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Fall Stillwater Streamer Fishing Tactics

Fall fly fishing: What visuals come to mind after hearing those words? Maybe a trophy brown trout hunt on the Colorado River. Perhaps a nighttime mousing adventure on the Dream Stream. What about a trip to the Arkansas River to swing soft hackles in front of hordes of hungry trout? In the Centennial State, the possibilities are endless.

The fall fly fishing season means something different to all of us. But for those based in the western states, it means the start of the countdown to winter. September, October, and most of November; these are the months for pushing the envelope. Now is the time to take every available opportunity to hit the water. Because, soon enough, winter will reclaim the fisheries we’ve pushed to the bottom of our ‘must-visit’ lists throughout the spring and summer.

In this article, Larkin Wilson discusses fly fishing western mountain reservoirs during the fall months using streamers. We’ll break down a lake’s hot zones you should be on the lookout for, how to target predatory trout feeding in those zones, and the gear you’ll need in your arsenal to increase your odds of fooling a stillwater monster this fall.

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When fishing rivers, finding trout is relatively straightforward. They hold in pools, pockets, riffles, and runs, watching and waiting for food to come to them. Stillwater trout do not share the same luxury. They are constantly on the move, for a dual purpose: to keep oxygenated water flowing over their gills and to find their next meal.

If we were to go into the minutia of stillwater ecosystems, this article would quickly devolve into a research paper. Stratified water layers, the effects of sunlight, habits of trout within lakes of different depths... stillwater fisheries are complex creatures. The more you learn about them, the better you’ll be able to understand the conditions you’re seeing out on the water. Similar to tailwaters at low flows, being able to analyze and adapt to the current conditions is imperative. If you’re really interested in the stillwater game, check out anglers like Brian Chan and Phil Rowley. These two boast a wealth of knowledge on the topic. Chan’s YouTube videos with the New Fly Fisher should be required educational materials for everyone that wants to dial in their lake fly fishing approach.

To avoid turning this article into a novel, let’s focus on the 3 major hot zones to focus on this fall:

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Weed Beds: As summer transitions into fall, the weed beds that trout have foraged around for food throughout the summer will begin to die off. Scuds, damselflies, callibaetis, dragonflies - these invertebrates make their homes in the weed beds, all feeding on the vegetation while using it for cover at the same time. Trout are not the only species of fish that feed around the weed beds. White suckers, yellow perch, and longnose suckers compete with trout for these food sources. Large trout looking to pack on calories before the long winter will hunt around the weed beds in order to pick off the suckers, perch, and smaller stocked trout.

Inlets: Similar to the weed beds, inlets fed by permanent or rainwater creeks provide the resident fish population of a lake with a consistent stream of new food sources. When the suckers, perch, and other baitfish push into coves to forage on the meals washing down into the lake, predatory trout and pike/muskie will follow.

Submerged Structure: Logs, boulders, giant concrete blocks, etc., like weed beds, provide trout with a place to hide. Large trout looking for a large meal like to ambush prey as it explores around the structure. When water clarity allows, be on the lookout for dark masses on the reservoir floor. Stripping a buoyant streamer with a sink tip fly line over the top of downed trees can be especially effective.

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In Colorado, stillwater trout have two prime streamer seasons: ice-off, during the spring, and in the fall, right before the lakes freeze for the winter.

When lakes and reservoirs thaw during the spring, trout are hungry and looking to reload on all the calories they missed out on during the winter. A similar process occurs when those same stillwater fisheries begin to cool off before freezing for the winter - trout are looking for calories ASAP. They’re almost similar to bears preparing for hibernation. They know they’re on the clock and have to move quickly. Remember: for the majority of the year, the big trout are quite vigilant, always on the lookout for potential predators. But during these 2 prime seasons, large stillwater trout will abandon their sense of security in pursuit of the almighty calorie.

For anglers, it’s just a matter of feeding the trout what they’re searching for. So if they’re looking to eat suckers, perch, and other baitfish to fatten up for winter, give them a hand! Fall is the time to break out your big trout streamers - thick, beefy flies 3”-8”+ in length. Sex Dungeons, Drunk & Disorderlies, Circus Peanuts, Knuckleheads, and Flugenzombies are only a handful of the productive baitfish imitations we recommend. At the end of this article you’ll find a detailed list of the streamers we’ve used to find success.

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When it comes to western stillwater fanatics, there is one universal belief: “Speak of the devil, and he shall appear.” Except, in this case, “devil” can be replaced by a 4-letter word that starts with a W and ends with an N and a D. And it’s not Wand, Wond, or Wend...

Out of respect for the other superstitious stillwater anglers, we won’t even include the W-word in this article. But while you can avoid saying it, it’s impossible to avoid it entirely. Combatting and conquering the dreaded W is the cost of entry for fly fishing lakes and reservoirs in western states like Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, etc. The quicker you acclimate to it, the more enjoyable your trips will be.

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Instead of lamenting a brutal breeze, use it to your advantage. The waves created will help you (and just as importantly, your fly line) stay hidden from wary trout cruising the shallows on bright, sunny days. The W can also help keep pesky gnats and mosquitoes out of your face.

Additionally, the W can help you absolutely bomb your casts with little effort. You’re not targeting permit in Belize or bonefish in the Bahamas. If you don’t want to huck air-resistant streamers into a stiff breeze, then don’t. Work your way around the reservoir until you’re in a position to cast with the W at your back, or blowing in from any angle between your 5 o’clock and 7 o’clock. Then, you can let out the amount of line you need, make a couple of false casts, and let the breeze carry your streamer as you lightly push forward on your double haul. When gusts are up in the 15mph - 20mph+ range, you don’t even have to worry about a double haul - just make one false cast and let the notorious W take your flies for a ride.

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In some tailwaters, it might behoove you to plant your feet a fish 1 run for hours. In stillwater fisheries, this is almost never the case. Especially not when you’re targeting predatory trout with big streamers. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is becoming robotic in your approach. Let’s make it clear: if you stand in the same spot, fishing the same area of a lake all day long, there’s a 99% chance you’re going to get skunked.

Keep moving -- both in your positioning and your retrieves -- top of mind at all times. It’s easy to zone out when you aren’t getting consistent eats. But if you aren’t conscious about your methods, it’s easy to waste a full day. Here are a couple of examples of ways to avoid the monotony of cast-retrieve-repeat lulling you to sleep.

  • Keep counts in your head to track your retrieve depth and speed.
  • Be conscious of how your fly line and streamer hits the water. Try to improve your cast every time.
  • Set a number of “good” casts you’ll throw with any particular streamer before changing flies. For example: after 15 casts with a Sex Dungeon, switch to a Mini Dragon Tail for 15 casts. Then switch to a D&D Deceiver for 15 casts, and on and on.

You get the idea - dynamic change is your ticket to stillwater success, but especially so when fishing streamers. Stay on the move constantly. Fish different water types at different times throughout the day and take notes on how the fish behave. Change up your streamers until you find the profile, size, and color that the resident predators are keying in on. Putting a trophy stillwater trout in the net is often the product of an arduous ‘test & learn’ process. But when you finally get one, you’ll feel like you really earned it - which earns one a rush of endorphins that can’t be adequately described.

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Fly Rod(s): 9’-10’, Fast to Medium-Fast Action 6-8 wt. If possible, carry 2 fly rods with you on your stillwater streamer missions.

Staff Picks:Sage X, Scott Centric, Winston Alpha+, Sage Igniter, TFO Axiom 2, Sage Payload, Redington Vice, Sage Sonic

Reel(s): Match to Rod Weight. Should have a disc drag system for managing fights with large trout. Semi-sealed or fully-sealed drag systems can be helpful for protecting against reservoir grime, but they’re not necessary. The fly rod and line are the most important aspects of your stillwater streamer outfit.

Staff Picks:Abel SDF, Ross Evolution LTX, Sage Spectrum LT, Orvis Hydros, Lamson Guru S, Redington Behemoth

Fly Line(s): Weight Forward 6-8 wt. with a float/sink rate best suited for the stillwater fishery you’re exploring. In shallow reservoirs like Antero, you can use a floating fly line or intermediate sink tip line and be fine 90% of the time. But at deep reservoirs like Twin Lakes, you’ll need an aggressive sink tip or full sinking fly line with a 3-7 inch per second (ips) sink rate just to get your streamers down. Many stillwater disciples will carry an arsenal of different fly lines with them just to adapt to any condition on hand. If you can really dial in your fly line selection, stillwater missions become significantly more enjoyable. Call us here at the shop if you need specific fly line recommendations; we geek out over this stuff.

Staff Picks: Scientific Anglers Amplitude Infinity (Floater), RIO Products StreamerTip (Sink Tip), Scientific Anglers Sonar Titan H/S2/S4 and I/S3/S5 (Full Sinking), RIO Products Predator F/H/I (Float/Sink), and Scientific Anglers Sonar Titan Sink Tip

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Group 1 | Small Streamers with a Faster Sink Rate: These small streamers will sink on their own, without the help of split shot, a Versileader, sink tip or full sinking fly lines. When fishing deep lakes, however, having a sinking fly line will still likely be necessary.

  • Baby Swim Coach (Olive and Gray)
  • Complex Twist Bugger (White, Black, and Olive)
  • Baby Gonga (White, Black, Rust, and Olive)
  • Barely Legal (White/Gray and Black/Gray)
  • Mini Peanut Envy (White, Black, Olive, and Brown/Tan)
  • Mini Sex Dungeon (Cream, Black/Purple, White, Black, and Olive)
  • Boogieman (White and Yellow)
  • Heisenberg (White, Baby Rainbow, and Wyoming Cowboy)

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Group 2 | Small Streamers with a Slower Sink Rate: These streamers will sink eventually, but are typically fished best with a VersiLeader, sink tip or full sinking fly line.

  • Dirty Hippy (Tan, Black, Baby Rainbow, and Platte)
  • Lunch Money (Tan and Craw Orange)
  • Home Invader OR Homeslice w/o weed guard (Purple/Black)
  • Mini Dragon Tail (White, Black, and Olive)
  • Sloppy Seconds, AKA Sloppy Joe’s (Purple)

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Group 3 | Large Streamers with a Faster Sink Rate: These large streamers will sink on their own, without the help of a Versileader, sink tip or full sinking fly lines. When fishing deep lakes, however, a sinking fly line will still likely be necessary.

  • Cheech Leech (Tan, Olive, and Halloween)
  • Sex Dungeon (Cream, White, Black, Craw Orange, and Olive)
  • Flugenzombie (Dirty Baitfish, Wyoming Cowboy, Cali 420)
  • Pearl Necklace (Yellow)
  • Mongrel Meat (Purple)
  • Mini Viking Midge (Chartreuse)
  • Viking Midge (Olive)
  • Silk Kitty (White)
  • Circus Peanut (White, Olive, and Black/Blood)

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Group 4 | Large Streamers with a Slower Sink Rate: Some of these beefy streamers will sink slowly, some not at all. These big flies are typically fished best with a VersiLeader, sink tip or full sinking fly line.

  • Mini D&D (White/Pearl and Orange/Olive)
  • Drunk & Disorderly (White/Pearl)
  • D&D Deceiver (White/Pink and Olive/Yellow)
  • T&A Bunker (Olive/White)
  • Triple T&A Bunker (Olive/White)
  • Double Dirty Hippy (Tan, Black, or Platte)
  • Mike’s Articulated Rocket (Black)
  • CJ’s Sluggo (Chartreuse/White)
  • Mini Sluggo (White)
  • Knucklehead (Olive/White and Cotton Candy)
  • Big Johnson (White/Blue and Brown/Olive)

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In conclusion, fall stillwater season can provide magical experiences for those willing to put in the work. Learning to fish with streamers can be a challenge by itself. Learning to fish big streamers in reservoirs and lakes can seem downright daunting. But that’s just a part of the process. To chase the big predatory trout you see plastered on the covers of fly fishing magazines, there’s a price to pay. You can find those trout in many western stillwater fisheries, but they’re not going to just surrender because you want to catch one. But if you’re willing to wake up early, battle the dreaded W, and constantly adapt to on-the-water situations, the payoff will make all those efforts worthwhile.

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If you have questions or want to learn more about stillwater streamer fishing, give us a call here at the shop at 303-794-1104. Like you, we’re students of the fly fishing game. And we’re always happy to learn alongside you.