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Exploring Fall Tenkara Fishing in the Northern Rockies

Exploring Fall Tenkara Fishing in the Northern Rockies

Fall is a beautiful time of year in the northern Rockies, but for me, it’s always been a little overrated in terms of fishing. Yes, it can be a great time to target big browns and colorful brook trout, and it’s just an incredibly beautiful time of the year to be outdoors here. The downside is that the prettiest, bright, sunny days have produced challenging fishing for me. Sunday, Mary and I were faced with one of those gorgeous days when we really wanted to get out and enjoy some of the last bluebird weather before the snow fell but didn’t want to drive too far. We decided to head to our favorite local creek and enjoy the day regardless of the quality of the fishing.

The Joy of Fishing in Serene Settings

It was truly gorgeous out. The sun was shining, and the temperature was perfect. We just needed the fish to bite. Our first stop was in a long meadow run of the creek. This stretch had been very productive for us in the past and was always pleasant to fish. Very few trees to snag your flies on the backcast and some nice, well-defined pools.

Our Tenkara Fishing Setup

We decided to fish the Sato with a 12-foot 3.5-level line. Attached to that were about 4 feet of 5x tippet and an Ishigaki-style kebari. That’s our normal setup for this creek. Our first casts were ignored. Finally, we reached the top of a pool, and Mary had a strike. A few casts later, a small fish came to hand.

Adapting to the Presence of Other Anglers

As we started to head up the creek, we realized that two other anglers were upstream of us. Rather than crowd them, we decided to head to a different stretch of the creek. It has plenty of access and plenty of options. 

As we drove further up the canyon, we saw that probably our most productive stretch was open. We were surprised to see this on such a lovely weekend day (it’s not just our favorite spot), but we were quick to take advantage. The best pools through this stretch are a bit of a walk downstream from the parking spot, so we headed down. We often like to do this: walk down the stream and then fish our way back to the access point. This is a great strategy so long as you can move downstream without spooking fish.

The Strategy of “One-Rodding”

We finally stopped at the bottom pool in the chain. Rather than both of us trying to fish at the same time, Mary and I often take turns fishing. My friend Fran refers to this as “one-rodding” it. It’s usually easier for us than trying to leapfrog each other all day without spooking the other person’s water. Mary was up first and started to cast her fly into the edges and then the heart of the pool. It’s great-looking water and shady, which should have been in our favor as it was pretty bright out. Unfortunately, no fish were interested in the barely sunk wet fly. We decided to try a black Copper John. It’s a great generic weighted nymph if you want to get relatively deep without adding extra weight. A few casts later, we did catch a small fish on it, but the fishing was pretty slow.

Observing and Adapting to Fish Behavior

We moved up to the next pool and actually saw a nice fish holding in the middle of the stream. Mary made some casts to it. That fish didn’t eat, but another we didn’t see took the fly about a foot away from it. It wasn’t as big as the fish we were casting, but it was a nice rainbow.

Of course, catching that fish spooked the one we’d been watching, and no other fish decided to bite, so we walked up to the next pool. This pool is more shallow, so the weighted fly didn’t seem to be needed. We went back to our preferred kebari, and I took my turn to cast. I was a little worried the bite would stay slow. There were quite a few active insects on the water, but no fish rose. That’s an oddity on this stream. Normally, if there’s anything to eat, the fish jump on it. Luckily, a smaller fish did eat my fly, so Mary was back up to bat. A few casts later, she had another rainbow nicer than the one she landed earlier and probably a little bigger than the one we had seen in the previous pool.

Exploring Different Fishing Techniques

This seemed to be the end of our action in the chain of pools we liked so well. We decided to walk back to the car, but Mary wanted to fish some flats on the way out. I’ve caught fish out of them before, but not many, and I wasn’t super excited to fish them. Mary suggested that the light on the water there might have the fish more active, contrary to what I normally think about bright days in the fall. It turns out she was right. It was my turn, and a few casts later, I was rewarded with a plump brook trout, which is my favorite small stream fish to catch this time of year. Mary bought me a new camera for my birthday in August that’s rated to take pictures underwater, so I decided to play with it. Underwater fish pictures rarely come out well for me unless there’s a fair amount of light on the water, which there was. I was happy with this image, even if it did come out a little shadowy.

Unexpected Success in Bright Daylight

Shortly after releasing that fish, another small brook trout ate Mary’s fly. You can go on several trips on this stretch of water without catching a brook trout, but they get more aggressive in the fall and tend to pick up like this. We do try to avoid fish we see actively spawning on a bed. 

On my next turn, I got lucky. Another nice brookie ate, and the light had improved, so I took some more underwater pics quickly. There’s always a lot of luck in getting these to turn out (at least for me), but I couldn’t be happier with this one.

Concluding the Day’s Adventure

After all the char, We landed a small rainbow but eventually fished our way through the good holding water. We were happy with the day, but I really wanted to drive further upstream to where the creek is much smaller and brushier to try out a new prototype rod we’ve been working on at Tenkara USA.

As we drove up, the paved road turned to a muddy forest service road, and we started to see more patches of snow on the ground. This was the first snow we’d seen this year. We live at a much lower elevation, and none had fallen down there yet. This stream stretch had not been productive for me this year. In fact, it seems to have not fished as well in the last couple of years as it has previously. Still, it’s always been pretty water and was perfect for testing out the new super compact rod we’ve been working on.

The road seemed to be getting worse, so when an old favorite spot was available, we parked and walked into the stream. The first little pool looked good, and it was Mary’s turn to fish. The new little rod we were using was perfect for this water. We used the same 12-foot line setup we had with the Sato, and even though the line was about two feet longer than this rod, it was easy to adjust to the shorter rod. 

After a few casts, Mary landed a small brook trout. I also got a small brookie out of the same pool and enjoyed how sensitive the new swelled graphite grip on the new rod was, even when playing with small fish. After that, I was really more interested in taking pictures, so I let Mary handle the fishing. Up to that point, we were happy to get a couple of fish out of the same small pool, but the fishing wasn’t exactly fast. Then something happened. The sun finally went down below the trees, and it seemed like Mary was getting strikes on every cast. Several larger and more colorful brook trout came to hand. We had a similar instance last fall on a creek that had been much tougher fishing than this one. The fishing went into cheat mode as soon as the sun went behind the trees. Fish like these made the extra drive to the upper end of the creek worth it. 

After several fish, things eventually slowed down. We almost left then as it seemed greedy to keep going, but I really wanted to look up the next bend to see what was up. Very quickly, we found fish in much shallower water than were obviously actively spawning. We watched them for a while and decided to leave them alone. It’s very possible that the fish we’d just caught were doing the same, but they were holding in different water, and the fact they started to feed more heavily when the light changed makes me think they were more in pre-spawn feeding mode than spawning mode, but I’m really not sure. We were both hungry and knew our cat Merlin was, too, so we decided to call it a day. A perfect fall day of tenkara fishing on a mountain stream in Montana.