We’ve noted our infatuation with the fall season a number of times before, but go ahead and buckle up, because you guessed it, we’re going to do it again. Fall is, well, obviously the best season. The colors, the weather, the football, the irresistible pumpkin spice lattes, and THE FISHING! Come on, how could it get better? Hint, hint - it doesn’t!
All things unrelated to fly fishing aside, the fall is truly one of the most spectacular times of the year to get out on the water. The fish are looking to bulk up before winter arrives, departing from their picky feeding habits, ready and willing to chow down on your tasty, tasty fly. The variety of insect life that flourishes over the span of the fall season is remarkable and presents many opportunities to fool hungry fish on a number of fly patterns.
Alright, alright. We get it. Enough of our fall-related gushing. You’re here for the details, and we’ve got you covered. We sat down with Trouts own, self-proclaimed Arkansas River aficionado, Eric Schmidt, and have condensed what you need to know before you fly fish the Arkansas River this fall season into this guide.
Above all, the fish are eager. The resident brown trout will be very active during their spawn, in some regard. Whether it’s pre-spawn, the main event or post-spawn, they will be more aggressive. Weather is cooler and cloudier, and Blue-winged Olives will be active and the hatches will be more intense on cloudy days. After August 15th, the supplemental flows are shut off, returning the river to its native flow. This will result in lower, clear water - a great time for sight fishing!
My favorite area of the Arkansas in the fall is the “mid” river stretch. Think Buena Vista (or slightly above) down to Bighorn Sheep Canyon. For a specific spot, I like the hike into Browns Canyon. You can easily wade across the river at Hecla Junction and walk the old railroad a few miles in. The “upper” river from Leadville to Granite can be harder to fish the later into fall we get. Flows will get very low, and some of the fish will move downstream to find areas with more water.
Fall includes a few months, especially when we are talking about a river with 150 miles of trout water. Flies that should have a spot in your fly box in early fall will include terrestrials, attractors, caddis, and tricos. As we move later into fall, fly selection will transition into mostly Blue-winged Olives and Streamers. During the last, little window of fall - before winter fully sets in - midges will be the main game.
Specific patterns that I like are the Chubby Chernobyl in all tan or black/purple sizes 10-14, the yellow Humpy in size 12, and Amy’s Ants in any color, sizes 10-14. I also like Elk Hair Caddis in olive, size 18, and for the caddis nymphs, I like Wired Caddis in chartreuse and the Dirty Bird in olive, both in size 16. When it comes to tricos, any pattern in sizes 18-22 will do. For Blue-winged Olives, try the Hi-Vis Adams in size 18 or the Extended Body Parachute BWO, also in size 18. Various midges (pattern not critical) in red or black in sizes 18-20 should do the trick. This time of year, in my opinion, streamer patterns are mostly about color and/or flash. I like black or brown/yellow, but I always carry some Kreelex Minnows in copper/gold just in case I’m not moving any fish.
More often than not, I’m either running a hopper-dropper or streamer rig in the fall. The other techniques will certainly catch fish, but dry-dropper is my go-to and streamers are just too much fun to not fish! If you do decide to go with a euro rig, just make sure you are picking out the faster, deeper runs to present your flies through. In the fall, there will be a lot more slow, shallow water around that won’t produce as well, so choose wisely.
If I’m using a nymph rig, I will adjust depth and weight first, making sure that my flies are in the “zone”. In regard to my dry-dropper rigs, I will change out the dropper fly first, given that I am sure that technique is an appropriate way to fish on that day. At a certain point, if a style, or variations of that style, are still not effectively producing fish after making a variety of appropriate adjustments, I will switch to a different rig altogether. In that case, I’ll usually switch to streamers in an attempt to, at the very least, move some fish.
When it comes to my favorite gear, I like to keep it pretty simple. For my nymph rig I use the following setup: 10ft, 4 weight rod, 4x leader, 4x monofilament tippet to the first fly, and 5x fluorocarbon tippet between the subsequent flies. I prefer to rig it this way so that if I am changing between dry-dropper rigs and nymph rigs, I don’t need to change anything above the flies. Obviously, if I were to use fluorocarbon down to the first fly, I would have to swap out the fluorocarbon for monofilament to tie on a dry fly.
In the fall, I will be looking for fish on the edges where there is some depth right off the bank. Another great place to find fish is both in front and behind mid-stream boulders or deeper slots. In the end, I’m always looking for those places where there is a change in depth. All of the types of water and features I’ve just mentioned offer a place for fish to be protected from the current, while still receiving plenty of food available.
Weather conditions tend to be fairly stable in the early part of fall, with varying conditions the later into the season it gets. If it’s solidly-overcast and spitting rain or snow, it’s going to be a good day! As I mentioned earlier, the flows will be low and clear, so being stealthy and methodical while approaching the water is paramount. Fall offers some of the easiest wading on the Ark. Also, you should probably leave the hunter safety orange hat at home.