Rivers come into their own as fish-producers following the heat of summer, making autumn a great time wet a line in your local streams. With cooler air temperatures come more comfortable conditions—for fish, at least—under the water, and many gamefish species in both lakes and rivers that were lethargic through the hot summer months “wake up,” start to move, and put on the feedbag in anticipation of winter. Some migrating salmonid species that frequent lakes, reservoirs, and even the ocean make an autumn assault up feeder streams to spawn; other river species that spend the summer months in moving water make the swim downstream to hole up in the deep, still waters of lakes and bays for the colder winter months. Both actions make rivers the place to be fishing come fall.
Perhaps the most popular target of autumn river anglers across their range these days is the steelhead, a rainbow trout that is hatched on stream-fed gravel bars and swims downstream to spend a season or two in the lake or ocean fed by the tributary. Once in the open water, the steelhead feeds on forage species and grows quickly to sizes larger than their inland, stream-locked brethren. After a few seasons in open water, when the steelhead mature they return to their home stream as the spawning urge arrives. There are “fall run” and “spring run” steelhead, so named for when they make their annual migratory move out of the lakes and into the tributary streams in preparation for the spawning ritual. There is even some movement up streams this time of year by spring run steelhead that hope to feed on the eggs of another popular river fish, the Chinook salmon, which spawn in the autumn.
Once you find water containing steelhead, you can tempt these famous fighters in a variety of ways with a variety of baits. One of the best consists of maggots or other larval baits bunched onto a small jig or a plain hook and fished under a bobber. The same is true of salmon eggs, either out of a jar or from a fresh-caught female, placed in mesh bags and hung from a hook. Using split shot and experimenting to find just the right amount of line under the float to allow the boat to tick along the bottom through chutes and below riffles, this simple rig is downright deadly. Because the baits are fragile and at times it can be important to keep the line between the rod tip and the bobber off the water for a natural, drag-free drift, these baits are often tossed with a long, limber spinning that may measure up to 14 feet. However, just about any tackle you can cast can catch these lake-run rainbows once they enter the rivers each autumn. You can also toss spinners and flies at steelhead, either by blind fishing or tossing the lures above fish you can see tailing in the current.
Because you can often find them far up streams where the water is small for fish that may weigh a dozen pounds or more, I like to wade for steelhead. I beach the pontoon boat on a gravel bar and don hip boots to sneak up to pools and runs that hold fish. I may use spinning gear or fly tackle, but no matter what I have in hand when I hook the trout, I know I’m in for a show. The fish will often charge up riffles so shallow that the steelhead’s back is out of the water and the frantic thrashing leaves a rooster tail in its wake, and some jump clear of the water to try to shake the hook free.
In addition to steelhead, many popular gamefish get—and remain—active in rivers between now and the holidays. As water temperatures cool, the fish will congregate in the deeper pools; that’s where the prey fish are likely to be found and the predators anglers are after follow. Riffle areas continue to offer the oxygen and aquatic life that baitfish and predators require, and are among the last areas to freeze, so be sure to angle in the pools below whitewater this time of year.
One of the best things about fishing the rivers in the fall is the lack of boat traffic. Many fair-weather boaters have put their rigs to bed for the winter by now, leaving those of us who appreciate a fine fall day on the water with the river—and the fish—to ourselves.