Cycles of the Stream: Late Summer Trout

Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

It’s August 27th as I type this…but it could just as easily be September 14th…or July 10th. It’s a hot day, and as I gather my fly gear and consider the fly I’ll tie on first, I’m tempted to say, “This is still the middle of summer. It’s hot. I need sunscreen, I need an ice-cold water bottle…summertime.”

Ahhh, but it’s not, and the trout know it. Days are detectably shorter, nights are longer. Water levels have consistently dropped and water temperature has already begun to do the same. The bugs know it too, and their autumn behavior has already kicked in. Nymphs and terrestrials are far larger than they were six weeks ago, and hatches are of the late season variety. Browns get ready for their big square dance, and in anadromous water, finned behemoths return from the sea. Shadows lengthen; even the sun’s declination is lower in the sky.

The telltale signs of “end of days” are evident to anyone and anything that cares…and trout care very much.

The cycles of the stream are much in evidence this time of year, given that the lean times of winter loom on the horizon. The boom/bust cycle of survival dictates that any creature who wants to survive through to spring must prepare. Squirrels gather nuts, bears gorge on fruits and seek out shelter…and trout do their best to fatten up while there’s still gettin’ to be got.

It’s the same for any fish species that experiences what could be called real winters. In particular, the coyness shown throughout the summer up to now — avoiding bright light, seeking out the deeper holes — is all but abandoned. They need to feed; little else matters. I fished for Chinook with a friend last fall — mid-October, hot bright day, not a cloud in the sky. He made a bad cast and accidentally landed his streamer in grassy shallows, perhaps 6 inches deep at the most. It was immediately and savagely attacked by a steelhead that was waiting there for a meal to come along.

Fish will enter the shallows in late summer and autumn in ways they never would have during the summer daylight hours. They’re not there to hide, nor to “hold.” They’re there to feed, period. They’re aggressive. Shallows serve up hapless bait fish, crawdads, leeches, terrestrials, mice, lizards and amphibians. Shallows are rich in food compared to a stream’s channel, and with the threat of a lean winter bearing down on them, fish are very aware of that buffet and are increasingly willing to abandon shyness to get a mouthful instead of a snack.

That’s not to say they’re completely reckless; they may cruise if the water is still and cloudy or if it’s a lake, but will tend to lie more motionless near structure or vegetation if stream water is clear. But either way they will strike, because that’s what they’re there for. They’re alert; they’re not resting. Algae and aquatic weeds are more developed than earlier in the season, and the fish rely on that to find whatever is hiding in the green stuff and to help them get away with their derring-do. Especially attractive to them are shallows near an easy escape route to greater depth — a drop-off or steep grade to deeper zones — but they’ll brave a longer exit path if there’s food to be had.

I’ve noticed it a lot over the years. In the snail-rich lakes of Colorado’s high alluvial plains, late season comes earlier than elsewhere. Yet when that environ’s own autumn starts to make its presence known, the big trout increasingly can be found prowling the lake’s shallows. We’d stand throwing our offerings out to a drop-off at the limit of our casting range, and the fish would slide in behind us and surprise us with savage feeding slashes between ourselves and shore. Eventually we learned to occasionally turn and toss toward the gravelly beach behind our positions, sometimes tying into a fish in excess of 20 inches.

As anglers we remind ourselves to drop our fly near the shore before ever stepping into a stream, because trout may be feeding there. In summertime that wisdom applies more to the first entry into the water early in the morning, and if we’re lucky we might tempt a large fish that has not yet retreated to the deeper flows for the day. But in late summer and autumn the advice is doubly applicable, and in fact all day — as long as we haven’t spooked them. How often have we surprised a sizable fish on an autumn day by stepping to the shore to exit the water? Zones so shallow that we can’t imagine anything would be there can easily hold good late season fish. They’ll often be eyeing the shoreline rather than facing up-current. Casting into weeds and letting the fly plop into the water an inch or two from the bank can be deadly…and whereas that’s always true near undercut banks in summertime, the later the season goes on, the more likely it is even where there are mere inches of water. Even large streamers can use this tactic.

So it’s worth imagining late summer and autumn fish as reckless. Not stupid, certainly, but reckless enough to break those rules of deep-water stealth, those habits that say it’s better to graze on a hundred tiny nymphs down deep than one big bellyful in the riskier shallows. Their priorities have changed as the summer has worn on, and their willingness to take some chances with them. If we’re a bit cagey ourselves, we have a chance at catching them making the daring mistake of their life.

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