Fab 5 Fall Hatches
Fab 5 Fall Hatches
- By: Greg Thomas
- , John Holt
- , Tom Keer
- , Skip Morris
- and Matt Supinski
- Photography by: Louis Cahill
October Caddis Serendipity
Hook: Size 8 scud
Thread: Orange 8/0
Body: Dead Orange Sow-Scud dubbing
Head: Black thread and dyed black deer hair, clipped
Rib: Fine copper wire
I enjoy watching friends fish, but this debacle was too much and I was on the verge of losing it. My pal Dan Summerfield had just missed, like, 15 eats in a row.
“WTF,” I shouted from my perch above Idaho’s North Fork Clearwater River, mocking our dreadful societal sway toward slaphappy acronyms, as if I were texting instead of sharing an afternoon on the water with a friend. He answered, “This size 20 Baetis is so small I just can’t get a good set.”
We were in the midst of a phenomenal fall Baetis emergence, with wild cutthroat trout rising through the length of a 100-yard-long pool, mostly on the opposite bank. A long, technical cast was required to tame varied current and gain a drag-free drift. I shook my head and said, “Whatever,” just as a Pterodactyl buzzed by my face. I followed its flight and several seconds later that aircraft—actually an October caddis—landed on the river and a trout immediately devoured it.
I grabbed a match from my dryfly box, roped it to 4X tippet and waded in above Summerfield to fish the water he’d just throttled. I went four for five in about five minutes on inferior casts that lacked a dead drift and, instead, ended up skating the fly across the surface. Summerfield, noticing the commotion, mocked my earlier inquiry. “WTF, Thomas,” he crowed. I answered, “I’m throwing a size 8 caddis. Forget about those Baetis. If you actually want to hook some fish, this is the way to go.”
I spoke the truth that day, because I’ve encountered many more situations, on waters around the Rockies and Pacific Northwest, where trout key on the larger October caddis when scads of Baetis coat the surface.
There’s good reason for that preference; October caddis, which are also called the giant orange sedge, and officially are called Dicosmoecus, measure an inch-and-a-half to two inches long and provide a big meal for trout just when they need it, when fall begins and winter isn’t too far away and they need all the nourishment they can get. As a bonus, big trout often focus on the hatch, making this an excellent opportunity to take a picture fish, an assertion backed up by late angling guru Gary LaFontaine.
Bitterroot River, MT
South Fork Flathead River, MT
Rock Creek, MT
Kelly Creek, ID
Lochsa River, ID
North Fork Clearwater River, ID
Grande Ronde River, WA
Klickitat River, WA
Deschutes River, OR
In his book, Caddisflies, LaFontaine poses this question: Which insects provide the best opportunity for catching big trout? His answer: “My list would be, giant orange sedge, salmonfly, and the Michigan mayfly (Hexagenia). [The giant orange sedge] is the most important—and the contest isn’t even close,” he concluded.
The October caddis emerges in late afternoon and continues into darkness. During afternoons, especially between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., egg-laying females often are seen in the air and landing on the water, dapping their bodies on the surface. Dryfly action can be intense at that time with standard attractors, such as the Elk Hair October Caddis and Kaufmann’s Stimulator, drawing plenty of takes. As a bonus, trout aren’t the only Northwest fish that targets those big fall sedge—steelhead often rise to a skated dry fly that matches the adult insect. Takes can be jarring from sea-run rainbows that range between five and 15 pounds.
While matching October caddis with dry flies offers big-time theatrics, the most productive fishing often occurs under the surface, where large trout and steelhead clobber the pupae version of the insect, beginning as early as July when those pupae desert their rocky cases and drift rivers in the middle of the day.
According to the late Doug Persico, who ran Rock Creek Fisherman’s Mercantile in western Montana, the dryfly action is overrated in comparison to the pupae drift.
“From mid-August through October the trout turn onto those big caddis,” he told me several years ago. “I don’t even fish the October caddis with a dry fly; instead, I have a secret weapon.”
That weapon? “A size 8 yellowish Serendipity,” Persico said. “You get them on the dead drift with it, but they eat it most often when it swings at the end of a drift.”
While Baetis mayflies may be more abundant on the West’s great trout and steelhead streams, the October caddis often provides the most productive and exciting fishing. Make sure to look for them when you’re fishing trout and steelhead streams from early July into early November, and pack a few basic patterns to match them. When trout rise to them like crazy or a big steelhead swirls on a skating pattern, you’ll know why this hatch is such a phenomenal late-season event.
Didas’ Swimming Isonychia
Hook: Tiemco TMC400T, size 12 to 14
Thread: Burgundy 8/0
Tail: Three partridge after shafts
Body: Burgundy dubbing
Rib: Fine gold wire
Thorax: Peacock herl
Dorsal stripe: White Flexi Floss
Wing case: Gray hen hackle
Over the years I’ve found brilliance in events that don’t go according to plan. That was the case last fall when I visited the Farmington River and saw anglers in every spot I wanted to fish. I had to laugh; Indian Summer was in full swing with its warm days and cool nights, the maples were turning scarlet and orange, the white birch were a colorful yellow, and trout were on the feed. Why wouldn’t the river be crowded?
At the bottom of a pool below a feeder stream was a gravel bar that allowed safe passage across the river and my only chance for some solitude. Safely across, I could wade upriver and fish the back side of an overlooked mid-river island.
About halfway up the island was some pocket water. It necked down into a small, shallow riffle that turned into a pool. The pool bent toward shore and cut under a bank. It bounced off some big rocks at the bottom and was a beautiful piece of water, all rolled into a 30-yard stretch.
Shortly, I saw a good brown perform a splashy rise near one of those rocks. Then another, and another. I inspected those rocks, and saw the shucks that explained those rises. Isonychia!
The first time I encountered these rich, eggplant-colored bugs, which are commonly called mahogany duns or slate-wing duns, I spent an entirely frustrating day changing from emergers to a wide variety of dries to a slew of nymphs with no luck. It was only during the final minutes of the day, when I botched a cast that put a lot of drag in my drift and fast motion to the fly, that a big brown whacked that speeding nymph. Since that time I’ve always used a fast swing when fishing this hatch, and it’s served well.
Here’s why that tactic works: Isonychia swim almost as fast as a dace and they climb on structure like a stonefly to shed their nymphal shucks—basically Isonychia duns are unavailable to trout and, therefore, it’s almost futile to fish a dry fly when an emergence occurs. But trout do chase down those fast-swimming nymphs, which I match with a size 12 or 14 Didas’ Swimming Isonychia Nymph.
Delaware and Beaverkill rivers, NY
Connecticut River, NH
Deerfield River, MA
Penn’s Creek and the Little Juniata, PA
Davidson River, NC
Manistee and Ausable rivers, MI
Hiwassee and Little rivers, TN
While those duns aren’t important to trout, the Isonychia spinner is. It occurs most often in riffled water and can be matched by several noted patterns, including the White-Gloved Howdy, an Isonychia Comparadun, or a Beck’s Emerger-Isonychia. In contrast to fishing an Isonychia nymph, when fishing a spinner you’ll want to employ a dead drift.
There are two versions of Isonychia in the fall, the larger bicolor and the smaller sadleri. The hatch occurs on many Eastern, Midwestern and some Southern tailwaters and freestone streams, including emergences on such noted waters as Connecticut’s Housatonic River and Michigan’s Ausable. Wherever it occurs, the hatch typically comes off in early afternoon and lasts into dark—graciously, there’s no need to set the alarm clock early for this one.
Because Isonychia nymphs swim quickl,y you can forgo some of the extreme technical fishing required to match other fall hatches; you know, those painful experiences that require magnifying glasses and 8X tippet. Instead, you can throw a variety of classic patterns, such as the Leadwing Coachman, a Zug Bug or even a Pheasant Tail Nymph. My favorite pattern is Tim Didas’ aforementioned Swimming Isonychia Nymph. Didas spins the bug on a swimming nymph hook, adding a component that lights up the fish.
Looking back, it wasn’t so bad getting displaced by those other anglers on the Farmington. Browns and a few rainbows rose for hours, I had a quiet stretch of river to myself, and I was in the middle of a hatch that didn’t require much precision or stealth. I waited until the sun was long gone before I quit the stream, knowing I’d be back the next day.
Morris Emerger, Baetis
Hook: Light wire, standard length to 1X long, size 16 to 20
Thread: Olive 8/0
Tail: Mottled-brown hen back or any soft, dark feather fibers
Abdomen: Brown rabbit
Thorax: Buoyant olive synthetic dubbing (Superfine Dry Fly)
Wing and Burst Shuck: Natural-dark coastal deer
Comments: The wing/burst shuck is the tricky part of this fly. Leave enough thread-covered shank behind the eye for it, and bind it with at least a dozen tight turns of thread. Leave room for a large thread head too—that’ll be the only thing holding the wing up.
Fall is my favorite time to fish trout rivers, as much for what the season isn’t as for what it is. Fall isn’t anglers and tourists in abundance, high water, high motel prices and searing heat. Instead, fall offers a level of solitude along with low flows, cheaper motels and often the sweetest weather any fly fisher could desire.
Sweet weather to me is cool and overcast, gentle on my eyes, and attractive to insects and trout. That’s mid-September to as late as the end of October in much of the West. But sweet weather is a bit different for me than it is for the little king of fall hatching insects, the Baetis, or blue-wing olive mayfly (or just BWO). Yes, Baetis like it cool and cloudy. If the air is frigid and the wind is howling and maybe even sleet, snow or hail is salting the river, so much the better for this hardy insect. Braving all that to match a fall Baetis hatch, let me guarantee, is well worth an angler’s time.
Fall Baetis typically emerge around noon, but hatches may begin as late as 3 p.m. and extend past 5 p.m. Prior to a hatch you can pick off fish with a size 18 Troth Pheasant Tail Nymph or a Skip Nymph Dark, dead-drifted deep. When the hatch is on you’ll see dark little mayfly duns popping from the riffles and the heads of pools. They drift on the surface, twitching their wings, trying to dry out and take flight before the trout find them. Some get away, many others don’t, as you’ll realize when fish start gliding near the surface, quietly showing their noses, taking in duns that are struggling from their shucks and, also, helpless, failed duns.
This hatch isn’t a cakewalk. During fall the West’s rivers are skinny and clear and trout are wary. To fool those educated fish you tie on a long, fine tippet of 5X or 6X and an olive-bodied fly, usually a size 18 or 20. You’ll likely find fish podded up in the prime feeding lanes but you should pick a single fish, cast specifically to it, and try to dead-drift your fly within an inch of its snout, and in rhythm with that fish’s rises. Fascinating challenge, and it can go on like this for hours.
South Fork Boise River, ID
Henry’s Fork River, ID
Clark Fork River, MT
Bitterroot River, MT
Yellowstone River, MT
Flat Creek, WY
Firehole River, WY
Bow River, AB
North Raven River, AB
Yakima River, WA
Owyhee River, OR
The blue-wing olive is an especially somber and small mayfly. The nymph is brown or olive-brown overall, and slim. The dun just looks gray, which is why you need to turn one upside down so that you see what the trout see: an underside ranging from pale to dark olive.
That’s why the Morris Emerger, Baetis, my main fly for blue-wing olives, has an olive thorax. It suggests a mayfly that’s still a nymph in back, but escaping its shuck as a dun in front. The abdomen is appropriately dark and absorbent to get the nymph half-down, while the wing and thorax and burst shuck are all about buoyancy. That combination makes this fly an unusually stubborn floater for one that rides half submerged, and it should serve you well on the water this fall while matching Baetis.
That says it—ideal weather (mostly), easy river flows, some solitude, trout rising in earnest. What’s not to love about fall and the blue-wing olive?
Hook: Daiichi 1130, size 16 to 20
Thread: UNI 6/0 brown
Tail: Dark Dun Z-Lon, burnt teardrop with match
Body: Yellow/cream latex overlap ribbing
Rib: Brown marker for segmentation
Sidewings: DK Dun Z-Lon
Underwing: Gadwall fibers
Post: White foam
Parachute: Light dun hackle
Pods of lovesick, gravel-digging wild king salmon broke the surface with their backs and tails as my clients and I peered through the cold, dense autumn fog. We were doing the standard Great Lakes fall gig, hunting for chrome steelhead and lake-run brown trout that feed heavily on Chinook caviar.
Despite that spawning salmonid orgy, which made Fellini’s Satyricon look like a Walt Disney movie, my attention soon turned to the tailout of a pool and the sky above. Thousands of cinnamon caddis, egg-laying females, were taking flight and this meant an often-overlooked opportunity was about to take place.
As the air warmed, those caddis started their “popcorn bouncing” behavior, depositing eggs either on the surface or diving down to the river bottom rocks to do so. Simultaneously, caddis pupae emerged and the river’s resident browns and rainbows started slashing the water.
“Take this 5-weight, get it rigged with a caddis para-pupa, get down there and stick a few heads,” I told my client. Soon he was yelling, “Fish on!” and I was running downstream to land a fat, orange-gold 19-inch brown. A quick stomach pump revealed what I expected—hundreds of caddis pupae and digested salmon eggs. For the resident trout on Great Lakes tributary streams the autumn food buffet doesn’t get any better, and that blizzard Hydropsyche caddis hatch provides a unique opportunity for anglers on many of the Midwest’s tailwaters and spring creeks.
Caddis pupa emergences, egg-laying flights and spinnerfalls occur morning, afternoon and evening, and produce tremendous trout feeding behavior well into late fall. Emergers, adults and spinners are often on the water at the same time, but those fish prefer the fat emerging pupae best. Pupae are part of the morning and evening biological drift and trout gorge on them as much as they can.
Au Sable River, MI
St. Mary’s River, MI/Ontario border
Big Manistee, MI
Rogue River, MI
Brookville tailwater, IN
Bear Creek, IA
When matching pupae, twitch and drift your offering in the surface film; this mimics the bug’s gyrating emergence activity. Alternate movement with dead drifts, because each fish’s personality is different—some like a fly on the move and others frown at anything other than an easy meal. Caddis hatches are not easy stuff—persistence is the key as trout constantly move, changing feeding lanes.
During their lives, Hydropsyche build a web on small rocks, where they filter plankton and other food. Cases are built several weeks before their emergence. They are fond of tailwater streams because large impoundments are loaded with plankton and water daphnia. Fall hatching of pupae may occur any time, but evenings, when it’s not too warm or too cold, are prime. During mornings, just as the sun penetrates cold morning air, mature females often take flight close to shore.
To imitate the egg-laying female try the “statue of liberty” presentation. Cast an adult pattern down-and across, lift your rod, with armpits showing, as you make the final delivery. This should land the fly and allow it to skip on the water, imitating the bouncing, popcorn caddis movement—a deadly tactic.
Next time you plan on a fall Great Lakes salmon/steelhead trip, bring your 5-weight and caddis box and keep those resident trout in mind. On the right day, that dryfly and emerger fishing with a light trout rod is as good as it gets.
Peacock Water Boatman (pictured)
Hook: Standard nymph, size 14 or 16
Thread: Black 6/0
Body: Peacock herl
Back: Clear plastic
Air bubble: 3/32" pearlescent bead
Paddles: Stiff black or olive rubber
Dubbed Water Boatman
Hook: Standard nymph, 14 or 16
Thread: 6/0 black
Body: Yellow or tan yarn
Legs: Black Superfloss
Shellback: Pheasant tail
Water bubble: Thick silver wire
At first I thought that I was under attack by rogue raindrops falling from a lofty apocalypse as the lake’s surface was steadily dimpled with dime-size liquid craters.
From near water level in a float tube I soon realized that those raindrops were insects. They reminded me of enormous fleas, with the exception that they had a pair of oar-like extremities. I swept a couple up in my hand and dropped them in a fly box. Not familiar with the species.
Done fishing for the day and near hypothermic from the chilly autumn water, I headed back to town and asked a friend what kind of bug I’d been pelted with. He perceived this to be a stupid question, and he stared at me wide-eyed and silently before uttering, “Water boatman.” He grabbed a book from a shelf, thumbed to the appropriate pages, handed it to me and walked off to a cluttered table to continue work on a balsawood Fokker Dr. 1 triplane he was building from scratch. This was more than 25 years ago. I gathered the following from the book and later on a bit more, naturally, via personal experience.
Water boatmen inhabit ponds and slow-moving streams, where they swim right-side-up near the bottom. Similar to the back swimmer though much flatter in body shape, they move with the aid of two long legs that look like oars for a diminutive drift boat. The insects are herbivores, ingesting plant microorganisms or algae whole. Unlike members of Belostomatidae (“toe-biters”), water boatmen are not known to bite humans. The front legs are adapted for scooping food, and the mid legs, when rubbed together, make a squeaking sound that attracts the opposite sex. A slightly more esoteric fact is that water boatmen are considered a delicacy in many parts of Mexico, where they are gathered and eaten in large numbers. They are also exported as pet food.
Duck Lake, MT
Mission Lake, MT
Kipp Lake, MT
Grimes Lake, WA
Chickahominy Reservoir, OR
Grindstone Lakes, OR
Roche Lake, BC
Whiteswan Lake, BC
Tunkwa Lake, BC
Water boatmen have a one-year life cycle. Nymphs and adults appear the same (except adults have wings). Both stages live in the shallows up to six feet, preferring weedy areas for cover. They have no gills, so must frequently swim to the surface, grab a bubble of air and swim back down. The strong paddle-like hind legs act as efficient oars, making them quick, erratic swimmers. They mate in early spring around ice out. Most important to anglers, during fall—usually after the first frosts—they conduct migratory flights, dispersing to other waters. At the end of their flight they splash down, like the vengeful rain I experienced long ago, into any part of a lake. The hapless creatures hit the surface with such force that they often spin madly as though knocked senseless by the impact. Breaking through the surface film, the boatmen race to the bottom, depositing their eggs upon weeds and other subsurface detritus. At certain times trout fixate on the wildly gyrating insects to the exclusion of all other food sources. While this is only occurs during short periods each fall, it is an event worth noting, as many of the largest trout in any body of water are susceptible to water boatman imitations.
My technique to fish boatmen is essentially no technique. I launch a rude cast into the middle of this activity, allowing the pattern to crash-land, then settle. If no trout takes quickly, I execute a series of one-inch strips. After a half dozen of these, I make another cast, attempting to gain the attention of feeding fish with a raucous touchdown. Water boatman patterns work best when they are heavy enough to suspend in the surface film, but without sinking toward the bottom. The imitation sometimes needs a wrap or two of thin wire to achieve this. A nine-foot leader tapered to 4X works well, though when big trout are feeding aggressively, I use 3X or even 2X to cut down on break-offs.
Any lake that provides habitat for the species is a good bet. Many of the lower-level lakes in western Montana along the slopes of the Whitefish, Salish and Cabinet mountains are productive. High plains lakes and reservoirs, like those found on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation along the Rocky Mountain Front, are also excellent locations for sometimes very large fish. The same is true of similar waters in Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming.