Small for Fall

Small for Fall

by David Blair with images from Terry Johnson

This article was originally shared in the 2016 edition of the Alberta Fishing Guide Magazine’s digital issue. 

My favourite time of year to fish is fall: September through November. The worries of stressful water temperatures are gone. The water is generally low and clear. The fish are fat and as healthy as they get for the season. The rainbows are packing in the food before the colder temperatures hit. The brown trout feed aggressively before they start their spawn in the later part of the fall. The browns can also be as beautiful as they get!

Fishing can be a bit more technical as the fish are that much “wiser” from being fished to through the season. One thing that improves your catch rate is fishing small flies. Our “small” standards (#16-#20) on the Bow are nothing compared to what you have to go down to on some of the more heavily pressured rivers in the States (#20-#24), so we should consider ourselves lucky! This article focuses on select fall hatches and associated small fly techniques.

The Bugs:

Blue Winged Olive Mayflies (Baetis): These bugs are know by several names. When you hear someone talking, or see a fly pattern with the letters BWO, or the name Baetis, or simply “Olives” those are all referring to this group of Mayflies. Keep in mind there are several species within this group that vary in size (#16 – #22) and color (gray/olive or blue/olive.) They hatch in the spring and again in the fall. It seems in the fall the fish can be happier to eat the adults on the surface especially on a cloudy, cooler day when the hatch can be the strongest. The hatch can be into the tens of thousands.

 Some typical patterns to try for surface feeding fish are:

Dries: HiVis Parachute BWO, UV2 BWO Dun, UV2 Sparkle BWO Spinner, Parachute Adams, CDC BWO, Keller’s Peppermint Olive, Dunnigan’s BWO.

Emergers: Smoke Jumper, Snow Shoe Emerger, Klinkhammer Olive, Soft Hackle BWO, Trina’s Hi-Vis Sprout BWO.

Nymphs: Pheasant Tail, tungsten bead Pheasant Tail, Trina’s Bubble Back, Panty Dropper, UV2 Maynymphulator, Tung Stud Amber, Splitcase BWO, Crystal BWO, Evil Weevil

 Tricos: These mayflies typically finish in late September/early October and can be a frustrating-joy to fish. The adults are generally in the #18 to #24 range with a #20 being common. They are unique to fish as the “hatch” that generally gets the fish to the surface is the spinner fall after the bugs have mated. Males are dark brown to black and hatch at night and females are light olive to cream and hatch in the morning. Females typically only live as an adult for a few hours when they mate and die. You will see mating swarms or “smokes” in the morning which is a clue to watch for snouts in the slow eddies where the spent spinner bodies collect. The fish can eat as many of these spent bugs as they want because they don’t fly away! The hard part is putting your fly in the right spot. More on that later.

 Dries: Hi-Vis trico spinner, UV2 Sparkle Spinner, MFC Trico Thorax, MFC Trico Parachute

Nymphs: Black Copper John, Pheasant Tail, Tung Stud Black, Black Widow Weevil.

 Midges: (the family Chironomidae) The smallest of them all! #18 – holy crap can’t see that!! Lake anglers call these Chironomids and river guys call them Midges but they all fall in the same family. Lake ones are typically larger. These are extremely important as the water cools as it is the last hatch of the season and will continue on warm winter days.  Many times the fish are not eating individual bugs they are eating a mating cluster of several individual bugs.

From the website “Adult midges form mating swarms, and midges locked in amorous embrace often fall back to the water. Trout are not romantics and will eat these mating clusters…” This website is a massive wealth of information and pictures on all types of bugs and other fish food. Use it to help you become a better fly fisher.

Dries: Griffiths Gnat, Palomino Midge, Stillborn Midge, Klinkhammer Grizzly, Hi-Vis Parachute Midge, Parachute Adams.

Nymphs: Brassie, Tungsten BH Brassie, Red Devil, Zebra Midge, Red Copper John, Tungsten Zebra Midge, Rainy’s Mark-O-Midge

 Water Boatman: These bugs are one of the most important food sources through the entire fall fishing season. Here’s a look at the primary differences between Water Boatman and Backswimmers which can often be confused…

Water Boatman

  • swims “right side up”
  • smaller – general #14 to #18
  • black/brown/tan primary colours
  • eats primarily vegetation
  • important in the Bow River


  • swims upside down on its back hence the name
  • larger – generally #10 to #12
  • tan/green/light brown are primary colors
  • eats other bugs and can bite you
  • important in the lakes


Since water boatman are vegetarian there are swarms of them in the weeds on the Bow. They constantly have to swim to the surface to breath and grab a bubble of air to hold onto while swimming. This means they get swept into the current and are eaten by the trout all the time. In the fall they also fly to mate and migrate, and when they land back on the water they can land anywhere and are available to the fish.

 Flies: Waglers Water boatmen, Black Copper John, Prince Nymph, Peacock Boatman, Water Floatman, Justin’s Foam Boatman, Black Widow Weevil


 Dry Fly:

 Finding a fish or a pod of half a dozen or more eating on the surface in the fall is one of the awe-inspiring sites in fly fishing. Connecting with a beautiful rainbow or “buttered up” brown on a dry fly while site casting to it is one of the great accomplishments for an angler. Using a small dry fly on 4x or 5x tippet is critical but an accurate presentation of your fly is the most important thing. For fish tuned into tricos or blue winged olives there are generally so many stuck on the surface or in the film that the fish don’t have to move very far to eat.

What this means to the fly fisher is that your casting window is very narrow. We hear all the time in the shop people saying they cast 5 different flies to the fish and it didn’t eat one of them. Most likely the fish never saw the fly in its narrow feeding lane. As long as you are close in size and shape the actual pattern makes very little difference. You only have about a 6 to 8 inch wide by 2 foot long “lane.”. Basically think about putting the fly in the fishes mouth. Feed the fish and your success rate will rise dramatically.

 Sometimes a downstream presentation works the best on pods of fish so they see the fly first. Generally though for fish feeding on the edge, a standard upstream presentation will work. Just remember to have slack in your tippet (the nice S curves near your fly) and ensure the fly is drag free.

 Using a moderate or medium-to-soft action fly rod is useful for this type of fishing. When using 5x tippet especially you need a rod that can be a good shock absorber to handle the power of the Bow River fish. Regardless of your setup in the fall, expect your hooked-to-landed ratio to drop! The fish are at their most powerful and you will simply lose them on the small flies. This was very obvious last fall as the Bow River fish were like small salmon and simply bending out hooks due to their weight and how they use the current to fight you.

 Hopper Dropper:

 One of the most fun ways to fish a smaller nymph dropper is to put it behind a foam hopper style pattern. Yes you can get them on the hopper but we’re concentrating on the dropper for this article. A size 16 to 20 tungsten bead head nymph on 4x tippet tied to the bend of the hook of the hopper pattern anywhere from 16” to 36” is an absolute killer technique. There are many ways to set up a hopper dropper rig but simply tying to the bend of the hook is the fastest and easiest. You can use 2x or 3x to the hopper to help turn the rig over and minimize tangles.

 Concentrate this technique on the riffle water in the fall and you will be successful. Vary the length of the dropper depending on the type of water you are finding the fish feeding in.

 Standard Nymphing: A typical two fly nymph rig works well. Tie the small fly off of a san juan worm or a larger prince nymph and you’re set. Just remember that you will be using lighter tippet, 4x typically, due to the smaller size of the fly.

 Streamer Dropper: This may be a new technique to some people, but Bow river anglers have been using it for years. It is the same idea as the hopper-dropper but with a streamer as your top fly. Generally the fly we put behind the streamer (clinch knot to the bend of the hook) is a water boatman pattern in a 14 or 16 on 3x tippet. A very successful fly set up is a Clouser minnow with a prince nymph or some other water boatman pattern behind it.

 Enjoy the fall fishing and truly appreciate the very special fish we have here on the Bow River. The fall and small flies continues to highlight what an amazing river we have.

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