Fly Fishing Montana - The Colors of Fall
For me, there is always something exciting about the arrival of fall. I experience great fishing year round, so its not immediately obvious why I have such a sense of anticipation as the end of summer draws near, but it’s strong. Perhaps I’m just ready for the end of hot weather, and looking forward to those cold fronts that come through bringing rain to douse the forest fires and blow away the smoke. Perhaps its because my first trips to Montana were in the fall, and I am forever imprinted with memories of how exciting that time of my life was. Perhaps it is the tradition of some of my good friends coming out after the end of summer, and the chance to catch up as we chase trout and revisit favorite places. Maybe it is the relief that the sun is no longer coming up at 4:30 am in the morning and I finally can sleep in a little bit longer. Whatever it is, I can sense that it is coming, and I’m getting excited about it.
There are special things happening along the rivers this time of year. As the days get shorter, lower daytime highs, and even colder nighttime lows bring the water temperatures down, and places that had hoot owl restrictions are reopened to full time fishing. Sooner some years than others, the cooling process happens. As temps move into ideal ranges, the fish become more active, in some cases almost going through a binge feeding phase as if they know that before long it’s going to get really cold and some of the bugs available now will soon disappear.
Many things are changing. The rush of summer tourists fades as families with children must return to the places they are from in time for the start of school. While there is a pulse of people like me who love late season fishing, its not nearly as big as the summertime wave. Even among locals, seems like about half of them get all caught up with hunting season, and ignore what is happening in the water. The rivers seem to exhale and relax. I can float one of the most popular stretches in the state, and still feel like I have most of the river to myself. Fall is here.
The water flows on most rivers will soon be low and as clear as it gets, although ironically, areas that see a lot of summer irrigation may actually have more water. I find myself reaching for my four weight, even though I know I might still want to throw the occasional hopper. Fish will be feeding, but in the slower water they will also be more choosy, and spook at the slightest shadow. Sight fishing is a thing. Casting matters. Some of the spring hatches like blue wing olive and caddis reappear for a brief encore. Terrestrials may be starting to disappear, but the fish seem to remember them, and still move to and take them with gusto.
The sounds have changed. The rush of snowmelt engorged rivers is replaced by the more tranquil gurgling of water through a riffle. Standing in a quiet stretch, I can hear the plaintive calls of sandhill cranes that are starting to form larger groups and head south. Sometimes they are flying so high that I can barely make out their loose formation, yet still the sounds make it down to the river. Geese are also flying by now, their calls more urgent and chaotic than the sandhills.
Perhaps more than anything, its all the changing colors that get my attention. Willows start to become a multi hued pallet of yellows, oranges and reds. Cottonwoods and Aspen add their vibrant yellows and gold. The fish are changing as well. Brook trout males getting ready to spawn are turning up the volume on crimson and orange sides. Pre-spawn browns are are getting that butterscotch yellow as the size of their kype increases. They are preparing for territory fights. All of those colors transposed against the clear, haze free deep blue skies that appear with the colder temps. Simply stunning.
Colder temps. Wet wading is over for the season, and I patch a few new leaks in my waders, not wanting to feel the now cold water against my skin. Thermal layers come out, as mornings are now brisk, but that only enhances the beginning of the day. Soon it will be cold enough to freeze the waders overnight. Invariably I leave them out in my truck until one morning I will come out and find them too stiff to put on. Then they come inside each evening. Cold nights are followed by glorious warm days that make me shed layers once I am on the water.
I think about those spawning browns. Aggression starts well before the spawn. Hopped up on testosterone, the bigger males start chasing after anything that moves in front of them. Streamer time! I pull out the seven weight. The files will be big, and the strikes will be savage. I sharpen hook points and remember to retie knots so the strikes don’t break me off.
Bull moose have shed their velvet, and they too are looking for a fight. Better to give them a little more space as you go by. The bears have started to come down, and are gorging on choke cherries and service berries along the rivers edge. They tend to nap in the thick cover during the day. Often the only way you know that they are even there is by seeing their tracks, and the large piles of seed filled scat they leave behind. They are definitely present. Just yesterday I got to watch one climb up into an apple tree to gorge on the ripe fruit. Everything is on the move.
There are lots of fish to catch, but there are always fish to catch. Somehow though it’s fall that becomes the subject of my dreams. Vivid, colorful dreams that come true for a season every year.
By Scot Bealer
Scot first started guiding in the 1980’s, and has fished extensively through the rocky mountain west and many other parts of the world. When not on the water, he is typically out working with his wife, Lea Frye, doing wildlife photography. See their work at https://www.leaf-images.com, or follow them on Instagram @lea.f_images
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