Written by: John Herzer, Blackfoot River Outfitters
The rivers around Missoula, Montana–Rock Creek, the Big Blackfoot, the Bitterroot, and the Clark Fork–are already showing signs of the changing seasons. Shorter, cooler days are keeping water temperatures low and ramping up the hatches. The dog days of summer seem to be in the rear-view mirror earlier than normal. Fortunately for us, a whopping snow pack didn’t shrink overnight, as it did last year, and our rivers are remained full, affording a productive bump in annual trout growth that we haven’t noticed in a couple years. All this amounts to a highly anticipated fall season, which for us is early September through mid/late October. Wading and floating opportunities abound! Here’s BRO’s list of ten flies you won’t want to be without if you’re lucky enough to find your way here this autumn–a hand full of dries, nymphs and streamers that are sure to keep your rod bent.
[Click the name of each fly to be taken to a place to buy, a recipe, or a video.]
1. Parachute Blue-winged Olive (sizes 16-20)
Every fall, prolific hatches of BWO’s pop on all the area waters, but these insects are especially significant on the Clark Fork below Missoula, the middle and lower reaches of the Bitterroot below Hamilton, and the entirety of Rock Creek. Typically, a size 16 will get it done, but if you notice a few rejections, size down first before putting BWO in the penalty box.
2. Mahogany Parachute (sizes 14 and 16)
This may well be our favorite hatch as the leaves start to change–not sure if it’s the number of fish that seem to key on them, or if these bugs are just a little easier to see. Nonetheless, Mahoganies really deliver. This hatch tends to ramp up closer to October, but don’t be surprised to see a few mid September, especially on cool wet rainy days.
3. Royal Chubby Chernobyl (Sizes 8-12)
In other areas, guides tie on the Chubby as an indicator for a dropper nymph only, but around here we expect them to be get eaten as often as the nymphs. The Royal Chubby is a good call any time in our region but especially so in light of our serious October Caddis hatch in early September. Even if you are not seeing the October caddis, the fish haven’t forgotten what they look like.
4. Orange Stimulator (size 16)
Since foam flies became all the rage across the West, many anglers have forgotten they even have a Stimulator in the box, let alone ever tying one on. Do yourself a favor and try it. The newer Stimi patterns float much better, and most include some sort of indicator making them easy to recognize in heavy water. They will keep up a decent size nymph, yet will often out-fish foam versions.
5. Trico Spinners and Adults (sizes 18 and 20)
We’ve been fishing Tricos for a couple of weeks already, but often our most prolific hatches roll out about mid September. Commonly, we’ll fish a Trico Spinner about a foot behind a Parachute Mahogany in order to track it. If you plan to fish Tricos solo, employ the “drag and drop” technique to get it straight on target. Our local fish will likely eat any Trico similar in size to what’s on the water, but it has to be directly overhead.
6. Tunghead Jig Pheasant Tail (Yellow, sizes 14 and 16)
Our younger guides have really dragged us into the tungsten game. We consumed the Kool-Aid reluctantly, but it has been most refreshing. The tungsten bead drops a small nymph deeper quicker, allowing for longer droppers on those tough fishing days and the jig hook lets it rattle around over the rocks with fewer snags. Double trouble for tricky trout. Sorry, Copper John, we have a new sheriff in town!
7. Beadhead Prince Nymph (Black, sizes 8-12)
Some flies never go out of style, and the Prince is one of ’em. We use fairly large versions that keep long droppers tight but perhaps more importantly simulate the case of the giant October caddis.
8. Sparkle Minnow (sizes 6 and 4)
The Sparkle Minnow has literally changed the streamer game across the West. Yes, we know of the articulation boom, but those streamers often only produce in strict conditions. Sunny or cloudy, high water or low, gin-clear or muddy, pike, bass , trout, or redfish–the Sparkle Minnow is a producer! Never leave home with out it.
9. Black or Olive Woolly Bugger (sizes 4-8)
Most of the best patterns simulate a wide range of aquatic prey items but don’t look exactly like any of them, and the Bugger is proof. Dead-drift in the chop with a nymph, strip it in the boulder fields, or swing it across the tail outs. Versatile is the word that best describes the pattern, and it’s an exceptional choice for the fall fishing here. Rainbows, browns, cutties, and even whitefish find them hard to resist.
10. Hot Head San Juan Worm
What list could Herzer put together that wouldn’t include a dirt snake? Seriously, as the water cools, the worm just gets better and better. And, if you put a hot bead on it, it’s like fishing a worm and an egg at the same time. This isn’t even fair. We pity the trout who has to see the hot bead worm this fall.
John Herzer and and his wife,Terri Raugland, own and operate Blackfoot River Outfitters in Missoula, Montana.