How to catch trout in late summer

Perhaps no outdoor enthusiast feels the summer doldrums as keenly as a trout angler. The vigorous fishing of spring is but a memory, and the rapid renewal of autumn is still weeks away. The stream that was stocked with rising trout in May is desolate and low. In fact, fishing in the warm water of late summer can damage the resource: even if you can get a trout bite, it may not survive being caught and released.

But trout guides know how to find good trout action on lazy, foggy days. “I still catch a lot of trout in late summer,” says Zach Brantley, whose guiding service, Blue Ridge Fish Adventures, is based in Rockbridge Baths, Virginia. “Obviously, finding suitable water is step no. 1. I really will never fish for trout above 68 degrees (water temperature), but you can find other options.”

Here are some ideas from guides on how to save a boring part of the calendar.

1) Return to Tailwaters for Summer Trout

Tailwaters, also known as tailwaters, are rivers downstream of deep impoundments that are kept cool by water released from dams. From the Swift in Massachusetts to the Lower Sacramento in California to the mighty White in the Ozarks, tailwaters provide cold-water environments in rivers that would otherwise be shallow, warm, and trout-unfriendly. Not only do conditions keep the trout cool, they often provide spring mayfly hatches throughout the summer.

As Brantley notes, river management practices can affect fishing, but most tailwaters can be fished at least a few times in late summer. Tailwaters tend to produce prolific hatches of small tip flies, and their trout tend to reject flies that don’t mimic the real thing. Fly fishermen are often humbled by worry, but at least they have healthy, growing fish. Local fly shops usually post suggestions about what can be hatched and what flies to use.

Tailwater rivers can get crowded when all other streams are low and warm. But if you’re willing to walk upstream or downstream from the parking areas, you can find more room to fish and trout that haven’t been cast all day.

Woman holding rainbow trout in a river.
The tailwaters stay cool in the summer and can produce excellent trout fishing throughout the season. Zach Brantley

2) Move upstream for cooler water

Even tailwater streams are subject to heating during really hot weather. The water may be cold when it is released from the dam, but as it progresses downstream, temperatures rise. If your first choice site has a borderline reading on your streaming thermometer, try moving it upstream. “The less time the water has to sit in the sun, the better the chances of it being fishable,” notes Chris Galvin of Galvin Guiding in Denver.

Here is a good example. As I write this on a warm July day, the temperature of the West Branch of the Delaware River where it is released from Cannonsville Reservoir is a chilly 51 degrees. At Lordville, 22 miles from the dam, the water was an unfishable 71 degrees. These readings come from the US Geological Survey’s water data website, which lists real-time flows and, in many cases, river temperatures across the country. It is a great help for late summer fishing.

3) Start early to beat the heat

Everyone enjoys the evening hatch, when emerging insects and spinnerets (mating swarms) put trout on the feed. But it is a mistake to think that water cools rapidly as the sun sets. Water that was warm at 6pm will still be warm at 9pm, and possibly later. In the morning you will find much better conditions.

“Take advantage of the cool down at night,” advises Galvin. Summer trout are most powerful at dawn – and first light is a good time to go after most types of fish, any time of the year. You will have more water to yourself as not many people are willing to put in the effort and you may find a hatch or spinner drop in progress. The long-awaited Trico Hatch, for example, becomes the first thing in the morning. (Be sure to have thin tip and small flies for this important hatch.)

Read further: 5 hot summer hatches to remember

Trout man fishing at night, Idaho
Fish at night when the big trout go hunting for food. Joe Michl via Getty Images

4) Or, Fish the late shift to find bigger trout

Any river that can be fished during the day can bring some serious excitement at night – not because the water is cooler, but because night is when the big fish like to feed.

“Most of your big fish will be nocturnal, at least here in the Northeast,” says Derrick Kirkpatrick, owner of CT Fish Guides, president of the Farmington River Anglers Association and host of the Catching Alphas podcast. “We have seen those fish eating the little ducks in the river. You see some crazy things where these alpha brown trout that aren’t hooked all year feed in a way that other fish don’t.”

The fishing is not that technical, but night fishing requires considerable preparation. It is better in a place that you are familiar with during the day. You need to know where you can park after hours. And a bright light—say, 1,000 lumens—is useful for seeing what you’re doing and scaring away beavers or bears.

5) Fish Spring Streams that are Naturally Productive

If you have access to spring streams, consider yourself lucky. There are no public works projects here—these rivers have year-round groundwater flows with temperatures that are comfortable for trout in the summer (and are often fishable in the winter.) Like many tailwaters, the spring streams hold crustaceans. the size of insects such as mushrooms and plant insects. basically freshwater prawns that are easily imitated with simple patterns in a natural movement. They also tend to have nutrient-rich water that supports large populations of mayflies and caddies.

Spring streams tend to be weedy with flowing green plants like elodea and watercress. This vegetation provides a sanctuary for trout and habitat for aquatic insects and crustaceans, but it can also make fishing difficult. By late summer, the fishwater of many spring streams is reduced to narrow streams among the greens.

“Try dry-spotting in small channels,” recommends Brantley. The dry fly can do the trick, and will also suspend the sinking fly over the weeds.

Man holding small fish by a rushing stream.
Look for spring streams that are naturally cool in the summer. Zach Brantley

6) Look for trout in lakes, ponds and reservoirs

Calm waters are subject to summer heat, too, but mostly near the surface. Deeper water provides shelter from which trout can emerge to feed.

Still water fishing can be dry fly fishing, often for caddis flies or still water flies such as calibaetis, or, near shore, beetles and ants. Of course, in a current, the current sets the tempo; when you cast a dry fly in a lake, it will stay put until a fish bites or you lift it to reshape it. How long do you have to wait? “It can be two to five minutes, depending on how patient you can be,” says Chris Galvin. “Let it move with the wind. And keep the rod tip down near the water for the most direct contact. The slack line from holding the rod tip up causes a lot of lost fish.”

Underground fishing is also always an option, regardless of what is or isn’t happening on the surface. Galvin recommends balanced flies, a style that has seen a recent resurgence among Stillwater anglers. Tied to a hook, a balanced leech or wet fly contains a heavy bead positioned in front of the eye. Standard head nymphs or streamers hang almost vertically in the water, while balanced flies lie horizontally, as most aquatic creatures swim. Suspended below a suitably buoyant strike indicator, a balanced leech pattern will move gently in response to waves or wind impacting the indicator on the surface.

Nymphs, wet flies and leech patterns are always good bets, but so are strip patterns. Almost all fish eat small fish. Your floating fly line will work, but you’ll have an easier time getting down deep with a line that’s made for the job. A sink-tip line or a full-sink line works wonders, but Galvin finds an intermediate 1.5” per second line more useful. A line with a clear tip is nice, but not mandatory. “You can run an 8- or 10-foot leader and the fish don’t seem to care,” he says.

7) No Hatch? Try a ground pattern to catch trout on the surface

Of course there are fat flies, caddis flies and stone flies that hatch during the summer months and into the fall. But there are not as many as in early summer and spring. But you can enjoy a lot of dry fly action with terrestrials—floaters that mimic land-based insects like beetles, ants, and fleas.

“Pay attention to riparian vegetation,” says Galvin. Land insects belong here, although some end up in the water by accident, and watching the streamside brush will tell you what’s on the menu.

In case the trout is not inclined to grab a grounder from the surface, consider dangling a subterranean fly below it. “If I’m looking or searching, I’ll do a lot of dry droppers,” says Zach Brantley. “We have a ton of groundhogs, especially when it’s dry and windy—grasshoppers, crickets, flying ants, Japanese beetles.” All are common almost everywhere, and all are high-protein trout foods.

Read further: Fly fishing tips for catching late summer ground trout

A man catches a brook trout on a cold morning in Maine
Look for brook trout in high elevation streams. Cavani images via Getty Images

8) Search for Brookies

High elevation brook trout streams tend to be shadier and cooler than the larger rivers down in the valley – and they can provide an excellent fly fishing experience.

“Our local slide flow is 59 degrees and basically numb within minutes,” says Boyne City, Michigan guide, sales representative, writer and attorney Brian Kozminski. There Kozminski says brook trout average 9 to 10 inches, but an occasional 12- or 14-inch fish might catch your eye.

“Short, tight groups are essential in small mountain streams, so work the cast before you show up and discover the futility of a cast behind,” he says. Late summer and early fall can be very rewarding for those looking to discover some fine blue lines, so do yourself a favor and explore. It makes you feel like a 12-year-old on a summer’s day.”

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