Fall Brookies: The Last Dance

Dan Donarski is back with tips on how to make the most of the last few weeks of trout fishing season.

All good things must come to an end, and so it is with the inland trout season. Ending at the end of this month – that’s less than two weeks – it speaks of autumn and I cry rivers. (OK, yes, there are some streams that stay open year-round, however, most do close.) There is something about the pull of water on my legs while wading some small stream, or big river for that matter, that seems so, well, spiritual.

I don’t like this closing. I don’t like it at all. Make me king and I’d keep the season open through October. In my kingdom there would be a creel limit of two during October with only one above 14. There would be an artificial only rule, and barbless hooks, too.

That way I figure, and it’s good to figure when you’re the king, the trout won’t be unduly harmed. The smaller creel limit allows a meal or two, nothing more. The artificial only rule would keep the vast majority from swallowing the hook too deep for a safe release. Same goes with the barbless part, it just makes them easier to release.

Why would we need special rules? In the fall, the brookies are getting ready to spawn. If you know where to look you might find a pod of males hanging around a certain piece of gravel the size of a single stall garage all guarding the gravel as if their lives depended on it. All waiting for the female(s) to show up and get on with the dance. (Not that I know of such a place but I bet if you drove about two and a half hours west and south from my house and hung around a certain river and its tributaries you’d find such a place. With some help.)

But, I’m not the king, nor will I ever be, which is something you all should be very thankful for.

Be that as it may, fall trout fishing is a special time. By knowing where to look, and when, and knowing what to toss, and when, you may just find that nothing compares to the joys of fall trout fishing.

Brookies are already getting into their Saturday night dance finery. The males are developing that hooked jaw, their red spots are practically aglow and most, if not all, have that brilliant blue halo. The pectoral fins are as orange as a Halloween pumpkin and edged with the blackness of night and the white of fresh fallen snow.

The females are heavy in the belly with eggs and the promises of seasons to come – if and when they spawn successfully and the young aren’t eaten by any variety of creatures. Most will be but those few, those special few that survive, are the distant lights at the end of the tunnel of winter.

Fall brings the last catch to snatch a brook trout

Come September, in most years, the brookies will have already searched out the cooler waters of the tributaries in an attempt to escape the warmer main river. This year that is particularly true with all the heat we’ve had. The brookies, or at least the majority of them, are out of the main rivers and in the smaller, cooler tribs. It’s time to search for that washed gravel on these smaller streams.

Gravel that is clean and shining bright. Gravel that has a good current continually washing over it carrying highly oxygenated water. Gravel that will be a perfect place for the eggs to mature and hatch. And below the gravel there will be a pool of sorts with cover for the fry and soon-to-be fingerling trout. Cover from predators and food is what these small fish will need.

Finding these gravel areas is key to the September trout bite. While you will find fish in other areas it is the gravel that has become the magnet.

If you are a fly angler this is a high time for you. The hoppers will still be hopping into the water on the teeth of a wind and the brookies will be looking up. The white flies will be hatching and the fish will be feeding on these as well. If you like streamers then throw something big and gaudy, full of the colors of autumn like the red and orange Micky Finn and be prepared for a jolting strike.

Spin anglers will be well served with a variety of spinners in the No. 0 and No. 1 size. While I think bronze, copper and gold are the top three choices anywhere in the U.P. (The tannin-stained water is the reason here) just about any color will do. The fish are aggressive, they will attack anything come by their particular piece of gravel.

That doesn’t mean they are stupid or impervious to disturbance. You’ll still need to approach cautiously; you’ll still need to make a good cast. Once you scare them off the gravel there’s a good chance they will be put down for a good long while.

The Au Sable River in fall

These gravel areas aren’t all that easy to find so be prepared to do some walking. Look at the outside edges of the bends. Another good place to explore is just downstream from any swifter than normal water. The key to both is the speed of the water as it whips around the corner or through a rapids or riffle. The speed will wash most debris off the gravel where the current begins to diminish and just downstream from this gravel you’ll normally find those nursery pools that are also needed.

Besides the color of the fish, and the aggressiveness of the fish there are two other reasons why the tail end of the season is a favorite. The woods are now getting that symphony of color signaling autumn’s arrival. The bugs are not so bad at all, except maybe on particularly warm mornings.

(OK, quit asking, I give. Here are some clues to find these magic waters. Be mindful that I am breaking the number one rule of a trout bum and will forever be chastised. In the U.P., look at the Presque Isle above M-28. The branches of the Ontonagon around Watersmeet. Look at the tribs to the Indian and Little Indian near Manistique, and throw in Stutts and Driggs for good measure, too. In the Lower Peninsula look at the Sturgeon above Gaylord, the Pigeon and Black west of Onaway, the branches to the Au Sable near Grayling.)

Dan Donarski is an award-winning journalist/photographer and author. He specializes in the outdoors and adventure travel. When he’s not out and about he lays his head in Sault Ste. Marie.

  • Erik

    I honestly know the feeling, but I get excited around this time of year. One fishery may close but others start to get hot! For me, nothing beats late fall stealhead on the Au Sable! Something about a nine pound fish jumping four feet out of the water like a rocket gets my heart pounding and it gets better every time like its my first all over again. I hope you get to enjoy fall fishing as much as I will get to. Good luck and tight knots hope to see you on the river!!!