possible to catch runners as they’re moving, not resting.
While it’s hopeless casting to a fish that’s actually throwing itself against a rapid, you can catch fish moving in mid-stream. The move from one resting pool to another is not one steady push, but a series of short point-to-point dashes. Even in shallow, riffly water, the fish will stop in the occasional deeper slot or depression, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for an hour or two. Runners in these smaller, more-exposed lies are easier to spook than those in resting pools, but they’re also more aggressive.
Flies that interest moving runners are the same as those that interest resting fish, but the tactics required are different. Repeated drifts are not necessary, since a runner in moving water will usually take on the first cast. For this reason, it’s important to cover a lot of water.
If there are resident trout present, it makes sense to fish a double-fly rig where one fly will interest the residents and another will pull runners. I like fishing a foam hopper with one of my“minor annoyance” nymphs tied underneath. The residents will take either fly, though perhaps not as well as they’d take smaller flies all around, while the runners usually take the nymph.
Some of the pocket water on the river my clients and I were on is about as dependable as moving water gets, which means there are usually at least a few runners present from late August onward. On some rivers, the troughs behind sweepers are the prime spots to hit, while on others foam patches in the middle of otherwise featureless riffles are good. On the river I’m speaking of, the deeper, foamier pockets are the spots, especially those at midstream, and most especially those with fast water to either side. The fish stop in these pockets to gather themselves before climbing the white water.
Going to check on one of my clients, I came around a bend and saw him getting into position to fish possibly the best moving-water pocket on this stretch of river. The pocket sits below one steep pitch and above another, giving the trout two reasons to stop. The three boulders at its head split the fire-hydrant white water upstream to either side, leaving a gently vibrating, thigh-deep pocket the size of a pool table. Runners can be at the downstream end, having just climbed the fast water below, or they can be at the top. My client covered the bottom end with his first cast, a good strategy. His rod arced immediately. The river’s surface exploded.
“What do I do? What do I do?” he shrieked in tones usually reserved for bear maulings. The fish was smaller than some of the other runners we’d seen, but the fast water and small pocket made the fight difficult. If a runner gets downstream of you in fast water, you’re done.
“Keep pressure on him, but not enough that he bolts,” I said, and started slithering out over the boulders into the white water. I carry a large long-handled net for just such circumstances, and was able to dart the net out into the pocket and scoop up the fish before it realized exactly what was going on. The fish, another male, went 17 inches.
My client started whooping and hollering, and when I went over to him to show him the fish, he clapped me on the shoulder hard enough to sting. The Oh Crap day was long gone.

Walter Wiese is a freelance writer and head guide at Parks’ Fly Shop in Gardiner, Montana.