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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
One from Field and Stream:
And this one from Orvis Fly Fishing:
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.
T R O U T B I T T E N