Fall in New England. A special time that signifies the end of a season as well as new life. I can sense it when I walk out to my car each morning before dawn. There is a slight chill to the air and the sun is later to arrive on the horizon. The fish can sense it too.
Soon the native Brook Trout and wild Landlocked Salmon in Maine will be gathering at the river mouths and waiting for mother-nature’s signal to commence their annual trip up these waterways as they have done for centuries. Male brook trout will develop humps on their backs and kypes on their lower jaw. Their bellies will turn jet black underneath and their sides blaze orange and deep red. The red spots and blue halos seem only add to the dramatic aesthetics of the appearance. The white outline of their fins highlight the amazing array of colors. Salmon, being mostly silver for the season transform as well to darker shades of brown with purple and blue sheen on their cheeks and tails. It’s an awe inspiring transformation and one that is matched be the surrounding foliage.
If you wish to tempt these fish with a fly, here are some tactics that have worked well for me through the years and things to consider when planning a trip.
By early September the fish will likely be staging at river mouths and stream outlets. Fish will also target shallow areas of lakes and ponds with sandy or fine gravel bottoms for spawning areas, so learn the watershed you are planning to fish and focus on these locations. During this time streamers that imitate smelt or bait patterns work well as the fish have been feeding on this food source through the summer and are still triggered by this kind of presentation. It goes without saying that if you see surface activity try to match what is hatching with dry flies. Typically the fall insect hatches are the smallest in terms of bug size so be ready with size 16 and smaller bugs and light tippet.
Pay close attention to the weather. In Maine, the fish will typically start to enter the rivers and streams from the lake after the first good rain event in early to mid-September which will bring the river flows up from the low water conditions of the summer. The fish will require these higher flows to access their final spawning destination in many cases. I have found that flows are the most important factor in bringing the fish out of the lakes. If the rains don’t come, as they have not for the past few September’s here in Maine, a good cold snap can also get the fish moving up into the rivers and streams. These fish are amazing in their ability to get to their spawning areas even when it seems the conditions would prevent passage.
Once the fish are in the river I have found that there is no one preferred fly or even method for getting them to take. The fishing can be wonderful at a certain spot one day and void of life the next. Remember, these fish are on a mission and they will be moving almost constantly. Be ready to move around and try new things and places to fish. I fish everything from large colorful streamers, small nymphs, eggs and dries depending on the conditions and type of water I’m fishing.
This is a magical time to be in the woods and on the water. The foliage and crisp air alone make the experience a memorable one.
Most importantly, respect what is about to happen. Be aware of your surroundings. Know how to identify a spawning bed and avoid stepping on this area at all costs. Know how to identify fish that are actively spawning. If you come across spawning fish then it would be best to move on and try to find fish who are still in the process of moving up river. As with any time of the year, but most important during the fall season take steps not to add any unnecessary stress to fish you are fortunate enough to land. Wet your hands before removing the hook, use barbless hooks and do you best the land the fish quickly. I feel so lucky to be able to just witness one of these trout. Let’s all do our best to ensure this privilege can be had for years more to come.
Words + Photos By: Tim Ervin