Commentary

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

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November 7, 2018

The fiery sunset lingered before fading into common grays and dark blues. And I watched it all from the riverbank.

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 ritual of spawning. And in a few weeks, trout will disperse to a winter routine.

Making trout babies seems like one a hell of a party. 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 1-3 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. And if 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 restrain 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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Erik

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…

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… Read more »

Erik

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

Alex Argyros

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.

Erik

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 😉

Dominick Petruso

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… Read more »

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… Read more »

greg

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… Read more »

Domenick Swentosky
BELLEFONTE, PA

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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