Fly Fishing Tips for Fall in the High Sierra

Jul 14, 2021

If you ask most anglers what their favorite season is, they’ll probably lie to you. That is what fisherman are famous for, isn’t it? Heck the angler’s motto is supposed to be, “Early to bed, early to rise. Fish all day, tell big lies.”
The truth is most anglers are only great exaggerators with questionable abilities to estimate length, weight and proper beer intake. That’s why most anglers will tell you fall is their favorite season, they just won’t really tell you where their favorite spots are—on the water or at the local watering holes.
Eric “Otis” Hein knows about as much as anyone when it comes to the fishing and watering holes in the Eastern Sierra. He’s been guiding fly fishing trips in the region since 1991 and when he’s not on the water, he’s been tending bar at Angel’s Restaurant in Mammoth for nearly as long.
Over a beer at Angel’s many years ago, Otis passed along some sage advice after I announced I was going to transition from my spin fishing ways to the more mysterious, more curse-inducing ways of the fly rod.
“If you’re going to get into fly fishing you’d better have a sense of humor!” he said.
A sense of humor is definitely one of Otis’s skills, but there’s nothing he’s more passionate about than fishing on the Eastside and guiding people to great angling experiences in the region. Otis works for the Trout Fly and Trout Fitter in Mammoth Lakes is one of the best-known and most highly respected fly fishing guides in the Golden State. He recently passed along some humor-infused advice for fishing in the fall.

Dress for all Four Seasons

“Fall is my favorite season to fish,” Otis said. “It’s great, except for always being afraid you’re going to get snowed on.”

Otis reminds anglers to be prepared for just about any weather when casting around the Eastern Sierra in the fall. The worst thing you can do is forget to bring a proper layer or two to the water, because “you know as soon as you walk back to the car to get your jacket the fish will start biting,” he said.

Wade Wisely

Autumn is spawning time for brown trout and brookies (which are technically from the Char species). That makes the fish a bit easier to find as they’ve run up inlets or bedded down on gravelly spots on the lakes and creeks. But that also means that the fish themselves and their future offspring are in pretty dangerous positions.

Anglers walking on redds (the beds or nests trout make to lay their eggs) can destroy eggs and pulling a trout, already tired from the spawning process, off its nesting spot can mean its quick demise. So its important for the future of fishing in the Eastern Sierra to always be cautious and considerate of trout during the spawning season.

“That fish has worked its way all the way up there for a reason and then you come by take that reason away,” Otis said about anglers who walk on redds or catch fish in the middle of spawning. Otis recommends anglers avoid wading in shallow gravel patches and fast moving water, and to be aware of where fish are staging. “There’s a right way and wrong way to wade,” he said. “With all the stocking issues, if you want to keep having fish to catch you have to be smart about it.”

Handle with Care

As most anglers know, trout have a protective slim layer that helps insulate and protect them from infections. Otis said the layer also helps trout stay “aqua-dynamic” in the water in much the same way a bird’s feathers helps it stay aerodynamic during flight.

So it’s even more important to remove as little of that slim layer as possible when handling trout as the temperatures begin to drop in the fall.

“If you don’t handle trout properly you will remove their protective layer, increase their chances of infections, stress them out, and make them have to work harder in the water,” he said.

Otis recommends keeping fish in the water at all times—there’s even a new #KeepEmWet movement going on in the fly fishing community. Big nets, especially the newer rubber ones, help with hook removal and reducing stress on the fish. He said turning a fish upside in the water can also help calm it down.

It’s also imperative to wet your hands before handling trout, and if you do catch a picture worthy fish, to make sure the fish and your hands are dripping wet for the photo.

As for those who think that hooking a fish and then releasing it causes the trout too much unnecessary pain. Otis pointed out that the pain the trout feel is very minor, and that humans don’t worry about people getting body piercings or tattoos. “I guarantee you that trout don’t understand tattoos,” he said.

Get Out There

Whether you like to hook `em and cook `em or catch `em and let `em go, autumn in Mono County can be a dreamy place to fish. While the weekends can still get a little crowded, mid-week and the backcountry can be perfect.

“If someplace is crowded, leave. There are better places out there,” Otis said.

Otis explained that being open to moving around and doing some hiking during autumn can be exceptionally rewarding. Brookies spawning in the backcountry can make for some spectacular and care-free fishing—the species is invasive and reproduces easily so there’s no worry about decreasing their numbers.

While the weather and conditions can be every-changing in the fall, staying patient, open and ready for the action to get hot at any moment are the keys to success in the fall.

“In the fall the game can constantly change. But when it all comes together you can have some of the best fishing of your life,” Otis said, adding that when you do have one of those moments, you’d best be thankful, but not expect it happen the exact same way again.

“When you do get one of those days you’ve got to appreciate it, but don’t go back to the same place tomorrow,” he said. “Those fish are full and that type of magic never happens two days in a row at the same place, so you’re better off hitting a new spot or going to the bar instead.”

Mike McKenna

Award-winning author and journalist Mike McKenna is the writer behind the new book Casting Around the Eastern Sierra, which was recently awarded runner-up in the Outdoor Writers Association of California's Best Outdoor Guidebook category. The book focuses on fishing in Mammoth Lakes and the surrounding area, with tips and tricks from local experts.

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