Autumn Tailouts

Autumn Tailouts

Calm water and splashy presentations may seem mutually exclusive - but not for trout.

  • By: Dave Hughes
  • Photography by: Dave Hughes

Big Indian Creek is a small stream that originates in a glacial basin on the flank of a mountain in far-eastern Oregon. It runs high into July, holds its water well through summer, and finally subsides to mildness in autumn of the average year. The water gets thinner then, which is true of nearly all streams, small or otherwise: if the source is anything but a stable spring or tailwater release, the water is lowest late in the season.

The first time I fished Big Indian Creek was in early October. Back then, on account of an errant upbringing in which I’d been instructed that trout hold only at the heads of pools, I trotted right past the thin water to fish the current tongues at their upper ends. Every time I skirted the lower end of a pool, two to three V-wakes would arrow ahead of me. I quickly realized those were frightened trout.

I also noticed that I wasn’t catching anything. Either no trout held up where I always thought they belonged, or they were too startled to bite flies, on account of all the trout I was sending upstream, in panic, to join them.

Trout and humans have one thing in common: panic is contagious.

I recalled reading W. C. Stewart’s classic book The Practical Angler, in which a day spent fishing with him was described as 24 hours of creeping and crawling. I crept and crawled to the tailout of the next pool on Big Indian Creek, and made a flick of a cast onto the pool: no backcast and no warning forecast. My dry fly didn’t sit there long. One of those arrows shot up and pounced on it. The trout I brought thrashing to hand was as large as any I’d have expected at the head of the pool, in water where I’d failed to catch any trout at all.

More than water level changes on small streams between spring and fall. The main sources of food for trout also become very different. In spring and early summer, trout make a living eating aquatic insects—a broad mix of mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies and a few peripheral flies—that are delivered down the currents. The most beneficial position for a trout, at that time of year, is at the head of the pool.

In late summer and fall, aquatic-insect hatches taper off and a trout’s most important food source becomes beetles, ants, hoppers and inchworms dropping in from overhead. The best place for a trout shifts to the lower end of the pool, or off to its edges, with the best sightline to whatever might land on the surface of the pool.

Some other things change, as well. Trout become eager to feed, because when anything lands on the part of the pool over which they watch, there’s going to be a race to get it. If you want to have fun sometime, and don’t mind quelling your casting for a pool or two, creep up to the foot of some good water, break a stick into inch-long twigs and flick them onto the water. Trout might come from all directions; pay attention to their origins. Twig “indicators” are your best bet for learning to read trout lies in the late season on any small-stream pool.

Instead of insects delivered quietly down the currents, as in the early part of the year, trout in fall get used to forage with some density arriving from some distance, therefore often landing with a thud. There are exceptions. Trout sipping ants on a meadow stream won’t respond with generosity if you set your imitation on their water with a whap. But the same trout taking grasshoppers might respond with a rush to a big pattern making a hard landing.

As with all trout fishing—all fishing—you need to observe what’s happening and calculate your presentation accordingly. Case in point: When trout hold at the lower ends and edges of pools on small to medium-size streams, they’re not put off by foods, or flies, that declare their own arrival.

Never mistake eagerness to feed, however, for lack of wariness. Trout in thin tailouts are far more vulnerable to predation than they are when hiding under protective current tongues. That’s why you’re forced to change your approach to pools when trout hang out at their lower ends and edges. Keep crouched until you’re close. Seek concealment behind a boulder, if there is one, or drop to your knees if there’s nothing to hide behind. Stay out of the trout’s line of sight. Tread very lightly. Don’t knock any rocks together—that would be fatal.

After creeping into position, you might change what you offer trout, though it’s far from necessary on all water. Small-stream trout are not often selective. My leader on small water is usually nine feet long, tapered to a couple feet of 5X, tipped with a size 14 or 16 Royal Wulff or Elkhair Caddis. If trout find any fault with that, I extend the tippet two feet, sometimes going down to 6X, because it allows me to make a slightly longer cast onto a tailout, from up close, with the leader but no fly line on the water.

I might also change the fly to a size 12 or 14 Black Foam Beetle. If I’m in grasslands rather than forest, it might be a size 10 or 12 Ed Schroeder Parachute Hopper. I’ve never found it a bad idea to drop a size 16 Beadhead Prince or A. P. Black off the stern of whatever dry fly I’m casting. Sometimes those arrows rush at the dry, but instead of going down in a swirl, it simply disappears. You know what to do then.

You can high-grade a tailout by reading its water for the most likely lies. Trout rarely sit exposed in the open. They’ll tuck in under a boulder or ledge, or hide in the slightest shade offered by a boulder or overhanging bush. Most often, the best trout lie is associated with the biggest rock on the bottom or the tightest cluster of them. If you creep up to a tailout and notice any feature that might hide something the size of a trout, make your first cast there. That is the most likely lie for the largest trout in the pool.

Keep initial casts short. Use flicks, rollcasts and bow-and-arrow casts to avoid lining the trout. If any rocks protrude from the water, learn to hold or drape your line over them. This prevents gathering currents from causing drag, which is often fatal to your chances. Drag puts trout off the fly on the present cast and warns them about that same fly on subsequent casts. Never place your fly on slow currents at the tailout of a pool while letting your line land on the swifter currents just downstream. You’ll get a brief float; your fly will begin to race; even if no trout flee, you’ll have warned them. Avoid that.

As you move up the pool, after covering the tailout, extend your casts but keep false-casts to the side of the water where you plan to deliver the fly. The rule, when covering the still lower end of any pool, is to make your fly land to the trout’s surprise—almost as if the fly arrives on the water to its own surprise. This usually requires a brisk, firm delivery stroke, one that straightens the leader in the air so that the fly and line and leader descend at the same time, or the fly flicks over and drops to the water with a plop, while the line and leader float down later.

The last change you need to make, in order to increase your catch when trout shift their addresses to the tailouts and quiet edges of late-season pools, is to patiently wait out a drift when there’s marginal current.

The fly, as often as not, just sits there, or moves along slowly. It’s tempting to animate it, give it a scoot, lift it off after a moment or so, set it somewhere else. But trout don’t notice the arrival of a fly instantly every time, and they also don’t race to take a fly on every occasion. Sometimes they’re suspicious. One might sit down there eyeing your fly. It might be a big one. So, give it a bit more time to decide to take a whack.

Dave Hughes’ book, Trout From Small Streams, is available at your favorite fly shop and from Dave lives in Oregon and is one of our sport’s leading trout-thinkers.