For most sportsmen out West, fall means two things: rifle season isn’t far off, and neither is the brown trout spawn.
My elk hunt just wrapped up (I was unsuccessful at harvesting a spike, even though I had a six-by-spike in my crosshairs for ten minutes . . . another story for a despondent day) and while I’m nursing the bulging discs in my lower back I’m also planning for the brown trout spawn.
Fishing the spawn elicits sharp criticism from staunch conservationists, while anglers new to the sport don’t see what the big deal is. Of course, writing about it just throws fuel on the fire.
Here’s the truth, though. It’s completely possible to ethically fish the brown trout spawn, preserve your local stream’s trout population, and catch those wall-hanger trout you deserve.
Stay Off The Redds
I’ve fly fished my entire life, and I’ve heard arguments about fishing the spawn since I can remember. The point the shouting matches always come back to is staying off the redds.
A redd is nothing more than a small bowl-shaped depression in a streambed. It’s formed by trout using their big tailfins to get rid of moss, large rocks,and anything else that might prohibit trout eggs from nestling safely at the bottom of the river.
Redds can be anywhere from a foot to five yards long and they’re easy to spot. When the spawn is at its peak, fish will completely cover the redds. Browns – which get notably more aggressive in the fall – ferociously guard their redds to protect their eggs. Sometimes they’ll even act like bull elk, bullying smaller fish off the redd.
It takes just a single step of a wading boot to crush the thousands of eggs a single redd holds. So in addition to fighting against nature – unexpected high water, cold snaps, and eggs that never get fertilized – brown trout eggs are at risk from the folks who contend to be their staunchest advocate.
The short of it is that you need to stay off the redds in the fall. And I’m not just talking about physically staying off them, either. Trout on redds are extremely vulnerable. They’re so aggressive they’ll jump at anything – I’ve watched them attack a nearly-bare hook with just a wisp of black 70-denier thread left on it – which, yes, makes for great fishing.
The problem comes when you land that trout. Males spill their milt and females drop their eggs after the stress of the fight (an instinctual reaction to preserve their species in the face of possible death) more often than they don’t. That action, combined with the fight, significantly lowers the chances of a spawning trout surviving after it’s caught.
So Where Do I Fish?
Even with that condensed dissertation on trout reproduction, it’s still possible to ethically fish the spawn.
The first step is, obviously, not stepping on redds. Even if a fish takes you a ways downstream and you’re about to pull a Brad Pitt from A River Runs Through It, it’s worth it to let the fish go than to stomp through redds.
What I like to do this time of year – and in the spring when the rainbows run – is to find redds and set up shop just behind them. More often than not, redds will have some sort of deeper water behind them. I don’t know if this is scientifically true or not, but it feels like trout build redds that way so the fish that haven’t spawned yet have a “waiting area.”
The fish in that type of water aren’t as stressed as actively spawning trout. They are, however, nearly as aggressive. In fact, I think I’ve caught more giant trout in that type of water during the spawn than anywhere else.
Even when you’re fishing right behind a redd, you still run the risk of damaging other redds if others are close by. That’s why my personal favorite way to fish the spawn is with a meaty streamer tucked close to the banks.
Ginger is my go-to color this time of year, and I’ve found that color does matter. At least, it does when streamers are in the game. Short, quick strips that jerk the streamer through the water are most effective, though if you’re fishing a particularly clear bit of water, try slowing down your retrieve a bit more.
Yeah, fishing the spawn isn’t as straightforward as a good blue-winged olive hatch. You have to watch where you step, where you cast, and where to land fish. It’s not terribly different from normal fly fishing ethics, though I note more and more anglers hooking trout without a good landing zone – or any sort of identifiable plan – nearby.
If you take your time to carefully watch the water, the fish, and find the holes where trout are waiting for their turn to spawn, you’ll find some monsters. Big streamers against the banks elicit explosive strikes, and fall is one of the few times of the year where you can throw a mouse pattern at any hour of the day and see a reasonably high reaction to it.
And who knows? This may just be the year you finally catch that wall-hanger.
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Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, TROUT Magazine, and the Miami Herald. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.