The gray, flat light gave Colorado’s Fryingpan River the color of polished steel, reflecting yellow in its quiet places from golden aspens along the canyon walls. The quiet places held trout, too, and the rings and ripples of their rise forms came more and more often as I watched. I climbed a small bankside bluff to better look down into the river, hoping to spot a fish that looked catchable.
There in a back eddy along the bank were the tan shapes of a few small brown trout cruising slowly and sipping little bluewing olive mayflies. It was so cold that the newly emerged little bugs had difficulty gathering enough warmth to fly-and so their numbers on the surface were increasing.
There was a bigger shape, too, the dark emerald-green back of a big rainbow that started tipping and sipping at the edge of the faster water while I watched. That was temptation enough. I scrabbled downstream over a brush-covered bank to get into casting position.
Once there, I scanned my fly box for just the right imitation to tie on, a selection process made more difficult by the sheer numbers of bugs on the water. Trout confronted with such a vast menu will often accept only the choicest bits. At such times an emerger is often a better choice than a standard dry fly, so I tied a size 20 RS2 Olive Emerger to a 7X tippet and made a short cast to the top of the upstream pocket. I couldn’t pick out my low-floating fly from among the dozens of naturals on the water. But there was a quick dimple at the surface, and taking a chance, I raised the rod in a gentle strike. There was a sudden weight and a throbbing rod. By dumb good luck I had hooked the big rainbow.
I would like to say the fish thrashed wildly, throwing spray against the bank, and then tailwalked across the river. Big rainbows do get delightfully crazy like that sometimes. But the fish did none of those things. Instead it swam slowly around the pocket a few times, shaking its head against my gentle rod pressure. Then it came to rest against my thighs, held in place by the current. I slipped the little hook free and watched as the trout swam slowly upstream along the shoreline rocks.
By now my hands were red and cold beyond all function. There was a Thermos of hot coffee in the car, and I wrapped my half-frozen fingers around a steaming cup. It was still snowing gently. A pair of water ouzels dipped and darted along the edge of a riffle in front of the car as I watched, then flew across the river when I stepped too close. It seemed cold and late for trout fishing, but that’s the perversity of autumn olives.
** A Nationwide Hatch**
Fall hatches of little bluewing olive mayflies (Baetis, for the most part) are ubiquitous on trout rivers nationwide. They are the last major hatch of the season and in my part of northern New England sometimes last until mid-October. The peak month is usually September, a time when I’ve found great fishing during olive hatches from Maine and Michigan to Montana and California.
The good news is that many sportsmen have racked their rods by this time and turned to upland bird or deer hunting. Rivers in general are less crowded. The bad news is that trout at this time can be incredibly persnickety. Waters are generally low and clear-thus inevitably harder to fish-and the trout themselves have seen a whole summer’s worth of fly patterns cast by the tens of thousands. They are often highly educated and maddeningly selective.
The flies themselves tend to be a midafternoon hatch; cloudy intervals, a misting rain, or even an overcast sky with light snow produces the most activity. These late-hatching insects tend to be small-usually sizes 18 or 20. By late fall, they are even smaller, and I have occasionally been forced to use minuscule size 24s. As if that weren’t trouble enough, finding the right fly pattern can be very frustrating.
**Successful Fly Patterns
Once I had special fly boxes filled with nothing but olive imitations in dozens of different styles. Finding a just-right imitation became an obsession. I’ve finally decided there isn’t one. Just about anything will work sometimes. Nothing works all the time.
In the last couple of years I’ve settled on four fly patterns, one of which will almost always work during a hatch of little bluewing olives. Exactly which of the four will work seems to change not only from day to day but also during a single afternoon. These are a Pheasant-Tail Nymph, an RS2 Emerger, a CDC Olive Emerger, and an olive-bodied spinner-all in sizes 18 through 24.
All are now standard patterns in most fly shops, though you might have to special-order the smallest sizes. The nymph and the spinner I use least often; I most commonly switch back and forth between the RS2 and the CDC emergers. The trout let me know which to use.
Two slightly different emergers may seem like overkill, but sometimes the trout respond to one or the other but not both. The CDC version is a little higher floating and more imitative of a mayfly at close-to-full emergence. So they are not the same fly, though similar in function.
When all else fails, I try the little spent-wing spinner. It’s important that these be sparsely tied. If the poly-yarn wings on your commercial version seem thick, use scissors at streamside to trim their thickness (not length) by about half. During an afternoon of fishing this hatch, you’ll often find the need to switch flies among the four a couple of times before getting a particular fish to take. It’s a process you’ll often repeat as you work from one fish to the next.
I once went through all four changes, working a fish on New York’s Ausable. It was at the upstream flats near the Olympic ski jumps, on a still October afternoon. There was finally a small sucking rise where my spinner drifted. The rod came up and nothing moved. It was as if I had hooked a log.
I pulled a little harder, and the “log” shook its head a few times and then turned downstream. No screaming reel this time, just a slow inexorable force that clicked-clicked line far down the pool. Then the line went slack, and my heart seemed to stop. The fish was gone. But it’s still that fish that I remember most, especially when casting in the olive afternoons of autumn.