Al Campbell, Field Editor

October 20th, 2003

Autumn Bonanza
By Al Campbell

Autumn is either a great time or a tough time for most fishermen. It's a great time if you know what to use, because the fish are usually looking to put on some weight before the hard winter months set in. It's a tough time because the many insect hatches of summer are over, and many people don't know how to deal with that. The secret to success, as always, is in knowing what the fish are feeding on, and how to match it.

During the spring and summer months, the insect life in our streams and lakes is at or near maturity, so the flies we use to imitate that life are usually fairly large. As the summer progresses, each of the insect species hatches, mates, lays their eggs, and dies. By autumn, most if not all of the annual insects have finished their life cycle and started over as eggs. That means that most of the insect life in the water is either small or very small, and clinging to the bottom trying to live long enough to reach maturity. That doesn't leave a lot of large or medium sized insects on the dinner table for the fish to eat.

While a size 14 Adams dry fly is a good bet in May when mayflies are hatching in that size, by October most of the mayfly life in the streams and lakes is represented by nymphs that started their lifecycle just a few months before. That means those mayfly nymphs are roughly a size 30, and not real active. The same is true for caddisfly larvae. Although stonefly, dragonfly and damselfly nymphs will usually be somewhat larger in size, they still aren't present in open water often enough to make many good meals for the fish.

It's time to look at this food thing a bit differently than most fly fishermen do. With the exception of a few late season hatches of mayflies and caddisflies that fish really key in on for a short period of time when they occur, something else is on their menu. Fish need something that is large enough and/or plentiful enough to provide more energy than they expend to eat it. Forget your common dry fly fare. That isn't what's on the menu during the fall and winter months; at least not very often.

You might be thinking crayfish, and I know fish do feed on them in the fall, but they aren't as active around here after the water turns cold. Frogs and other cold-blooded creatures are off the menu until the water warms back up in the late spring. However, minnows are still readily available and active. Minnows also provide a substantial meal, and if a fish can find and consume enough of them, it can continue to grow during the cold months.

Although scuds and sowbugs live on a different life cycle than most insects, they are often large enough and available enough in the fall to provide some feeding opportunities to hungry fish. This is especially true in bodies of water than have a healthy plant population.

Finally, midges usually have a much shorter life cycle than most of the other aquatic insects, so they are readily available to fish for most, if not all of the year. Although small, they usually hatch in such quantities that they offer a substantial meal to the fish. If you think of them like popcorn shrimp, you'll understand why they are valuable as fish food. It takes a while, but I can fill up on popcorn shrimp if I eat enough of them. The same idea applies to midge hatches. Since midge hatches are heavier in the cool months from October to April, they are available in quantities large enough to provide significant nutrition to feeding fish.

If you think about this subject for a while, you'll see, it just makes sense. It makes even more sense to learn what is available to fish in your area after the weather starts cooling down and most of the insect hatches are over for about 8 months. Knowing what's on the menu can make the difference between a good day and a poor day on the water. It's up to you to either learn what's on that menu, or spend all your time trying to guess what the fish are feeding on. In one case you can have a fishing bonanza; in the other, you can be frustrated by your lack of luck. ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns

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