September Fly Fishing Opportunities

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By Mark Bachmann & Frank Day

Yahoo! All the kids are going back to school and the rafters and tourists are going back to the cities. After Labor Day, the campgrounds will empty. Water temperatures are starting to drop in our local rivers and lakes and we fly fishers will get our water back from the noisy crowds.

September is a magical month for fly fishing. Historically in many bodies of the water in the Pacific Northwest, temperatures will be in the 60’s during the first part of September and in the low 50’s by around September 20th. Even though some days will be hot, night time temperatures will be cool, and with cool nights comes cool water.


1. Fall Steelhead

No doubt the fall steelhead run on all the Columbia tributaries is going to be smaller than usual. Along with this decrease in fish, there will be a decrease in anglers as well. Only the hard core need apply. But those anglers always do well because they know how and where. The dedicated few out there will find that the fish that are present are quite energetic toward swung flies. Steelhead are naturally quite curious and aggressive towards swung flies and in the right water temperatures will actively investigate your swung offering. This however changes in pretty short order when they figure out that these brightly colored objects passing over them, and the large two legged fleshy things controlling them are up to no good. The less anglers present, the better the chance that you find a rested fish willing to investigate a swung fly.

Starting in September, the Deschutes will be closed to fishing from the mouth to Moody Rapids. Some may see this as a negative. We find this to actually be a positive. Each year, many hot grabby steelhead are stung by anglers right at the mouth making them dour for a period toward our offerings upriver. With this closure, it will allow more fish to rest in that lower section providing better fishing up above. This is particularly good news for anglers prowling the access road above Mack’s canyon.

For flies, nothing has changed. A darker fly with a hot spot in the rear such as a Fly du Jour, Green Butt Purple, or Green Butt Skunk, in sizes 3-8 have been effective and continue to be winners. Smaller, drabber flies such as Steelhead Coachman, and Bachmann’s Prism are excellent for a follow up presentation to a fish that has pulled on but not committed to a brighter colored fly.

This year with the lack of angling pressure, it is a perfect chance to raise a fish to a waking type surface fly. Raising a steelhead to a dry fly is considered by many to be the epitome of the sport. This is not a numbers game. It is a game of catching a fish on your own terms in the manner YOU would like. It is not for the faint of heart, but with less angling pressure it is a perfect time to tie on a waking surface fly and persevere toward a dry fly steelhead. Check out our full waking fly directory here: Wakers & Skaters, Summer Steelhead Flies

2. Fall Chinooks

This run is also going to be down, but not as much as the steelhead. This is a year to crack the code, and get into some big ol’ bad asses. If you’re a guy who dreams of going to Christmas island to get thoroughly abused by giant trevally, a large Chinook can prove to be an equal and is a lot more accessible for most people. From our experience, big Chinook win more often than the angler, which is just what some of us need to hear to interest us in besting these large, powerful fish. Chinook salmon are some of the hardest pulling fish that are found in our waters and are responsive to swung flies presented in a manner similar to winter steelhead. This is a game of Skagit heads, sink tips, and large weighted flies.

A fresh bright Chinook can be just as grabby towards flies as a steelhead but the challenge is getting the fly in front of them. They sit in water that is typically deeper and faster than steelhead. Large attention getting intruder style flies are proven on Chinook. Stu’s Rhea Intruders, Barred Ostrich Intruders, and Chinook Intruders are excellent choices. All your same favorite winter steelhead colors are applicable. Occasionally, Chinook prefer more modest flies. Smaller rabbit strip type leech patterns such as a Silvey’s Silvinator are applicable as well. Chinook Flies

3. Coho

These fish will be dispersed throughout the Sandy and Clackamas rivers, starting in a couple of weeks. Be on one of these rivers when the first fall rains hit. And be prepared for a couple of double digit days if you hit it right. Coho are very sensitive to rain and even ¼” and the resulting freshet will bring coho pouring into your local river. Coho like stripped flies and jiggy action. Using a Commando Head or Outbound with a sink tip on a single hand rod or shorter switch rod is a great way to fish in this manner. Use any smaller marabou or ostrich type fly with a bit of flash such as a Fish Taco, Dirk Wiggler, or Hoh Bo Spey. To achieve the jiggly action that coho appreciate so much, you can simply clamp a size 3 Water Gremlin split shot in your loop knot or just up from it if you prefer.


4. Brook Trout

These beautiful char are fall spawners, that start getting active as the water temperatures drop in the fall (in both lakes and streams). Many reservoirs and natural lakes have Brook trout. Start looking for them around lake margins and around creek mouths. They are at the peak of their beauty in the fall with all of their colors becoming more vibrant in hue in hopes of attracting a mate. They are not only phenomenal to look at, but provide great sport as well. With the cooler fall temps and the upcoming winter, they not only fight with more vigor, but are more receptive to our offerings as well. Larger flies such as Bead Head Wooly Buggers are excellent choices for these aggressive fish looking to put on some weight for winter hold over.

5. Brown Trout

Brown trout are also fall spawners and tributaries of reservoirs such as Harriet Lake on the upper Clackamas and Wickiup on the upper Deschutes will have brown trout staging as the water cools in September. This is the time to catch some of the largest brown trout for the year. As these fish begin to concentrate in preparation for spawn, some of the larger fish (10-15 lbs in some cases) leave their protective holding lies to migrate to a suitable spawning area. Brown trout are known fish eaters.

Large articulated streamers such as Big Gulp Sculpin are a great way to appeal to these highly predatory fish. However that doesn’t mean they will exclusively feed on streamers. They can be highly predatory and aggressive, but can also be extremely selective and picky toward the late season dry fly fisher’s offerings. This can provide some great technical late season fishing on dries, which for many of us will be our last opportunity to raise “the one” until the following spring.

6. Bull Trout

Bull trout are already staging at the mouth of the Metolius River where it empties into Lake Billy Chinook. Kokanee salmon are also staging in the same areas. Bull trout feed on kokanee salmon, resident whitefish, juvenile trout of all shapes and sizes, as well as large stonefly nymphs and kokanee eggs. Use sinking lines and large streamers or deeply fished indicator rigs for best results. Flies with the appearance of parr marks such as a tan Big Gulp Sculpin usually get more attention than flies that do not. If you tie your own flies, it gets quite fun. A bull trout will eat a fly larger than you would guess (4 to 12 inches: flies intended for pike and musky). The Dolly Llama is one of the pet bull trout flies. Your imagination and available materials are your only limiting factor. We carry a full selection of streamer tying materials and are quite experienced in constructing large, yet easy to cast streamers and are just a phone call away


7. Sea-Run Cutthroat

Cutthroats are plentiful around the mouths of Tillamook Bay streams, and that same situation exists in many other areas of the Washington and Oregon coasts. These fish can provide excellent fun in both estuary water and upstream. They typically average 10-16” with larger trophy fish being in the 18-24” range. These fish are hard pulling and full of spunk. A 5 or 6 weight rod is a great tool for chasing these fish. Unlike steelhead, sea-run cutthroat do not migrate far into saltwater and generally spend most of their time in estuaries near their home stream making them easier to target.

Typically sinking lines are employed with subsurface patterns such as smaller clousers, Sculpzilla, and even smaller, shrimpier bonefish flies such as Gotchas work well in tidewater. Further upstream these fish are more receptive to standard trout fishing techniques such as dries and nymphs, but are still more than willing to chase down a stripped sculpin. Depending on where you are fishing them, the dry fly hatches and larval insect life may vary, but a selection of basic mayflies such as Adams, blue duns, black gnats, Stimulators, and elk hair caddis can be relied on for dries. All of their nymphs are applicable as well and are best replicated by pheasant tails, hare’s ears, and a variety of caddis pupae.

8. Redband Trout

The Deschutes and many other streams east of the Cascades offer fantastic fishing during September. All the normal tricks, such as dry fly, nymphs, and trout Spey apply. There is also a second hatch of stoneflies in the fall. On the Deschutes, the males are typically flightless with the occasional ovipositing mid-river female. However, their nymphs go through a similar behavioral drift like salmonflies in the spring in preparation for emergence. Fishing a rubber leg stonefly during this period can provide some excellent results. The October caddis and the standard assortment of tan olive and black caddis are present providing great evening dry fly fishing as well.

9. Pen Raised Atlantic Salmon

The big salmon pen burst in Northern Puget Sound is heralded by some as an environmental disaster, and there is little doubt that there will be opportunities for fly fishing for salmon that average ten pounds. In the late 90’s there was an escape of Atlantic salmon and many of them swam up the Skagit river providing fishing opportunities for anglers chasing salmon and steelhead. This may be the case again with farm raised Atlantic salmon going up the Puget Sound rivers.

We kind of find the prospect of tangling with a farmed Atlantic salmon to be quite intriguing. Will they rival a 40 lb wild Baltic salmon? Probably not. Is it a species that we are unaccustomed to that will provide a chance to swing a fly for a new and different animal? Absolutely! We have also heard from some of our fellow anglers that live on the Sound that some of these farmed fish are quite large - exceeding 30 pounds in some cases. As far as flies, we are not entirely sure what will work and what will not, but bets are that a flashy loud Intruder style steelhead fly will turn a few farmed heads if they are around.

10. Spring Chinook spawning, egg drift

Spring Chinook are similar to summer steelhead in their life cycle. They will enter usually in late March through July and will hold over until September in their home stream before spawning. Spring Chinook will be actively spawning by mid-September, and the resulting egg drift will excite both resident and sea-run trout. Glo Bugs and a variety of other egg patterns can be excellent flies to fish behind groups of spawning spring Chinook. Both steelhead and resident trout will actively feed on the resulting egg drift. There is almost a micro food chain created by the spawning spring Chinook. Eggs also attract a variety of smaller invertebrates such as larger larval insects, sculpins, and crayfish. These are all now applicable food in a trout's diet as well themselves. Check out: How To Fish With Egg Flies


11. Lakes

Natural lakes and reservoirs of all types are normally at their lowest in the fall. Fish are condensed into smaller areas where they can be found. Often there is lots of room for back casts, and some of the best fishing is done while hiking and wading. The best part is, as the weather cools and kids get back to school, you will find increasing solitude. When the temperature begins to drop the fish will migrate above the thermocline within our reach providing good fishing throughout the day as opposed to cooler low light periods. The same flies you’ve been using all summer are applicable. Wooly Buggers, Rickard’s flies, and a variety of mayfly and caddis dries as well as their larval forms as droppers will provide irresistible temptations for these now relatively unpressured trout.

12. Ant Queens: #14-16

September is a time for massive queen ant flights. Usually these winged ants are in #14 and #16. They are not the most graceful fliers and on windy days will be blown into the water on both streams and lakes to fall victim to trout. Ants with foam such as an Amy’s Ant in a #14 are a great top fly for dry dropper type set ups. View ants in our selection of terrestrials here: Terrestrial Insect Dry Flies, and be sure to read up on fishing them in our blog post: Ants as Trout Food.

13. Hexagenia

We are discovering that there are fall hatches of Hexagenia mayflies in some lakes. Timothy Lake is one of these. There have been late season hex hatches that we have fished that provide some of the best fishing of the year. The largest fish are gaining body mass for winter and are up in the shallows again on the prowl for protein. Fish of 5t o 6 lbs are not uncommon. A foam hex dun with a dropper of your choice is an excellent option.

14. Rivers

In the fall, trout preparing for holdover is not an exclusive deal to lakes. Many of the larger trout in our local streams are dropping out of their summer thermal refuges and are on the feed taking dries and nymphs. The October caddis are in pupation about to emerge and they provide excellent dry fly fishing. Here are also plenty of the standard caddis in olives, tans, and black in sizes 14-18. X caddis and elk hairs always do well. About this time blue wing olives will make an appearance again. A size 18 thorax BWO, traditional BWO, or parachute BWO is a great choice in September.

15. Fall Caddis: #8, #10, #12

The first big October caddis was found on the wall of the shop this week. There are lots of different sizes of these fall caddis. Some are trout candy. On our local streams and some parts of the lower Deschutes, fish will feed on them in the evenings as they take to the water to lay eggs. They often range in color and size. A larger rusty Goddard caddis is a great imitation of some of the smaller males. The larger females are replicated quite well by CDC salmonflies and smaller orange Stimulators.

16. Golden Stones

There is a fall hatch of golden stoneflies on lots of different Oregon Rivers. Some of these are nocturnal, and some are not. In some hatches, the males are flightless. The flightless version can be found on the lower Deschutes. Certain rivers to the south such as the middle fork of the Willamette, have excellent hatches of golden stones that can at times rival the spring hatch with far fewer anglers present. Their nymphs go through a behavioral drift to stage for emergence just like in the spring, so both nymphs and dries are applicable. Beadhead rubber leg golden stones, large yellow Stimulators, CDC golden stones are good choices. Chubby Chernobyls are useful for any dry dropper set ups you’d like to fish.

17. Green Drakes and Flavilineas

There are a couple of different large Green Drake type mayflies that hatch in September across the state. These hatches can offer great dry fly fishing. There are also flavilinea or flavs which are a mayfly similar to green drakes that can be found in our local watersheds. Flavs generally hatch from June through October but generally peak most places in late August and September. Similar to Green Drakes, they are more prone to hatching on overcast or even wet days. Green Drake duns in #12 and #10 will do well. Flavs can be replicated by large BWO’s as well as smaller Green Drake patterns in #12-16.


18. Smallmouth Bass

It’s no secret that smallmouth bass are invading our favorite steelhead runs on the Deschutes. Instead of being upset about it, we see it as an opportunity to have a bit of fun during the day when steelhead fishing is slow. Anglers are routinely catching 13-14” smallmouth on size 4 Skunks fished on a dry line. The Columbia is known as being one of the best smallmouth fisheries in the entire country. If a sink tip and large baitfish style pattern such as a Sculpzilla or a Hud’s Bushwhacker were to be employed, it's anybody’s best guess how large a smallmouth will wind up attached to it. The Columbia routinely produces smallmouth exceeding 4 lbs. On a single-hand 6 or 7 wt with a Commando Head type shooting head this can be an absolute blast for old and young fly anglers alike.


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