Painting of a Lady Fly Fishing

Avoiding Fall Follies and Failures by Jim Casada

Fall has long rated at the top of my list when it comes to favorite times to be astream in the South, and I’ll take late October and November over any time of the year when it comes to the likelihood of enjoying the thrill associated with catching a big brown.  As the dog days of late summer give way to shorter days and cooler nights, magical things happen in the world of the trout.  Browns, specks, and bows all somehow instinctively sense that lean times lie not far distant, and they feed eagerly in anticipation of coming winter.  Also, for browns and natives, the spawning urge and all that goes with it comes into play.

That means hooked jaws on big male browns, beautiful color on mountain trout (the description old-timers used for specks), and the upstream movement associated with reproduction.  The latter consideration is especially important with brown trout, because they are readily visible (and therefore more vulnerable to anglers) in a way which contrasts sharply with their normally reclusive behavior.  Even in the middle of an Indian summer day you will frequently spot browns on the move, and as they venture into shallower water and tributaries, the fish become much easier to reach in terms of presenting a fly.

On top of all this, the weather tends to be wonderful.  Low humidity, pleasantly warm (but not hot) days, and the fact that the best fishing comes around noon and shortly afterward, makes fall a fishing time offering gentleman’s hours and gentlemen’s conditions.  Yet not all is right and bright in the world of autumn trout fishing in the Smokies, for the season presents some special problems which can be perplexing or downright irritating unless you know how to avoid them.


Fall fishing normally means streams at their lowest level of flow for the entire year.  This results in trout becoming exceptionally spooky, because they rightly feel especially threatened in situations where there is little depth or strong currents to hide their presence.  Indeed, one of the most commonly encountered situations in the fall is to approach the lower end of a long, still pool only to see dark torpedo shapes leaving wakes as they flee.  Similarly, portions of the stream which normally feature adequate holding depth become nothing more than a trickle running over rocks.   Even where it is deeper you frequently find that what was an appreciable current back in June has become almost dead water.  Yet where there is a will to solve a trout fishing problem there is almost always a way, and certainly you can address situations of this sort effectively by adopting the proper techniques.

The simplest part of the solution, although it is one which severely limits the amount of fishable water in many streams, is to concentrate your efforts exclusively on the isolated spots where there is good current flow and decent depth.  This normally will be the head of larger pools or long runs or, in more rugged terrain, the uppermost section of plunge pools.  There will be fish in such locations, there always are, and you can get by with more in terms of sloppy casts or careless approaches in this fast water.  Also, if the water is still quite warm, fish may concentrate on such spots as they seek a bit of added oxygenation.

Generally speaking though, you will pass by and spook a lot of fish by concentrating exclusively on fast-moving sections of a stream.  Brown trout in particular like to rest in still water during their spawning migrations, and a delicately presented fly in even the calmest portion of the pool can often bring strikes.  Likewise, larger specks seem partial to still water.  Most significant though is the fact that driving fish out of still water lies has great potential to scare those holding in faster water.

In short, what I am advocating is approaching ALL water which could possibly hold trout with great care.  That means doing a lot of stalking; indulging in more than a normal amount of creeping, crouching, and crawling; paying special attention to your clothing (it should be camouflage or earth tones); and in general become a predatory angler.  Doing so not only involves cautious approaches; it also demands special equipment and casting techniques.

When it comes to equipment, long, gossamer-like leaders are a must.  Where a 7 to 9-foot leader might serve you perfectly well in the spring, you will be better off with one in the 12 to 16 foot range in the fall.  Moreover, it should taper down to 6X or 7X, because crystal-clear, slow-moving water provides trout ample time to study your fly and refuse anything which looks suspicious.  Speaking of flies, as a rule they too should be smaller.  Put away your size 12s and 14s and drop down to 16s, 18s, or even 20s.  The one exception I would make to this general rule involves terrestrial patterns.  A big grasshopper pattern or a beetle on a size 12 or 14 hook may be just the ticket to get a big trout’s attention.

Your approach to casting also deserves some careful consideration.  A longer rod, one which lets you roll cast for appreciable distances, is a good idea.  A longer rod will also make it a bit easier to handle lengthy leaders.  You should roll cast whenever possible, because the more you wave a stick or false cast a line above the pool, the greater the likelihood of scaring trout.  Another critical matter, and one which is commonly overlooked, is the degree to which you can soften the impact of your cast by having most or all of the line land on rocks.  In small streams, in particular, it is often possible to position yourself and engineer the cast so that nothing but the leader touches the water.  This presents some additional problems in terms of mending line, getting just the presentation and float you want, and the like, but rest assured it will result in you scaring fewer fish.

The breathtaking joys of turning leaves colored with an array of gold, scarlet, magenta, and bronze make any fall day on the water an appealing one.  However, once those leaves begin to fall they can present major problems.  When one cast after another results in leaf-fouled flies or line, the frustration factor can creep upward quite rapidly.  Yet falling leaves are a fishing fact of life come autumn, and the savvy angler accepts them as such even as he takes steps to mitigate the problems they present.

For starters, when leaves are on the water in great numbers, that’s only a few days each year, you must of necessity either confine your casts almost exclusively to water moving fast enough to flush out the leaves or be willing to do a lot of clean-up work.  Most of the time though, a bit of study and common sense will enable you to avoid the majority of leaf-induced misery.  For example, brown trout love to hold in eddies, and those miniature whirlpools and backwaters invariably become a temporary home for large number of leaves.  The answer though, is simple.  Make a cast which places your fly quite close to (but not in) the masses of leaves.  In truth, the leaves actually help you, because rest assured that the trout will be watching the open water at the periphery of the leaves for food in much the same way a big bass hangs out at the edge of a weed bed.

Another thing well worth considering is the difference between dry fly fishing and using a streamer or nymph when leaves clutter the water.  Even a nymph fished dead drift, and certainly a streamer stripped across the current, are much more likely to result in tangles with leaves than is a dry fly.  Sure, I realize that roughly 80 percent of a trout’s diet is eaten beneath the surface, but this is a time when relying primarily on the dry fly is eminently sensible.  Along with the joy of a visible strike you avoid, at least in part, the mess leaves can make.  To my way of thinking, the matter of leaves is sort of like the old adage about a bad day’s fishing being better than a good day in the office or at home.  I’ll deal with leaves the best way possible and realize that while doing so there’s always the chance, probably the best one of the entire year, of hooking and holding a giant of the trout tribe.
EDITOR’S NOTE:  Jim Casada is a son of the Smokies and a full-time writer.  His most recent book is Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park:  An Insider’s Guide to a Pursuit of Passion.  To learn more about this book or his other activities, or to sign up to receive his free monthly e-newsletter, visit his web site at

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