When I think about summer trout fishing, I think about evening sulphur and white fly hatches so thick you can hardly breathe. If you’re a fan of dry fly fishing, the summer is arguably the most action-packed time of year. But the summer is not a great time to be a trout. Trout thrive in cold water, and months of unrelenting sun and low water levels make it difficult for them to stay healthy. Add the stress of a fish fight, and trout can have a tough time surviving the ordeal. Unless you’re specifically fishing for dinner, there are probably less delicate fish than trout to be targeting during the summer.
However, when the conditions are right and when precautions are taken, you can still scratch the trout itch even in the summer months. But before we worry about how to catch summer trout, let’s take a moment to consider if we should, and when we can get away with it.
When to Fish for Summer Trout
When water temperatures are in the 45- to 65-degree range, trout are generally pretty happy. Assuming you’re mindful with your handling and release, you can fish without worrying too much about hurting them. But as temperatures rise, the supply of dissolved oxygen in the water diminishes. As water temperatures approach 65 degrees, trout start to have a much harder time recovering. Once temperatures rise above 67, summer trout become sluggish and may not be able to survive if caught and released.
To avoid unnecessary mortality, a stream thermometer is a must-have tool if you plan to catch and release fish during the summer. This tool will let you know whether the water temperature is in an acceptable range for safe summer trout fishing.
Even if water temps are favorable, there are additional precautions you can take when planning a day on the water. It’s generally best to stick to early mornings and evenings on cooler, overcast days when the heat is less oppressive. In terms of locations, look for spring-fed streams at higher elevations, with lots of shade, plenty of moving water, and some deeper pools. Larger tailwaters located below reservoirs with regular cold-water releases are also good places to focus your fishing. Use weather apps and online resources such as USGS Water Data for the current and predicted conditions, water levels, and more when planning a day of fishing.
If the water is too warm, just go do something other than summer trout fishing. There are plenty of warm water species, like bass, bluegill, or catfish to target and other outdoor activities to keep you occupied. Of course, if you plan to keep some trout for the table, these guidelines aren’t all that relevant. However, limiting your fishing to areas with abundantly stocked trout will give wild reproducing populations a fighting chance of making it through the summer heat.
How to Fish for Summer Trout
Let’s say you’ve taken the necessary precautions, found a great location, and the conditions are favorable enough for a day on the water.
For me, the summer is all about dry-fly fishing. Floating a fly past a happily feeding trout is the epitome of what makes fly fishing different and special, and the summer can be the best time to do it. No matter where you fish, the main food source for trout will be one of several families of aquatic insects, mainly mayflies, stoneflies, and caddis. But the summer also adds terrestrial insects to the menu such as ants, grasshoppers, and beetles, as well as a higher emphasis on gnats and midges. Beyond the famous and prolific summer hatches such as the western salmonfly hatch (a species of stonefly) and the eastern Green Drake hatch (a species of mayfly), what’s prevalent and the progression of seasonal hatches will be determined by location, weather, and timing.
When you arrive at your summer trout fishing location, look for bugs in the air, on the water, and under rocks and on stream-side vegetation for an idea of what the fish are feeding on. It’s good to have a variety of patterns in different sizes and colors for you to experiment with, but there really isn’t a substitute for stopping into a local fly shop for some insider info on the bugs du jour.
Taking the time to figure out what bugs are hatching, what stage of the bug’s life cycle the fish are keying in on, where and how the fish are feeding, etc., will greatly increase your success and prevent you from needlessly spooking fish you could have otherwise caught. When it comes to fly fishing, especially during the summer, it’s better to cast less, and observe more.
While matching the size and color of the local bugs is a piece of the puzzle, achieving a proper drag-free drift is the single most important aspect of dry-fly fishing. The idea is to lay the line down gently and allow the fly to float past the trout without any unnatural movement or drag on the water. Learning how to mend and move the line without disturbing the leader or the fly will ultimately determine how believable your presentation is to the trout, as well as how well you’ll be able to set the hook and manage your line if the trout decides to eat.
For the majority of summer trout fishing situations, your standard 9-foot 5-weight rod, or something close to that, is the summer do-it-all rod setup. Rods with a slower, softer action are often preferred for delicate dry fly fishing, but use any rod that suits your casting style and gives you the most feeling of control. Any of your favorite weight-forward floating lines will do the trick, but I prefer a line with a slightly longer, more gradual front taper such as the RIO Technical Trout. A longer front taper offers more control when mending, roll casting, or water loading due to the weight being more evenly distributed over a longer section of line. The thinner, lighter terminal end also offers a softer landing when you’re trying to delicately plop a fly in front of a picky trout.
The low water levels and bright sun of the summer make fish exceedingly spooky, so longer, thinner leaders, smaller flies, and soft presentations are often necessary. A 9- to 12-foot monofilament leader tapered down to a 5 or 6x tippet is usually your best bet. However, a short section of fluorocarbon tippet at the end of the leader can help sink a fly just below the surface when fishing emerger or cripple patterns.
While it might not directly help you catch more trout, it’s a good idea to be prepared for everything that the summer can throw at you. The sun can cook you alive, even on overcast days, so bring sunscreen or lightweight clothing that can fully cover your exposed skin. And don’t forget to bring plenty of water and stay hydrated.
Hot summer air in the atmosphere can also lead to weather instability, and violent summer storms are common in many parts of the country. Always check the weather and plan accordingly. In addition to a rain jacket, I always bring a waterproof backpack, a roll top dry bag, and a few Ziplock and trash bags to protect my stuff if I get caught in an unexpected shower.
While trout struggle in the summer, there are times when you can target them with a clear conscience. Plan around cooler days and places, and always bring a stream thermometer. If the conditions suck, have the self control to call it quits and do something else, or limit yourself to catching stockies for the table. If you’re mindful and prepared, you can enjoy some great summer trout fishing without unnecessary harm to the fish or the fishery. —C.G.
10 Late Summer Trout Fishing Tips from Top Fly Guides
When midsummer turns into the doldrums of late summer, things can get tough of trout anglers. The robust fishing of spring is just a memory, and the bracing renewal of fall is still weeks away. Streams that brimmed with rising trout in May can be listless and low. In fact, fishing in the warm water of late summer can be bad for the resource: Even if you can get a trout to bite, it may not survive being caught and released if you’re not careful.
But trout guides know how to find good trout action during the lazy, hazy days. “I still fish for trout a lot in late summer,” says Zach Brantley, whose guide service, Blue Ridge Fish Adventures, is based in Rockbridge Baths, Virginia. “Obviously finding appropriate water is the No. 1 step. I’m really never going to fish for trout where the water is above 68 degrees, but you can find other options.”
Here are some ideas from guides on how to salvage an otherwise dull chunk of the calendar and get in some good late summer trout fishing.
1) Turn to the Tailwaters for Late Summer Trout
Tailwaters, also known as tailraces, are rivers downstream of deep impoundments that are kept cold by water released from the dams. From the Swift in Massachusetts to the Lower Sacramento in California to the mighty White in the Ozarks, tailwaters provide cold-water environments on rivers that would otherwise be shallow, warm, and trout-unfriendly. Not only do the conditions keep the trout frisky, they often provide spring-like mayfly hatches right through the summer.
As Brantley notes, the ways the rivers are managed can impact the fishing, but most tailwaters are fishable at least some of the time in late summer. Tailwaters tend to produce prolific hatches of small mayflies, and their trout tend to refuse flies that don’t imitate the real thing. Fly-fishers are often humbled by the fussiness, but at least they have healthy, rising fish. Local fly shops usually post suggestions about what may be hatching and what flies to use.
2) Move Upstream for the Coldest Water
Even tailwater streams are subject to warming during really hot weather. The water may be cold when it is released from the dam, but as it progresses downstream, the temps go up. If your first-choice spot has a borderline reading on your stream thermometer, try relocating upstream. “The less time that water’s had to sit in the sun, the better chance it’ll be fishable,” notes Chris Galvin of Galvin Guiding in Denver.
Here’s a good example. As I write this on a warm day in July, the temperature of the West Branch of the Delaware River where it’s released from Cannonsville Reservoir is a chilly 51 degrees. At Lordville, 22 miles away from the dam, the water was an unfishable 71 degrees. These readings come from the U.S. Geological Survey’s water data website, which lists real-time flows and, in many cases, temperatures of rivers across the country. It’s a big help for late summer trout fishing.
3) Get an Early Start to Beat The Heat
Everyone enjoys the evening hatch, when emerging insects and spinner falls (mating swarms) put trout on the feed. But it’s a mistake to think that water cools rapidly as the sun goes down. Water that was warm at 6 p.m. will still be warm at 9 p.m., and probably later. You will find much better conditions in the morning.
“Take advantage of the overnight cooling,” Galvin advises. Summer trout are at their most vigorous at daybreak—and first light is a great time to pursue most kinds of fish, at any time of year. You’ll have more water to yourself, since not many people are willing to make the effort, and you may well find a hatch or spinner fall in progress. The much-anticipated Trico hatch, for example, takes place first thing in the morning. (Make sure you have fine tippet and tiny flies for this important hatch.)
Read Next: 5 Hot Summer Hatches to Remember
4) Fish the Late Shift
Any river that’s fishable during the day can provide 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 are going to switch 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’ve seen those fish eat baby ducks on the river. You see some crazy stuff where these alpha brown trout, that go unhooked throughout the year, feed in a way that other fish don’t.”
The fishing isn’t all that technical, but night fishing requires considerable prep. It’s best in a spot that you’ve gotten familiar with in daylight. You’ll need to know where you can park after hours. And a bright light—say, 1000 lumens—is handy to see what you’re doing, and to scare away beavers or bears.
5) Target Spring Creeks for Summer Trout
If you have access to spring creeks, count yourself lucky. 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 winter.) Like many tailwaters, spring creeks hold bug-sized crustaceans like scuds and sow bugs, essentially freshwater shrimp that are easily imitated with simple patterns on a natural drift. They also tend to have nutrient-rich water that supports great populations of mayflies and caddis.
Spring creeks 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 the fishing tricky. By summer’s end, the fishable water of many spring creeks is reduced to narrow runs between the greens.
“Try floating dry-dropper rigs down the little channels,” Brantley recommends. The dry fly may do the trick, and will also suspend the sunken fly above the weeds.
6) Look for Trout in Lakes, Ponds, and Reservoirs
Stillwaters are subject to the summer’s heat, too, but mostly near the surface. The deeper water provides a refuge, from which trout can venture out to feed.
Stillwater fishing can be dry-fly fishing, often for caddis flies or stillwater mayflies such as callibaetis, or, close to the shore, beetles and ants. Of course, on a stream, the current sets the tempo; when you cast a dry fly on a lake, it will stay put until a fish bites or you lift it to recast. How long should you wait? “It could be two to five minutes, depending how patient you can be,” says Chris Galvin. “Let it drift with the wind. And keep your rod tip down near the water for the most direct contact. A slack line from holding your rod tip up causes lots of lost fish.”
Subsurface fishing is always an option, too, regardless of what is or isn’t happening at the surface. Galvin recommends balanced flies, a style that has seen a resurgence lately among Stillwater anglers. Tied on a jig hook, a balanced leech or wet fly features a heavy bead positioned forward of the eye. Standard beadhead nymphs or streamers hang almost vertically in the water, while balanced flies lie horizontally, the way most aquatic creatures swim. Suspended under a suitably buoyant strike indicator, a balanced leech pattern will move gently in response to waves or wind affecting the indicator on the surface.
Nymphs, wet flies, and leech patterns are always good bets, but so are streamer patterns. Just about all fish eat smaller fish. Your floating fly line will work, but you’ll find it easier to get a fly down deep with a line that’s made for the job. A sink-tip or full-sinking line works wonders, but Galvin finds a 1.5”-per-second intermediate line the most useful. A clear-tipped line 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 Terrestrial Pattern to Catch Trout on the Surface
There are certainly mayflies, caddis flies, and stoneflies that hatch right through the summer months and into the fall. But there are nowhere near as many as in the early summer and spring. But you can enjoy plenty of summer dry-fly action with terrestrials—floating flies that imitate land-based bugs such as beetles, ants, and hoppers.
“Pay attention to the bankside vegetation,” Galvin says. That’s where terrestrial insects belong, even though some wind up in the water by accident, and observing streamside brush will tell you what’s on the menu.
In case the trout are not inclined to grab a terrestrial from the surface, consider dangling a subsurface fly below it. “If I’m searching or prospecting, I’ll do a lot of dry-droppers,” Zach Brantley says. “We have a ton of terrestrials, especially when it’s dry and windy—grasshoppers, crickets, flying ants, Japanese beetles.” All are common just about everywhere, and all are protein-rich trout snacks.
8) Look for Brookies
High-elevation brook trout streams tend to be shady and cooler than the bigger rivers down in the valley—and they can offer an exquisite fly-fishing experience.
“Our local brookie stream is 59 degrees, and it numbs you to the core in minutes,” says Boyne City, Michigan guide, sales rep, writer, and advocate Brian Kozminski. There Kozminski says the brook trout average 9 to 10 inches but an occasional 12- or 14-inch fish can catch you off guard.
“Short, tight roll casts are essential on small mountain streams, so work on casting before showing up and discovering the futility of a backcast,” he says. “Late summer, and early fall can be very rewarding for those looking to discover some thin blue lines, so do yourself a favor and explore. It makes you feel like a 12-year-old on a summer day.” —M.L.