A football coach, an author and a “riverkeeper” walk into a fly shop one autumn afternoon. What do they walk out with?
If you’re waiting for a punch line, relax; fall fly fishing is no joke to these folks.
The football coach is Bobby Hauck, the native of Big Timber and former Montana Griz mentor who now heads up the UNLV program. The author is John Maclean, son of Norman Maclean of “A River Runs Through It” fame. The riverkeeper is Jerry O’Connell, who heads the nonprofit Big Blackfoot Riverkeeper organization.
The common denominator is the October caddis, the one fly all three can’t fish without each fall.
“Hands down, my go-to pattern in September and October is the October caddis,” said O’Connell, a native of New England who first saw the Blackfoot while hitchhiking through Montana in 1986. “There are both piscatorial and pragmatic reasons for this:
“It’s a big, easy-to-see dry fly that trout are usually keying on and gobbling with abandon this time of year. It’s an easy fly to tie, partly because it’s big and partly because a sloppy, imprecise tie job works even better than a fancy, time-consuming replication. My grasshopper patterns, normally tattered from heavy use during the summer, look enough like an October caddis to extend the useful life of these nearly spent raggedy flies.”
We asked a sampling of well-known Montana fly anglers a simple question: If you could choose just one fly pattern to use in the fall, what would it be and why? We also asked them their favorite place to use the fly, although many played that rather close to the vest.
Here are their responses:
Bobby Hauck, UNLV head football coach.
We might have exaggerated a little when we said a football coach walks into a fly shop in September. There’s rarely time for that.
Even as a child, Hauck had to squeeze in time to fish in the fall. When his father, the football coach of the Big Timber Sheepherders, would drive to Absarokee to scout the Huskies, Hauck would take along his fly rod and sneak in some fishing in the Stillwater River. He grew up a block away from the Boulder and less than a mile from the Yellowstone.
“I don’t get enough of that anymore,” Hauck said from Ely, Nev., where the Rebels hold their fall camp at 6,500 feet in order to beat the heat of Las Vegas. “On the rare occasion that I get to fish in the fall, I love the October caddis. A size 12 orange stimulator is good and I always drop a size 14 prince nymph off of it.”
Daryl Gadbow, retired outdoor writer for the Missoulian.
Gadbow knows the waters of western Montana – both still and moving – better than anyone I know and has helped guide me to the best places for 20-plus years. His knowledge has been invaluable to me.
And he’s a meticulous record-keeper. Gadbow checked his fishing logs as far back as 2005 to see what fly has worked the best for him in the fall.
“My first thought … was a hopper,” Gadbow said. “But I decided to check my fishing logs to see what patterns actually have worked best for me in September and October.
“Reviewing logs back to 2005, my first impression was confirmed.”
Gadbow says the majority of his fishing has been on the lower Bitterroot and lower Clark Fork rivers, just above and just below Missoula, respectively.
“Mahogany duns and baetis mayflies certainly can be fun in the fall, but also temperamental,” he says. “And I like the pure adrenalin rush of fishing streamers, and they can be deadly throughout the fall, especially for really big fish.
“But my most consistently productive pattern in the fall – when you include both September and October – has been a hopper, and within that category, my choice for a single best pattern is a parachute hopper.”
Gadbow likes the parachute pattern for its “clean silhouette.”
“I find even picky fish will often accept it after a close inspection,” he said. “A subtle twitch imparted to the fly at a crucial moment in the drift sometimes seals the deal.
“A bonus of using a parachute hopper is that trout will take it for other fall insects. It’s a good imitation of a large golden stonefly. In an orange body color, it easily passes for an October caddis. In a smallish size 10 and yellow body, it’s a very effective Hecuba mayfly, which trout find a particularly savory treat on a brisk, sunny fall day.”
John Maclean, author and journalist.
Maclean, as already mentioned, is of the October caddis school.
“For daytime fishing, I start with a large orange-red stimulator, which is a good imitation of an October caddis but which also does what its name implies, that is, it stimulates,” Maclean said. “The mayfly and spring and summer caddis hatches are pretty well shot and the fish are bored with them. If there’s bright sunshine, I drop a nymph off the stimulator, from a large prince nymph to a tiny copper john, depending on the water. The color of the stimulator depends on what you see in the air, including grasshoppers, which the stimulator roughly imitates. Some years the dominant color is more orange, some years more red.”
And, Maclean says, allow the fly to swing below you while half submerged.
“A half sunk fly can be very effective with this and many other dry fly patterns.”
Maclean qualifies his choice of flies, adding a No. 14 parachute Adams or a similarly sized Royal Coachman for evening fishing.
“There’s a reason those are two of the most popular dry flies in history – they work,” Maclean said.
All things being equal, Maclean would rather spend his days fishing the Big Blackfoot, the river his father immortalized.
“These days my favorite haunt, the Big Blackfoot, has become so overrun by boaters that it’s unpleasant to fish there a lot of the time,” he said. “I get around this, to a degree, by knowing places where the boaters must be long gone by dusk if they want to make their takeouts. That restricts fishing time to late afternoon and evening, which is a great pity and loss to a fisherman such as myself who believes that a sense of solitude is a necessary part of the experience. As a result, I’ve been looking for fishing spots elsewhere than the Blackfoot in the last several years and have found several, though for reasons I hope are obvious I am unwilling to share.”
Jim Cox, co-owner of the Kingfisher fly shop in Missoula.
Now for something completely different: Cox prefers a sub-surface offering.
“For me – and just me and not a recipe for the happiness of the general public – I would choose an olive crystal bugger with gold dumbbell eyes,” Cox said. “As you know, I enjoy the three-dimensional aspect of streamer fishing. During fall, the sun is lower in the sky, which makes fish feel safer moving. Fish also tend to be putting on the fat at that time of year and also become more territorial … so it’s easier to target prime fish in the lower water ideal areas.
“Streamers produce psycho hits and huge fish. What’s not to like about that?”
If you pressed Cox – maybe threaten to take away his cigars – to fish on the surface, he’d choose a Quigley cripple in a size to match the hatch.
“Fall mayflies are dark by design to absorb heat,” Cox said. “Fall is mayfly central and even picky pods that reject a parachute Adams or a comparadun imitating the same thing will generally gobble a cripple.”
Doug Swisher, fly-fishing author and innovative fly tier.
Swisher and co-author Carl Richards wrote the seminal treatise on matching the hatch: “Selective Trout.”
So Swisher would probably choose some sort of no-hackle mayfly or perhaps an emerger. Nope.
“It would be a Georgie longlegs,” Swisher said of a streamer he developed. “I like it on lakes like Georgetown and streams like the Missouri. It’s probably best all-around streamer I ever used.”
There is no single technique that always works with the Georgie longlegs, or any other streamer for that matter.
“A good fisherman tries a whole bunch of techniques – fast, slow, wiggle wiggle, or the dance,” Swisher said from his home in Corvallis. “Each streamer on a certain day has a way you should fish it. I try every technique you can think of and find one that works and stick with it. The long, speckled rubber legs really work in the current; it’s just the action. I have some dubbing that I developed that has pieces of rubber in it and it vibrates. I fished Georgetown the other day and it was the only thing that worked.”
Jerry O’Connell, Big Blackfoot Riverkeeper Inc.
O’Connell lists more reasons for his love of the October caddis.
“The October caddis behaves like an enraged orange butterfly, flitting erratically over the water, landing in it and buzzing around frantically on the surface,” O’Connell said. “For a dry-fly fisherman like myself, that means you don’t have to worry about precise presentations and drag-free drifts. Plop it down hard, let it drag and swing, jiggle it now and then (intentionally or otherwise). However you do it, you can be sure an October caddis has already done it and been eaten for its work.”
And as you might expect, a Big Blackfoot River tributary is the place O’Connell most likes to cast his pattern.
“It has some big, fat post-spawn trout that like to look up for snacks,” he said. “Of course, that time of year the water is gin clear and the vibrant colors of the snowberries, alders, willows and redosier dogwoods turn any reach of the Blackfoot I happen to be fishing into my latest favorite spot – until the next time I fish a different reach. I love this place!”