Fall Fly Fishing for Fat Browns
The scoop on nasty, aggressive spawners
November means more to me than turkey and football. This is the month to break out the streamer fly patterns and go after big brown trout. Occasionally I catch a big brown through the spring and summer, but it's not until the cool, short days of November that the real monsters become available in numbers. There is one simple explanation for November being so hot. It's because browns are fall spawners and by November they are in a downright nasty mood. Fish that are close to or have just finished spawning are very aggressive and territorial. I've seen fall browns caught on flies and lures nearly six inches in length. These fish will often pursue and attack most anything that comes near their faces.
This time of year the big browns move from the deep, brush-laden holes of summer and congregate in areas close to good spawning gravel, often around slow riffles or the shallow tails of pools. I've found that a lot of browns also spawn in side channels and tributary mouths. After you know where to look, finding aggressive fish is a cinch. Find a good spawning area and then look for adjacent holes or holding water where fish may be hiding. This is where you want to focus your time. Leave the spawners alone and go after the opportunistic feeders nearby. We don't want to jeopardize spawning, since it is the future of the resource.
My most memorable Novembers have come on the Provo River. One great day occurred last year, when I took a midweek trip to the river below Deer Creek. Weekday trips are usually best because you have a little more elbow room. This day was even better, as an early winter storm developed and snow started to really come down.
My experience suggests that fall fishing is better up near the dam, so we drove to the closest access point. The river below Deer Creek has large annual fluctuations, and the stretch below the dam was one long run. For me it's a difficult stretch to fish during most of the year, when nymphing is the standard technique. But during November nymphs are not my choice. Instead I tie up some big streamers, muddler minnows, bucktails and, of course, woolly buggers.
There were no visible fish on this particular day, so I began casting my streamer up and across the channel, allowing the fly to sink on a dead drift and then retrieving in short, six-inch strips. The snow continued to fall and soon the only noise audible was the smooth flow of water at my feet. Fishing my way downstream was frustrating. I didn't see or feel anything, and the snow was beginning to make my fingers icy cold.
As I approached a sharp bend I noticed a large patch of clean gravel along the opposite bank. Clean gravel this time of year means that fish have been digging redds (nests) in the area, and I immediately went into stalking mode. I loped through the brush to attain a better position from which to cast without spooking any fish close to the redd. It was hard to see in the snow, but I could just make out three large dark bodies on top of the cleaned area.
Below them I saw a pool that I knew would hold more big fish. I quartered a cast upstream in front of the spawning trio and let my fly drift as it sank toward the bottom. The spawning fish ignored the streamer as it bounced along the gravel. I started giving small twitches as the fly left the cleaned gravel and disappeared into the pool. I saw the flash of a large fish in the pool and immediately set the hook into what I can only guess was a submerged log. Rather than risk spooking the pool I snapped off the fly and retied, cursing the snow and the log simultaneously.
The next cast went long and I tied into the willow six feet up on the opposite bank. My hands were quite cold and I really didn't want to break off and retie again, so I went through the ridiculous routine of pulling and twisting from every imaginable angle. In the process of pulling and twisting, I noticed one of the fish on the redd had begun kicking up gravel with its tail. I then noticed that every time the fish kicked up a scoop of gravel a big head emerged from the darkness of the pool below. It looked as if the spawning fish was kicking up eggs that had been previously deposited, and the big fish below were gobbling them up. I gave a sharp pull on my rod and parted with the streamer. I didn't need it anymore. Instead I tied on a peach egg fly and a strike indicator. Again I cast upstream and let the egg drift down past the redd. As soon as the fly passed the third visible fish the big head emerged out of the pool and inhaled the egg.
I can't recall setting the hook, but I must have, because the next thing I remember was stumbling over boulders as I went downstream through the snow in pursuit of an extremely strong fish. The fish tore downstream until it hit a very large deep pool; then it sank to the bottom and wouldn't budge. Several times I thought the fish was hung up, but then it would scoot around the pool letting me know it wasn't. Finally, the big brown tried an upstream run, but it didn't make it far. Its energy was gone and I backed it up into the shallows.
I have seen a lot of beautiful trout, but few rival that of a brown in spawning colors. The red spots on the sides of this fish were intense, and the bottom jaw was strongly hooked, indicating it was a male.
The snow and wind picked up after I released the fish, but my hands remained warm the rest of the day. It is amazing what the adrenaline from chasing a big brown can do for you.
November hot spots:
A great thing about hunting brown trout in Utah is that you don't have to go far. From St. George to Logan, great fishing is available in a multitude of streams. Some of my favorites this time of year include:
Santa Clara River
Other good bets include the Green River (of course), Huntington Creek and Currant Creek. The Strawberry River can also be good from the Soldier Creek Dam down to the Pinnacles and in the stretches just above and below Starvation Reservoir.