Fall on Vancouver Island is a welcome reprieve from the extremes of summer – streambeds refill, fish return and wildfires are extinguished. Many fly anglers overlook autumn lake fishing in favour of the more high profile salmon fisheries, however the last hatches of fall are among one of the most rewarding times to be on the lake.
Summer 2018 was not easy on Vancouver Islanders – it was the second worst wildfire season in B.C. history, leading to a province wide state of emergency and, near the end of August, the entire island was under a level 4 drought rating, with the majority streams near or at record lows. Luckily, the signs have been pointing to an early fall, with cooler September temperatures and rain actually falling before October.
Choosing lakes for fall fly fishing does come with a number of distinct advantages for the Island angler: lakes don’t blow out and become unfishable in heavy rains, whereas rivers do; cooler temperatures of fall mean less people on the lake; not having to fish the shoulder to shoulder conditions synonymous with river salmon fishing; and shorter driving distances to cast a line.
In addition to angling for the usual resident rainbow and cutthroat trout in Vancouver Island lakes, if you know where to go, specialty angling opportunities are readily available. In October, Freshwater Fisheries Society of B.C. usually releases their fall catchable sized rainbow trout, into urban Vancouver Island lakes – check their Fish Stocking Report at www.gofish.bc.com/Stocked-Fish for dates and locations. Steelhead are present in a few select mid-Island lakes, primarily around the Port Alberni region, including Doran, Sproat & Horne Lakes.
Although they will not be as fresh as beach or river caught salmon, Chinook & Coho salmon can be caught, especially in lakes where hatchery stock is reared or if the lake is located on a salmon bearing river – for instance, Quinsam Lake, Nimpkish Lake & Fairy Lakes (check regulations for closures & restrictions). Kokanee, or landlocked sockeye salmon, are also found on a number of mid-upper Island lakes, such as Beavertail, Amor& McCreight Lakes.
Aggressive brown trout can be found scattered around the Island, including McClure, Cameron and Rooney lakes. Eastern Brook trout (speckled char) are more active in colder waters and found in Spectacle lake, and a handful of other south-Island lakes. Dolly Varden, also a member of the char family, are most heavily concentrated on the pristine waters of the north-Island, on lakes like Alice, Ida & Buttle Lakes.
On the south-Island, smallmouth bass can be targeted from Victoria to Nanaimo in lakes such as Langford, Shawnigan and Quennell lakes, however bass really are more of a warm water species, settling into the deep water when the temperature plunges.
Trout, char & salmonids, on the other hand are cold-water species and therefore, as the water cools, the fish relocate from the depths into shallower waters and will normally be found foraging along shoals in under 10 feet of water. Softer bottom areas of the lake will have also have more food sources for the fish than areas with rocky bottom.
This is a win-win situation for both shore & boat anglers, because boat anglers can cast in toward shore and shore anglers are within reach of the fish. For shore fishing in areas with heavy tree cover along the shorelines, a tenkara rod can be a real advantage.
During summer, the water at the surface is warmer than the deep water, however once fall arrives, the ambient temperature drops, along with the top water temperature, causing it to become more dense and mix with the deep water. This is known as “turnover” and evens out the water temperature, re-oxygenates the deep water and brings nutrients and other substances into the surface layer. When turnover is underway, the water can take on a dirty appearance and fishing gets slower as the fish move into new habitats. “Dimictic” lakes are those in areas with freezing temperatures that typically turn over in both fall & spring, whereas coastal lakes, where the temperatures are more constant are called “monomictic” and usually turn over only once in the fall.
Hatches are not happening as actively during fall as during spring, so the primary food source for fish is readily available leeches & scuds. However, there will still be opportunities to fish the last hatches of fall, including late season mayflies, caddisflies, dragonflies & chironomids, making it essential to have a couple flies tied to match each state of emergence. Late summer into fall is also the time to fish terrestrial patterns including ants, grasshoppers and beetles near the shorelines.
As we transition into fall, fish become less lethargic and begin feeding more aggressively to fatten up for winter. My typical fall fly patterns for searching stillwaters include: Pumpkinheads, Muddler Minnows, Fat Alberts, micro-leeches, soft hackles & flashback pheasant tail nymphs.
Fishing the lakes is where it all started for me and it’s where I always come back to. Year after year, the memories of these last fish of fall on the dry fly are what gets me through the grey, wet, West Coast winters.