Redd Fish — Should we fish for trout through the spawn or stay home?

by | Nov 7, 2018 | 29 comments

Today was full of colors well past their season. Patchy green grass lay beside dying moss on limestone, and a sprig of blushing maple stubbornly gripped its parent branch through early white frost.

All if it was accompanied by wild trout in the richest oranges and ambers found in any season. Here in Central Pennsylvania, our favorite cold water fish is beginning its yearly spawning ritual. And in a few weeks, trout will disperse to a winter routine.

Making trout babies seems like one a hell of a party for the fish. There’s some travel involved, an annual meeting with old and new friends, aggressive behavior and sex.

Redds

Trout spawning beds (redds) can be found scattered throughout the river system — anywhere with enough shallow, riffly water to provide the right oxygen level. The streambed must also have the right dime, quarter and half-dollar sized gravel for a female trout to clean and shape into form. She uses her tail and belly to form an oval nest, usually one to three feet wide.

These redds may be scattered along the length of a river. But just as often, miles-long stretches of water hold no redds or spawning activity, because some river trout seek out the sheltered water of tributaries for their spawning ground. Although spawning happens in a small percentage of fishable water, it’s our responsibility as catch-and-release anglers to understand and recognize spawning behavior if we plan to be on the water.

Redds vary in appearance. But when active, they’re lighter in color than the surrounding riverbed. I’ve seen small, isolated redds that are barely the size of a football, and I’ve seen gardens of giant redds that seem to go on for the width of a football field. Some sections of a river are so perfect for spawning that large areas are covered by one redd merging into another. We call it a trout brothel.

Activity at the trout brothel is really something to witness. With redds everywhere, male fish bite and fight for dominance around the bed until the victor takes a position next to the female. She lays her eggs, and he fertilizes them. These carousing fish go on a weeks-long bender, with each female laying eggs multiple times and often digging out many redds, attracting the attention and fervor of males each time. While the full-out trout brothel is rare, watching a section of water like this, at the peak of the spawn, is amazing. Don’t fish. Just watch.

More often, redds are scattered throughout the creek in predictable places — one down here against the bank, one up there around the bend.

Year after year I’m shocked by the size of fish I see during the spawn. Just when I think I know my home waters well, along comes spawning season to remind me that there are a few fish in the river I never catch. Maybe no one does — and I like that. It gives me hope.

Now here’s some opinion . . .

To pick up the fly rod and take a swing at any of these trout engaged in their reproductive act is a disgrace. It’s unethical and unsporting.

Sure, many other species of fish and game are targeted during the spawn or rut. But we don’t do it for wild trout. They’re too rare — too special. These trout are too vulnerable, and some things are sacred. Thankfully, I think the majority of anglers understand this, but it takes self-discipline and some follow-through while on the water. Soif you don’t have the self-control to move on without casting to a Whiskey on its redd, then stay home.

Give spawning trout their space.

Fertilized trout eggs. Photo from wildtrout.org

Still fish?

Many anglers advise staying off the water entirely during the spawn, and I see the point — leave the fish alone and allow them the free space to produce the next generation of trout.

But my approach is different. Because trout don’t spawn everywhere, there are many safe places to fish. And not all fish participate, either. In fact, the majority of trout in the river are not involved with the spawn.

So I stay away from areas with redds and focus my efforts on the deeper water — the chutes, the pockets and the pools. There I find trout uninvolved in the spawning process. They are fair sport. Catching and releasing these fish has no impact on the spawn.

Education

A policy of staying off all trout rivers during the spawn seems like a well-intentioned idea for any angler concerned about the future of trout populations. But if the angler has any plans to return and fish the river after the spawn, there’s something else to think about . . .

The future we’re protecting is contained in the eggs. Those eggs, dropped in the gravel at spawning time, remain in that gravel for two or three months until they hatch. (Freshly hatched trout eggs are called alevins.)

Alevins. Photo from wildtrout.org

Once hatched, these alevins remain on the same spawning bed (in the gravel). They feed on the leftover egg sac for a few weeks before finally growing large enough to move off the redds as trout fry.

The future we are trying to protect stays in the gravel of the spawning beds until sometime in mid March, on average.

So here’s the questions: Can you spot a redd in January? How about February or March?

The key indicator of a redd — what draws our attention — is the light color of the gravel. But redds quickly silt over after the spawn, and they blend into the surrounding river bed in just a few days.

By January, most of the redds are virtually unnoticeable.

Unfortunately, many redds are located in the same water where anglers walk — comfortable, shallow water near the banks. And without some knowledge about where the trout spawn in your river, it’s easy to walk right through a redd with your size-11, egg-crushing wading boots, and spoil the trout’s hard work.

So to avoid the redds all winter and into March, you have to know where they are.

On my home water, these two spots hold redds every year. I’ve learned to watch for them and avoid these areas, even after the redds are silted over and unrecognizable.

The Ethical Angler

I believe that being on the water during the spawn is important if you plan to do any fishing this winter. But I say this with great apprehension . . .

Fishing for trout during the spawn requires acute awareness to your surroundings and a commitment to keeping your impact low.

It also takes restraint and temperance to walk past the same large trout you might chase in every other season, and to do so without a single cast.

It’s not for everyone.

Ultimately, it’s up to each angler to make responsible decisions.

Habits

The epilogue of another season is written as the last female spawns, and she flutters her tail to cover the fertilized eggs with silt. But that’s not the last moment of vulnerability for the future of the fishery. Every angler who casts a line from now through March should understand where the redds are and do his best to avoid them, even when unseen.

Learn the habits of the trout you pursue. Know the areas where they spawn and give them space. Watch in wonder as nature completes a cycle. It will open your eyes to the intricate life of a trout and deepen your respect for the game.

More opinion

Here are a few articles for further consideration:

This one is from the guys at Fly Fishers Paradise, whose opinions and discussions in the shop helped shaped the way I approach trout fishing in the first place.

To Fish or Not to Fish?

One from Field and Stream:

Don’t Pull Trout off Redds

And this one from Orvis Fly Fishing:

Spring Fishing is Great, But Don’t Tread on Redds

Your turn

I know this can be a divisive issue with strong opinions. I have friends whose personal choices about fishing during the spawn cover the full spectrum of the topic.

I’ve given my own thoughts above. What are yours? Leave a comment below.

 

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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29 Comments

  1. Great, timely article. I have been having discussions with our TU Chapter about marking Redd locations in a local park with signs to educate anglers/ park users. My concern is that it also points a huge arrow at some trophy fish…

    Reply
    • Yeah, it’s one of those things . . .

      Reply
    • I’m also aware of someone in my area doing the same and am interested to see the results it has. Frankly, I think a bulk of the folks “fishing the redd” know exactly what their doing. So to that end I see these types of signs not only being for awareness, but also for “guilting”. I mean who wants to post a photo of a beautiful fish by a spawning sign, or be seen by others casting into such a section of water?? But alas, I suspect some folks will find a way around the guilting; fishing at night, cropping out the photo background, etc.. Not trying to be negative, but rather realistic.

      Reply
      • Or just don’t post a photo. ;). I too would beinterested to see/ hear about any results of signage placed near redds.

        Reply
  2. I’m not sure if spawning fish, or spawning people, for that matter, have much interest in eating. The people I’ve seen “fishing” for them are actually snagging.

    I agree with you, however, that fish that are not in the mood are fair game. And, it’s not that hard to find sections of a stream that are not inviting to the romantically inclined.

    Reply
    • Not hungry, but EXTREMELY territorial when it comes to third parties entering the nest area. Which leads to aggressive “strikes” at preieved threats to the interuption of spawning activity….goes for people and fish….unless you are into that sort of thing 😉

      Reply
  3. Great article. I recently listened to a podcast that was actively doing what Erik is contemplating in Colorado. Personally, I think it’s a great idea but maybe I’m Naive. I believe most people are just ignorant.

    You mentioned how quickly the redds blend in. If you’re color blind like me it’s nerve racking to know they’re out there. I can spot fish just fine but I have to be up on a redd to see it.

    I like fishing smaller creeks in my area when it gets cold. They’re little urban spring creeks with bridges in a few spots and while I’d rather be a further away from traffic, no one is there that time of year so who cares! Being out of the water keeps me a little warmer too. I’ve also fished a spring creek that only held spring spawning rainbows in the fall and early winter.

    If I want a big water fix, there are a few tail waters around here that stock and don’t hold many wild browns/brookies in the main stem.

    -Dom

    Reply
    • Nice, Dom. Thanks for the comment.

      And I agree with you. I tend to believe that angler education is the best way to protect future wild trout populations.

      Reply
  4. I find it hard to draw a line between spawners and pre-spawners.
    Sure the act of dropping eggs/milt in the redd is very quick, but the fact of the matter is that the spawning process is actually quite long.
    Days/weeks before hand, trout begin spawning prep including diet changes, migrating to spawning grounds, digging the redd, protecting the redd, etc.
    So rest assured that pre-spawner you caught would’ve used his/her energy in some part of this spawning process.
    What’s more; eggs/milt can prematurely drop under certain circumstances, including a fight on the end of an anglers line.
    Does that mean all fishing during spawning seasons is unethical? I don’t think so.
    But to me drawing that ethical line has to include this awareness; that spawning is more than just dropping the eggs/milt in the redd.
    Furthermore, I wish more “mind the redd” education also included angling pressure considerations.
    Our riverbanks are lined up with anglers during the spawn and even if every single angler is using good practices I don’t see how one could logically deem this behavior as ethical.

    … Just my $0.02.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the input.

      I think the angling pressure is part of the ethics portion in the first place. The ethical and informed angler recognizes, like you, that anglers lined up shoulder to shoulder is not a good thing for the trout. But the vast majority of trout waters in my state, and I daresay nationwide, are pretty lonely in the late fall / early winter.

      Your point about pre-spawn is also well received here. It’s another portion of my argument that anglers interested in fishing for wild trout beyond the “regular” season would do well to be on the river for some of this process, to witness and understand it — to see where and how it happens, and to learn how to keep their impact low before, during and especially after the spawn.

      Thanks again.

      Reply
  5. i usually take a month off during prime brookie spawning time then avoid wading as much as possible until march. around where i fish (va) it is heavily frowned on to fish wild brookies at all nov through march but still i fish in winter, albeit much less frequently as the rest of the year.

    was just in the smokies, didn’t seem like the same ethos was there from what i gathered talking to the locals. maybe because they have rainbows there as well, but even in the brookie only streams the idea of giving the fish a rest in the fall seemed like a foreign idea. that is peak tourist and fishing time out there so maybe that’s why.

    Reply
  6. HI DOM, TOTALLY AGREE LET THEM LIE N WATCH WHERE YOU STEP
    SEE YOU MONDAY

    Reply
  7. I think education is the key. Most fly fishermen that I know don’t want to do anything to harm the trout populations in the streams they fish. If for no other reason than selfishness in knowing that there will be better fishing if they do. Quite honestly, when I was new to fly fishing 20 years ago, I just did not know about redds. Articles like this are the key to ensuring that people understand when and where redds are and how to avoid them. I think that’s enough for me to go out and fish during the spawn. I don’t know that there is much we can do about fishermen targeting spawning fish except educate people on the negative effects it has for all of us enjoying the sport. Thank you for this article.

    Reply
    • Right on. It takes a lot of stream time to really understand what’s going on out there. Actually, it probably takes a lifetime.

      Reply
  8. I actually have off work on Monday and was going to head to State College to fish Sunday and Monday. Then I contemplated not going at all because of the spawning going on now. Hate to not go because not sure I will get another chance this year. Having read your article and the others that you posted, I think I can be careful where I fish to avoid the redds and the spawners, so I am going to head out tomorrow. Plan on fishing slow and looking hard at the stream bed before I make every step or stay out of the water when at all possible. On the other hand, I do hope to spot a couple in action as I have never seen it before. Thanks for the info Dom as always as I feel more comfortable heading out there tomorrow. I promise to do my best not to make any bad impact on the future trout that we need. Thanks, Dave

    Reply
    • Thanks, Dave.

      They haven’t really started spawning here yet. But they’re very close. This latest shot of water will probably kick it off. Like I wrote above, after a while it becomes pretty easy to predict where redds might be, and you just fish the rest. If I had to put a number on it, maybe only five percent of the river is used for spawning, probably less. And in many places, trout don’t spawn in the main river at all, they seem to use tributaries. Overall, once you’re out there, you’ll see what I mean. Active redds are obvious, when the water is clear enough. That teaches you the water type to look for, and then all the sudden you are predicting where the next redd will be.

      Good luck.

      Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
  9. I try to acknowledge karma in all things, including my fishing. Interfering with the reproductive activity of wild trout is a very inadvisable sin, if one believes in the boomerang of karmic law.

    Reply
  10. I have it from a couple of knowledgeable guys I trust that one can fish dry flies during the spawn to avoid hooking spawning fish–that breeding fish don’t hit dry flies. I’d assume one still should avoid redds and shouldn’t be casting dries over them as well. I ran into a guy on Spring Creek years ago who told me he targeted the males on the redds with nymphs, but left the females alone, bragging about catching some big fish that way. I let him know that I wasn’t impressed, and that I considered this an unethical approach. He shrugged me off. A few folks just won’t care, but education and sharing ideas about what is and is not right has an impact on many, especially folks who just aren’t sure. I especially liked the observations about learning where redds are to avoid them when they are silted over. Another great article.

    Reply
    • Hi Louis.

      I agree with all of that. Some people will never care. Most people will care once they understand.

      The guy you met on Spring Creek — that’s ridiculous, in my opinion.

      Regarding hitting dries — I don’t know, because when I see spawning trout I just leave them alone. I can say that if you propect with dries on a regular basis at this time of year you will not regularly catch trout. Not here, anyway. Consistent success in the late fall and winter requires fishing subsurface.

      Sounds like you and I would get along well.

      Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
      • Dom, the two guys who recommended fishing dries this time of year are Steve from Flyfisher’s Paradise, and Bruce from Penns Creek Angler. I agree that fishing dries won’t work all the time in the fall, but I have had good luck fishing olives on Spring Creek during spawn times, just fishing seams and likely spots, even when there were few bugs on the water, but avoiding any redds or tailouts etc. where redds were likely to be. A week ago I caught some fish on Penns fishing a big October Caddis in the riffles, in water where I was relatively sure fish would not be spawning. But, admittedly, it was slow generally. Still, having fish come up from the seams, and especially one nice fish among some average ones, was a treat. I’ve also done some nymphing through the fall, avoiding any spots that seem likely for redds. I haven’t seen redds yet, but haven’t looked in the likely spots. I’m sure there are some on Spring Creek by now, especially in the flats and tailouts. Anyway, thanks. I know from the day we spent together that we have a lot in common. The fly fishing community is more and more important to me as I get older and appreciate not just catching fish, but sharing ideas with guys I respect.

        Reply
  11. In the effort to educate all Angeles , I was surprised to see the discussion only on the fall winter spawn. What about the spring spawn of Rainbows and Cutts, you should mention this as well. Try to protect all our precious trout all over.

    Reply
    • Hi Travis

      That’s a fair point. I admit that I tend to get tunnel vision and focus on our wild browns and brookies. The rainbows in PA are stocked. There are only a handful of rivers where wild bows are around.

      Regardless, take all of the same principles and apply them to spawning rainbows out your way.

      Cheers.

      Dom
      Dom

      Reply
  12. The river I fish has two sections closed from Nov. 1st until Feb. 28th. The rest of the river is open and there are spots in the open river where fish do spawn. Fish also on on the move, moving up river to spawn so there are time when fish with eggs or milt are caught. Last survey that I know of found 12,000 7″ or larger trout per river mile. The system is healthy. Fishing during the spawn doesn’t seem to be hurting the fishery on this river.

    Ralph

    Reply
  13. Dom, great article, here in Michigan most trout streams are closed until the last Saturday in April, but there are some that are open year round. One of those is a stream I have been fishing hard for the last 2 years, Im trying learn this river like the back of hand. I think I will continue to fish through the spawn if its possible because we have very high water levels now. But I must tell you, im 62 years old and have fished hard all my life, I have seen everything you could possibly see on are rivers here. For me when I was 11 years old we went up to Foote dam on the Ausable in the early fall, this was the most disgusting thing I ever witnessed in my life! 1968 and the first returns of salmon from lake Huron, and it was anything goes. That has been with me all my life, there are many more examples of really pitful behavior here, but that’s why I fish the flies only water now, and the backlash to that is unreal!
    Thanks, Mike.

    Reply
  14. Thought provoking article, thanks. What is your take on trout and steelhead fishing during salmon spawn?

    Reply
    • Hi Roger.

      I truly don’t have a take on it. Never done it myself. I kinda stay away from the whole scene because of all the horror stories. Ha. I pretty much gave up PA steelhead fishing the lake Erie tribs because of the mess that can become. Too many people, and too much of a culture that I’m not a big fan of. I’m spoiled to fish where I do. And sometimes it’s hard to justify driving far away from here to go fish among a bunch of other people.

      In general, I think a spawning fish should be given space to do its thing.

      Dom

      Reply
  15. Love this article, Dom. In the part of Massachusetts I live in there is a very special tail water not far from me, brookies and browns do well in it. This time of year on through winter I only wade the sandy bottom or bigger stone zones. Luckily the part of the river I fish isn’t that popular and becomes less so the colder it gets which suits me fine. Brookies should get a pretty good chance of making a good go of their redds there with dwindling amount of anglers. One place in particular is a zone that “no one fishes” except for me. I leave that zone alone going forward being I know what goes on there this time of year.

    Reply

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