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Fishing a Montana Fall

Fall fishing in Montana isn’t exactly the easiest time to spend a day outdoors, unless you enjoy feeling like a human popsicle, that is. Cloudy, cold, rainy days are on the horizon, but if you enjoy pulling trophy-sized trout out of small streams, this is one season anglers shouldn’t overlook. They’re already on the move, but most of the fishing for spawning browns and following rainbow trout is about to explode, starting around the middle of October and running through the end of November.

I can usually land a few 20 to 22-inch browns during the summer, but it’s not until the cool, short days of fall that the monsters reveal themselves in large numbers in shallow water.

Some of my most memorable “fights” with monster fish come from previous falls, where I fished the blue-ribbon tributary streams near my home of West Yellowstone. I spent hours on end braving snow and rain, tying knots with numb fingers and quickly recognizing small leaks in my waders during these fishing adventures. It may sound like a miserable experience to some, but more often than not, I would land at least one 17-plus-inch fish on every trip, making the elements the least of my worries.

I’ll never forget the day I landed my “fish of a lifetime” on a dreary, cold afternoon in October of last year.

On this particular day, I didn’t really feel like fishing. I was beat from a long day at work, making a warm blanket and cup of coffee a more appealing option than standing in an ice-cold creek for the next five hours. After about 25 minutes of being haggled by my roommate to go with him, I was convinced.

Upon arrival, my friend and I stood on the high ridge above the winding creek, and I knew this was the day — it just felt right.

As we walked down the sandy slope, my friend offered to let me fish the first hole, since he had already been on the water all morning. I checked the knot on my olive zonker streamer and began peeling out line. I stealthily moved through waist high grass, going to my knees as I approached the deep blue waters. I threw my fly downstream and after about six seconds the line went tight, but I didn’t feel anything.

“I think I hooked a log on the bottom,” I gestured to my friend, who was watching from the other side of the creek so he wouldn’t spook any fish. 

As soon as I finished my sentence, I saw a bright brown flash and realized I had hooked the biggest fish of my life, and the fight was on.

It felt like holding onto a 45-pound gym weight as the fish rolled more than 20 times in the water in an attempt to break free. I had never seen a fish do such a thing, and it was remarkable to watch, but scared me to death that I might lose the lunker.

“You need to cross the creek to land him,” my friend screamed, realizing there were roots jutting out into the deep holding water on my side, which is a red flag to any fisherman. As I made my move to the shallow sandy bank, the fish went the opposite way, running straight into the tangled roots.

I stood and stared in disbelief, certain I had lost the fish, and my line was now tangled on the root. 

“Don’t pull on the line; he might still be on, and you’ll snap ‘em off if you do that,” my friend said. Yet, after a minute of feeling nothing, I figured the fish was long gone so I gave one solid yank on the line to retrieve my fly.

Suddenly, the monster emerged from the deep unknown, still hooked on my mangled fly. 

After a few more minutes of fighting the beast, the fight was over. It’s hard to put into words the way I felt at that moment. I was shaking violently from the pure adrenaline rush, but was proud to finally catch a fish more than 22 inches long, a personal best.

It’s called the “brown run,” because brown trout make a spawning run from lakes and large rivers into the smaller tributaries that connect them to lay their eggs in gravel pits called redds. Rainbow trout typically tag along, gobbling up the eggs that fall through the cracks, escaping the redds. This is a perfect opportunity for anglers to fish downstream of redds to target healthy rainbows instead of the tuckered out browns. (Rainbow trout generally spawn in spring rather than the fall.) 

This amazing journey, coupled with stress from spawning, make the trout aggressive and territorial to the point of striking almost anything in their face. Many anglers are divided on the ethical choice of whether to target spawning fish or leave these waters alone. It’s a personal choice each fisherman must make on his own. 

When I’m fishing in the fall, I always have 1 and 2X tippet, which makes the nightmare reality of snapping off fish less of a probability. Egg patterns, wolly buggers and streamers are my main flies of choice, personally, and if the going gets tough, I always have a surplus of San Juan worms in my fly box that I tie with tungsten beads to help get the fly down in the deep pools quickly, so fish have a chance to see the fly. This greatly improves odds of hooking fish.

One of my staple fly setups what I call “bacon and eggs,” where I tie a San Juan worm at the end of my 9-foot leader (longer, depending on water depth) and then add 10 inches of tippet onto the hook of the top fly. I then add an egg fly to sink below the worm. I like to use strike indicators tied at the top of my leader, so I’m always aware of when a fish is taking my fly.

I generally fish this combination towards the bottom of long holes in small creeks, or near the lower portion of long runs. It’s not uncommon to see 20-plus-inch fish sitting in these areas, often in less than a foot of water. Always keep your eyes open when approaching the water, so fish won’t be spooked.

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