A few years ago I was in Oregon with my buddy Mike. He swore me to secrecy about the river we were on, but what I can say is that it was stuffed full big browns.
Streamers and egg patterns were the ticket for most of that trip, and I had a 100-fish day the second full day of the trip. Granted it wasn’t difficult fishing by any stretch of the imagination – the browns were spawning and Mike and I picked off the fish behind redds that weren’t actively spawning.
After a few days we ran out of egg patterns and noticed the trout were sipping small dries consistently all day. I’d brought half my rod collection with us – I’d never fished the river before, and who was I to know if I’d kick myself for not bringing three different 4-weight rods? – and after picking a flimsy fiberglass stick, we set to work with dry flies.
I grew up fishing dries. In fact, it wasn’t until I was 13 or 14 that I even knew nymph fishing was a thing fly fishermen publicly talked about. To hear my grandpa tell it, dry fly anglers were the guys working their asses off at a 7-4 factory job while the nymph guys amounted to not much more than a 70s-era pot smoking, government-handout-taking, no-good-long-haired dumbass hippie. His words, not mine.
Thankfully I realized my grandpa had a bit of a prejudice against fishing nymphs because he didn’t know how to do it. He’d tied flies commercially for 27 years and didn’t have a damn clue how to fish the prince nymphs and zebra midges he’d literally tied tens of thousands of.
On that river in Oregon, while casting to those browns with Mike, I considered giving up dry fly fishing altogether and going back to nymphs. It didn’t matter that I was out of streamers and egg patterns; surely nymphs would work better than the dries Mike and I threw hopelessly to feeding trout. From a Griffiths gnat to Klinkhammers, each fly we cast floated on by, ignored by the trout. No matter how small or large we went the browns ate the naturals and never once considered the fakes Mike and I had.
Mike and I didn’t do so well fishing dries on that trip. We went back to nymphs later in the day and caught more fish, but at dinner I could tell it was wearing on the both of us that we’d so perfectly bungled our hopes of big browns on dries. Considering the fly fishing stock I came from, it felt like my grandpa stood behind my camp chair with a glare on his face and a profane remark about my fishing abilities on his lips.
The good that came from that trip, though, has lasted for years. Mike and I learned a ton of valuable lessons about dry fly fishing in the fall, and to this day I still use some of the tricks and tips I taught myself after that disastrous Oregon trip.
Light Tippet is your Friend
The biggest lesson I learned about dry fly fishing in the fall is that light tippet is your best friend. Grab some spools of 6x and 7x – 8x if you can find it – and a rod with a soft tip.
Some guys will tell you 5x fluorocarbon is enough to fools most fall fish, and in a lot of cases it is. The really picky trout, though, get spooked by thick tippet. We could have an entire discussion on whether or not it’s worth catching fish that educated and picky, but then we’d have to address the entire notion of catch-and-release fly fishing, a sport that makes less sense than golf when viewed from the outside.
For the sake of this piece, we’ll assume that the fish toughest to catch are universally more rewarding than the ones who don’t care how thick your tippet is.
This is one part of the fall fishing equation you can’t overlook. The hatches this time of year are tiny. Midges and baetis make up the bulk of the bugs just about everywhere, although you’ll sometimes see really small caddis until the first big freeze.
I like to have a robust collection of size 20-26 Griffiths gnats, parachute midges, spent-wings, spinners, and baetis emergers on hand this time of year. Those sizes and patterns, in one combination or another, usually grab a trout’s attention when they’re feeding on small bugs. Fall is one of the few times where I think you truly have to match the hatch to be successful with dries.
I was never a big fan of the Sage ONE because it had a stiff tip. I’ve fished Winstons for most of the time I’ve thrown a fly rod and I’m used to their supple tip sections. They’re especially helpful in the fall when you’re setting a size 26 hook into the jaw of a 23-inch brown trout on line with a breaking strength of 2 pounds.
The more a tip section can bend, the more impact it can absorb, acting as a spring between your tippet, line, and the fish. A stiff tip redirects that energy back into the line and tippet, and that’s where you’ll see a lot of break-offs happen.
That’s not to say you can’t hook fish with small flies on stiffer rods. It just means you need to be very precise in your timing and remember to let the hook and the rod do the work instead of forcing the issue yourself.
Dries in the fall are a special occasion, and fishing them makes up a good majority of my favorite fishing memories. Go out this year, find a beaver pond or really long, soft stretch of calm water in your local river, and give it a shot. You might be surprised at how much fun you have.
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Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, TROUT Magazine, Hatch Magazine, and various other national publications. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.