Fly Fishers' Republic

Fall Trout & the Generalists

October 24, 2006

by Raif Killips

Wild brown trout

Fall Trout & the Generalists, sounds like a band emanating from 60′s psychedelia, but actually, I’m getting at something a little more profane than that, or do I mean less!?

Autumn is a time of mixed blessings. Seasonal rainfall sets off runs of salmon and sea trout, and wherever you are when the rivers aren’t blown out, the fishing can be pretty fine. Atlantic Salmon, Steelhead, Kings, they’re all on the move. But for the hunter of resident quarry, like brown, brook, and rainbow trout, these are precarious times. Insect hatches are more often than not, sparse and mixed. If you’re lucky you’ll hit an October Caddis hatch or maybe a Blue-winged Olive hatch, count your lucky stars if you do. Odds are you’ll get the mixed bag.

On my home waters right now, there are what can only be described as ‘bits and bobs.’ A few pale duns, one or two dark brown little numbers, a few silver horn sedge, the occasional crane fly, midges and smaller fare. I’d call that a real mixed bag if ever there was one. Such is life in the shoulder season. Of course, below the surface the variety of nymphs and larvae are all still present, they’re just not making a bid for the surface.

To me this is the time when the great generalist comes into their own. Sure, you can do the match the hatch thing, but first you gotta find a hatch to match, and if you wait for that, you’ll be missing out on most of the fun. And, especially where a closed season is bearing down fast, that’s no way to go. So, instead of putting up your No-hackle Mayfly and waiting for the hatch, reach for an Adams, Klinkhamer, Ginger Quill, Pheasant-Tail, or maybe a Gold-Ribbed-Hares-Ear. Considering what’s likely on the fishes’ menu, I think you’ll find these effective patterns to start with. Call them the go-to-flies of the moment.

Bearing in mind our quarry’s behavior, you’ll see this makes good sense. At varying times of year two things drive the trout – food and reproduction. In October, either could drive the fish. When the fish are feeding, they will take on as much food as possible. So, conditions permitting, they’ll consume as much as they can manage. They may become torpid in the most intense cold, heavy flood, or when the water becomes warm and low in oxygen; but the rest of the time they’ll stuff themselves!

So it follows that as hatches become less extensive and the mix of foodstuff in the drift alters, the fish must by definition start picking off several different food sources to make up the volume of food. That’s where the generalists come into their own.

Down on my beloved Derwent, I employ a few staple techniques using either a single fly, or teams of two and three. For general subsurface fishing, I will use the trusty PT or GRHE nymphs with a gold beadhead. I habitually fish these at the end of a 12 ft tapered leader fishing a dead drift, a rising nymph, and a wet-fly swing. With a keen eye on the tip of my floating line I get my share of fish. Between you and me, I’m thinking of trying out straight mono leaders next year, after the wisdom of our writers, Tim Holschlag and Ian James. I’ve always been a bit of a “presentationalist” but I’ll risk a few poor turnovers in the name of alternative thinking. Besides if things work out that’s a whole lot less knots to tie!

If you doubt the wisdom in my choice of fly, consider that fish are now taking nymphs not so frequently hatching, but otherwise holding in cover or involuntarily caught in the drift. The variety may be great, but as a rule, colouration of aquatic insects in their larval form is pretty similar in any given waterway. Other forage, like freshwater shrimp and hog lice are similar in colour too. We’re talking shades of brown and olive in the main part, and sizes from a few millimeters to a couple of centimeters. Except where you know you have a predominance of a species like Large Stonefly, you will find a GRHE or a PT will represent pretty well what’s on the fishes menu. All you need do is carry maybe a few variations of size and shade, and that will just about cover it.

Another technique is to use a beadhead on the point, and with a dropper 4 or 5 feet above, present a soft hackle pattern. Fished using a similar technique to that used for the single fly, this setup often takes fish that are feeding higher in the water column. If all the takes come to the dropper be mindful of changing to fish just a single fly cast, using the successful pattern. Fished that way you could end up fishing too shallow and takes will actually reduce. Tying on a weighted spider can work but you’ll have a pattern with a different action. In the end the old adage, “if it aint broke don’t fix it” comes to mind – it can pay to stay with the two fly rig.

Two other extremes remain. One is to fish dry flies, like GRHEs, PTs, Adams, Klinkhamers, and Ginger Quills, usually in small sizes, 16s down to 20s. These are best fished on a regular tapered leader of up to 14ft, and having a suitable tippet – that’s around 6X or 3lb as an average, going lighter if you’re on 20s. You could fish a small nymph on a dropper off the dry, but I’m not a big fan of the method. Maybe it’s the drag it can cause in the dry fly that puts me off. All the same, the New Zealand dropper does have its moments.

Going the other way, you have the Czech nymph style of fishing. This is a technique I use sometimes and very effective it can be. Perhaps not the most gracious when it comes to casting – or should I call it lobbing – but it’s a fantastic way to get the nymphs consistently in the feeding zone when the fish are holding hard on the bottom. Made easier with a long rod relative to the size of water, you fish three heavy nymph patterns, on a short line. You cast, neigh, swing the flies out up stream of a run, and track them with the rod tip staying in firm contact with the flies at all times. If the drift hesitates, or the line moves out of step, or you so much as ‘sense’ something is there, lift the rod tip. Czech nymphing is especially effective in high water, or fast and deep water, when other techniques just don’t hold the flies close enough to the bottom.

So, those are the methods, and that’s the reasoning for being a generalist. All you need is a box of general representational patterns. Coupled with a roaming approach and a prospecting eye, you’re sure to land a few fish.

In the final call, let it not be said that I’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water! I always carry a few boxes of hatch specific patterns, so with that prospecting eye, I’ll switch to match the hatch if opportunity knocks!


In England, river fishing for non-migratory trout ends on the 7th October, but in many places the fun continues. Our colleagues in many parts of the USA are still stringing up their rods, with a much later season end on the cards. But for our friends on the southern half of the globe, everything is just getting started. I guess you folks might read this in June!?