The golden season sees our prey turn its mind to stocking up for the long hard winter ahead. All trout are carnivorous and this trait is no more apparent than in the cooler days of autumn when they actively hunt for the fry that hatched earlier in the year. We need to change our tactics accordingly to take advantage of these new conditions.
The basic idea here is to offer a fly that will represent a small rapidly swimming fish fry in an area that would be inhabited by these shoals. That means we will usually be hunting in the shallows of the lake or reservoir where these shoals congregate - it's that littoral zone again. But we need to employ a different technique to that used earlier in the year when we were trying to emulate a buzzer or nymph slowly crawling about in the marginal vegetation.
Anyone who has spent even a short time by the side of a lake at this time of year will have seen the sometimes huge shoals of fry that form, often under overhanging trees or among the moored boats. The trout seem to know instinctively that every calorie counts as winter approaches and will gorge themselves on these fry. You may even see the swirls and splashes as they actively chase their prey through the shallow waters.
So, how are we going to take advantage of this situation? The easiest answer is... When in Rome do as the Romans! Using a fry imitation pattern - and there are dozens to choose from - cast out and start retrieving almost straight away. But this is no figure of eight or gentle retrieve. This is retrieving as fast as you can make it! It is called stripping and involves pulling back long lengths of line as quickly as possible.
Imagine you are the fry being hunted by a hungry trout. Are you going to hang about and hope it doesn't notice you? More likely you will swim for your life! Don't worry, the trout can swim a darn sight faster than you can retrieve and will soon be grabbing your lure. And if it does, just keep retrieving and you will set the hook without the need to strike. Stop retrieving too soon and you will give the trout enough slack line to realise its mistake, throw the hook and escape.
What line should we use for this method of fishing? Firstly, we are going to be hunting in the shallows - no more than ten feet of water. So, the initial thought would be to use an intermediate or slow sink line. All well and good. But if we strip back as quickly as necessary in order to induce a take the line will only have time to sink a short distance. So the answer is counter intuitive. We must use a fast sink line in the shallows. That will keep the fly down in the water even with a fast retrieve. I even go one step further and use a fast sink line made into a shooting head format. This gives the added advantage of greater casting distances, meaning you can cover much more water. And a shooting head tends to make less splash when it hits the water as the main length is braided backing which will settle on the water less conspicuously than a heavy line. Use a leader of about five or six feet (2 metres) - anything longer is unnecessary. It may pay to up the leader strength by a few pounds to compensate for the rough treatment handed out in this method of fishing.
There are a huge variety of flies that can be used as a fry imitation and these fall under the generic name of lures. My favourites are the simplest ones - a baby doll or a cat's whisker or a zonker will suit just fine. I have even used my leech pattern as a lure with great effect. The essence of these flies is the undulating movement created by the use of marabou feather or rabbit fur. If tying up your own flies - including the leech pattern that is described in detail elsewhere - make sure you make them nice and bushy with plenty of feather or fur. This will give them lots of movement when retrieved at speed.
These lures need to be of sturdier construction than a normal fly as they are retrieved much faster, are cast much more often and will be hit by the trout at great speed and with great gusto! I have seen the hooks on these types of flies straightened on many occasions, giving an indication of the force involved when a big trout decides it wants your lure for lunch! These lures are best tied on forged hooks - not wire - and are tied a size or two larger than you would normally use. I have seen captured trout regurgitate fry longer than my index finger, so don't be afraid that you are going to use a fly that that might frighten off your quarry!
I said earlier that the retrieve needs to be fast and furious if you are going to induce the trout to take your offering. While the fast pull method is acceptable, I found greater success with the hand over hand system. In this method you cast out your line then tuck the rod under your arm, thus freeing both hands. With the rod securely tucked into your armpit you can now retrieve with both hands in a continuous pulling system - literally hand over hand. Pull the line down from the rod with alternate hands - as if you were milking a cow! This has the great advantage of having no pauses in the retrieve. If using just one hand there is inevitably a pause while the retrieving hand lets go of the recovered line and moves up to take hold of the line again ready for the next pull. In the water this method is very unnatural as the lure tends to start and stop rather than appearing to swim in a continuous manner. It is that continuous motion that gives great movement to the supple body of a lure like the zonker - all that rabbit fur undulating through the water seems irresistible!
With this continuous retrieval method you can actually feel the trout engulf your fly and the retrieve becomes harder and harder as both you and the fish realise what has happened! That is the time to quickly transfer your rod from underneath your arm and start the fight. I find that the movement is best achieved by taking the rod from under my arm and raising the rod tip to near vertical at the same time as you pull down on the line with your other hand. This will take up any slack and confirm the strike. Fish caught using this method tend to fight harder - probably an indication of the power that they are obtaining from their high protein diet. A gentle onshore breeze is ideal for this method of fishing. You can anchor in slightly deeper water and let the boat settle in about twelve feet of water and cast towards the shoreline. If fishing alone, try anchoring at the stern and fishing from the bow. You will get a lot less yawl - the boat swinging around on the anchor rope as a result of the effect of the wind hitting the side of the boat. You can find out more about this technique in the chapter on Boat Fishing.
For those of us who are of a more casual or lazy inclination, there is still sport to be had from the fry feeding trout, but at a more leisurely pace. Many wet flies are designed to imitate pin fry and these can be cast out as a team of three and retrieved in a medium fast figure of eight method. The idea is the same as lure fishing but the smaller flies and slower retrieve make everything less frenetic and tiring. The ideal line for these circumstances will be one that sinks slowly through the water to almost touch bottom before you have fully retrieved it. Look at the table in the section on intermediate lines to work out the best sink rate of line. As a rule of thumb a sink rate of three or four inches per second will probably be about right.
Having described the excitement to be had when the trout are chasing the fry, never forget the other methods of fishing. There will be many occasions when the trout are not indulging in this energetic activity. Quite often they will only engage in fry feeding for just an hour or so and then retire back to the deeps if the sun, wind or other factors become uncomfortable for them. Then it's back to the drawing board to work out just where they are and what they are doing.
As the vegetation dies back in preparation for the winter months, the trout will also explore the shallower water that was previously too weed-bound for them to approach. They will scavenge these areas for the snails, hoglouse and other fauna that are newly exposed. Using the same techniques that we used in the spring we can attack these areas. A booby on a hi-d line or a nymph or leech on a slow sink line will bring good results. But never forget - trout don't have any eyelids or sunglasses! That wonderful clear autumn sun is great for us, but the trout will shun the shallows when the sun shines bright. They will head for deeper water. Yet another plan is needed for that eventuality!
This is the time I start to think about the back drifting technique described in the section entitled Going Afloat. This will enable you to cover large areas of water, from the shallows on one side of the reservoir, across and through the deeps to the shallows on the other side. A booby on a hi-d line is what is required for this exercise and remember to pay out sufficient backing to allow for the angle that the line will make before it reaches the bottom. Remember, in this method you sit facing where the boat has come from because your line is being dragged along by the action of the wind on the boat. So keep an eye on where the boat is heading - it's behind you!
One final suggestion: There are those magical autumn days when the world seems to stand still. The water is wreathed in mist and there is hardly a breath of wind. The sky is overcast but not threatening and there is just the slightest hint of coolness in the air. Where will the fish be? Well, they are unlikely to be in the shallows with no protective ripple, so they will seek their meal elsewhere. In these overcast conditions the daphnia that the trout use as a staple diet will be very close to the surface and the trout will follow them up. Try fishing in slightly deeper water, say 12 or 15 feet, but only in the top few feet of the water. A floating line with a team of three including a small orange fly such as an orange coloured buzzer fished at a slow pace should bring results.
Putting all this together, I find that the early morning is productive in the shallows for fry and if that doesn't work then try the booby in slightly deeper water. When the sun gets up in the sky it's time for that spell of back drifting. The fry chasing doesn't seem to happen again until later in the afternoon. So there is always something to be doing as the day progresses. The trout start the day in the shallows, move off into deeper water and return to the shallows later in the afternoon. You just have to follow them to keep your sport going and your rod bent! Keep your eyes open and your mind working to ensure you recognise the conditions as they arise that will decide where the trout will be. That's what turns a competent fisherman into an expert!
And finally... turning to the river, we’ll find the fish feeding hard as the water cools and heralds hard times ahead. A nymph on a floating line with a sight bob should do the trick. Check out this video of autumn fishing on a New Jersey river.