Most experienced fly fishers would say that fall is their absolute favorite time to fly fish for trout!
The fury and flurry of summer hatches may be gone but the weather and the scenery are stunning. With a little knowledge and the right flies, your fall fly fishing adventures may become some of your favorites… if not most productive.
In this article, we’ll discuss 15 best trout flies for fall, where to buy them, and some fall-specific tips and tactics to help ensure your success.
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So, What Makes Fall so Special Anyway!?
If you ask any fly angler they’ll tell you there’s something magic in the air in the fall. Some see the falling leaves and shorter, cooler days in a negative light.
Fly fishers, however, see many reasons to celebrate:
Cooler air/water temps = less stress on the trout.
Summer traffic vanishes = less pressure on fish and less crowding.
More water in the river due to hibernating grasses/trees, returning rains, and even some high mountain snows.
Fall spawners like brown trout and brook trout become more aggressive as they prepare to procreate.
If summer, its inviting weather and its numerous hatches is time for frenzied activity and fighting crowds, fall is a time for slowing down, for introspection and solitude.
Best Tactics to Consider
Fall means cooler temps. September temps may still be on the warm side but the nights are cooler/longer and therefore will cool the water better. The trend continues into October, November and December (fall technically includes most of December too!)
**Is it ethical to target spawning fish?
In the trout world, the answer is NO! I can’t speak to targeting other species during their spawn, but targeting spawning trout is unsporty and detrimental to the fish. As trout sit on/protect their redds (spawning beds), they are highly exposed to predators (like us), tired, and susceptible to disease and exhaustion.
That’s not all!
We must take care when wading too. Stay clear of possible redds. Look for slightly slower, deeper water with a sandy/silty bottom to cross. Just one wrong step can kill thousands of eggs!
Here’s what you CAN do instead of targeting redds:
Fish the pre-spawn. Before they gather in the shallows to spawn, fish become more aggressive. Brown trout and brook trout will hunt and chase more willingly in the early fall. They must calorie load to carry them through the taxing spawn. Dries and nymphs will get action but streamers are especially exciting!
During the spawn, leave the spawning fish alone and fish an egg or attractor pattern in the drop-off just downstream of the shallow redds. You’ll find opportunistic rainbows and other non-spawning species feeding on eggs that get carried in the current.
Find More Fish by Targeting Different Areas
Summer temps = warm water = fish seeking cooler/more oxygenated areas.
Fall = cooling temps = fish often moving back to deeper, slower water as the season progresses. Of course, then the fall-spawning species move back into shallow, gravelly riffles to make their redds.
River and temps depending, I like to start dead drifting dries/nymphs or stripping streamers in slower water in the fall. I tend to have lots of luck in 3-5 feet of slower water just inside, outside or after a riffle.
Use Streamers to Find Aggressive Fall Trout
Brown trout and Brook trout become hormone-driven pre-spawn. Rainbows and other trout look to calorie-up for the coming winter. Streamers work great when cast close to shadowy cover like sunken trees or an undercut bank and stripped erratically.
But that’s not all…
You may find days where a lazy retrieve or presentation is best. Try swinging… casting across the current and letting the current drag your fly line and therefore your fly toward your bank downstream of you.
You may even want to try adding some split shot and just letting the streamer dead drift, bouncing off the rocks as it flows downstream with the current.
What are the Fall Hatches/Food Sources
Summer may be known for its numerous, flurried hatches but fall has plenty of great hatches of its own! Fall incompases such varied transitional weather that you’ll see a variety of hot-weather bugs, cold weather bugs, and even some fall-only hatches too.
September can still be hot for a lot of us. You’ll generally see the later half or end of the Trico hatch, possibly some lingering PMDS, and a lesser known, but very fishy Mahogany hatch.
Whitefish eggs will be present late August-September and October Caddis will also begin to show up later in the month. Other various caddis will be present too.
October generally sees the most October Caddis hatches, which seems obvious. Some straggling Mahoganys can also be found. Blue Wing Olives (BWOs) begin to show as the weather cools and the ever-present midge will become an important food source too. Caddis will be visible along the bank if it’s not too chilly.
In colder climates, brown trout and brook trout begin to spawn in October. Sometimes sparse hatches can make annelids (worms, both terrestrial and aquatic) and sculpins an important meal for trout.
The cold weather and even snows start to settle in. BWOs and midge become the primary hatches and can be heavy/productive even in the snow. When bugs aren’t around, sculpin and worms can be important go-to flies.
In many climates, November is the fall trout-spawning month. Non-fall-spawners will key on fish eggs for high protein snacks.
Mayflies – PMDs, Tricos, Mahoganys, BWOs
Caddis – Various but we’ll focus on October Caddis
Annelids – Earthworms, aquatic worms
Bait/Forage fish – Sculpins, various minnows/small trout, crayfish
TOP 15 Best Trout Flies for Fall
Here are the top picks for best trout flies for fall:
Tricos hatch in hot weather from late July into September. They’re very small, generally size 18-22 and hatch in great numbers. They’re so small, in fact, that trout don’t often key in on the hatch. They’ll wait for the spinner fall to sip dead or dying tricos en masse. This is called energetics…lowest energy output for highest energy gain.
The small Trico spinners splay flat on the water. A traditional spinner pattern is difficult to fish but this indicator version is a game-changer.
The wing appears as a spinner from the fish’s view (below), the colored indicator is easy to see from the fisher-person’s view (above/side) and the body has a very natural segmentation.
Mahogany Mayflies are a lesser-known but important late summer/early fall meal. Bigger than the slightly earlier trico, these reddish-brown mayflies give a higher caloric meal to hungry trout in September and into early October.
This Parachute Mahogany has a realistically segmented body, great mahogany coloration, and a parachute hackle that helps the fly land softly in slow water and float well in faster riffles!
The white wing post makes it easily visible to the angler. This version is also budget-friendly too! I recommend sizes 14 and 16.
The Psycho May is a relatively new fly on the scene. It uses a realistic body shape and segmentation. Also uses a material called pseudo hackle…a synthetic “hackle” material giving this pattern prominent legs/gills. A tungsten bead lends good weight and a little flash too.
I like to have 14s, 16s, and 18s on hand at all times. The brown Psycho May imitates straggler PMD nymphs and mahogany nymphs very well and seems to handle a lot of abuse!
Blue Winged Olives (BWOs) are the last mayfly hatch of the year…and also the first of the following. The BWO Comparadun is my go-to blue wing dry pattern when the weather starts to get chilly, usually late October and November.
The simplicity of this pattern is great…nothing too flashy and it’s relatively inexpensive. The Comparadun style wing is tough, floats well, is highly visible to the human eye, and represents both BWO dun and spinner stages.
The Juju Baetis is a relatively tough and productive Baetis/BWO nymph. Its slender body taper, curved hook, and dark color make it a deadly choice for freestone or tailwater rivers. The flashback gets attention from trout, especially when BWOs are hatching but trout aren’t keyed on the surface.
I recommend having size 16s, 18s, and 20s on hand at all times, with or without bead heads.
It’s no surprise that a workhorse like the trusty zebra midge would make the list of top of fall fishing flies.
Personally, I like to keep plenty of black, olive, black/olive, brown, and red midge in my fly box. Sizes 16 through 22 are pretty common and trout will readily eat them with or without a bead head.
As fall temps begin to cool, you’ll see increasing numbers of midges on the water. However, midge can be found throughout the year and I recommend keeping at least some handy whenever you’re out fly fishing. They are usually inexpensive so stock up!
October caddis are relatively large caddis that will appear sometime mid September through early November.
In my opinion, it has an underrated hatch. These caddis are a good size meal for trout and they tend to flutter on the surface drawing attention from trout near and far.
The Chubby Chernobyl isn’t most fly fishers first choice to imitate caddis. However, the Baby Chubby is one of my favorite fall flies for trout. I love using a tan and orange baby chubby in a size 12 or 14 as my October caddis dry of choice.
The best part?
Because of the foam fly body, you can add a lot of action to the fly to bring in aggressive feeders without it drowning.
You can fish in really heavy water without your fly sinking.
It imitates different species, not only caddis but hoppers and stoneflies.
You can also fish it dry-dropper method with a large, heavy October caddis nymph dangling below.
The bird of prey is a fantastic caddis nymph. The curvature of the body, flash ribbing segmentation, and the soft hackle make it a great pupa/emerger pattern. The bead head gives and weight to get down to the fish and adds a little bit of flash.
The October caddis version of the bird of prey has the perfect burnt-orange tones to match the hatch. It’s a fantastic choice to run underneath your Baby Chubby Chernobyl dry fly.
The San Juan worm is one of the most recognizable fly patterns. Originally tied by fishers of the fly’s namesake river, the San Juan worm has gained world renown.
It is tied in varying sizes and a wide range of colors from brown to red to purple and everything in between. This allows the San Juan worm to represent anything from terrestrial annelids like earthworms to small aquatic annelids.
My favorite fall colors tend to be red or burgundy. The bead head gives it weight, a little bit of flash, and comes in various metallic colors or attractor colors like chartreuse or blaze orange. These fluorescent colors can also entice fish that are keyed in on eggs below a redd.
This version of the worm uses midge wrap for the body giving it great segmentation and a soft sheen. It also uses chenille for the extended body which is tougher/lasts longer than squirmy rubber and moves just as good in the water.
Flies tied on jig hooks are, in my experience, game changers!
The slender bodies, overweighted bead heads, and hook shape present your fly in a very enticing way. Barbless circle hooks keep trout from getting mangled. With proper/constant pressure, you won’t lose too many fish either.
Jig flies work great on nymph rigs or dry-dropper setups. I like to use open-loop knots to tie on my jig flies, giving them great movement with the currents.
A jig nymph on the bottom of your dry-dropper setup is deadly. Every mend and twitch of the dry fly irresistibly dances the jig nymph below the surface.
The use of Euro-style and jig nymphs has exploded the world over. Their effectiveness outside of fly fishing competitions has been proven time and time again. If you haven’t tried jig flies yet, this Hot Spot PT is the perfect foray.
I find this pattern to be effective most anytime from summer through fall. It’s a great general pattern and, in our case, represents anything from late PMD’s to Mahoganys and peeking caddis.
Even if nothing is hatching or moving, the fluro orange collar will get attention from trout. For this reason, I tend to carry various sizes from 12 to 20.
**see the section, “Is it ethical to target spawning fish?”
Like San Juan Worms, egg patterns are considered taboo by many fly fisher people. This is because they don’t represent insects and are often used to target spawning fish. But when talking about the best trout flies for fall, the Glo Bug must be considered.
The Glo Bug is a simple but often deadly pattern. It consists of a special yarn with a colored dot or sometimes two different colors of yarn together. This airy yarn is wrapped tightly around a thread base and trimmed to make a sphere. It’s not a delicate fly but does tend to fall apart with abuse.
I suggest small chartreuse Glo Bugs in September into October. This will represent spawning whitefish eggs well. Mid October into November the brown trout will begin spawning and I usually switch to orange or pink. Just don’t target the redds!
Fall streamer fishing can be some of the best streamer fishing of the year. The fall-induced aggressiveness will show when fishing streamers. It can be explosive and might get you your year’s biggest trout.
Sparkle Minnows are a fantastic pattern with great body movement and shimmer. They come in a variety of colors, my favorites being “Sculpin” and “Crayfish Brown.” Even the “Light Olive” and “Pearl” colors work well at times too.
Sparkle Minnows are a pretty hearty tie and can take a bit of abuse. They have good weight and can easily be fished high in the water column, let sink to mid column, or used with weights or a sinking line along the bottom structure.
They work well-being drug along the riverbed, swung across the current, or stripped erratically.
You may find fall hatches to be rather sparse at times. Or, even if you see bugs present and none of your flies seem to be working, well, The S3 Sculpin may be your answer.
Here’s the deal…
Instead of looking for bugs, trout may be foraging for bigger, more caloric meals. Sculpin (small forage fish) are present in most trout rivers and are often overlooked by fly anglers. Sculpin, however, are a big source of calories and protein for fish going into the spawn or readying for winter.
The S3 Sculpin has awesome movement underwater. It has just the right amount of flash to draw attention and suggest movement, and big, yellow lead eyes to draw in predators and keep the fly running low in the water column. It also has an upturned hook to keep it from snagging up on the riverbed.
The only drawback is that it often needs some added split shot or a sink line. This is because sculpin are foraging fish that stay glued to the riverbed as they move. I find slow stripping, dragging, or dead drifting the S3 across the bottom structure best.
I can’t tell you how rewarding fly fishing in the fall can be. Now that you have a solid list of the best fall flies for trout, nothing is stopping you!
Keep in mind the bugs and tactics we discussed above and I am certain you’ll find some willing trout to play with.
Please let us know about your thoughts or fall trout experiences in the comments below!