Fall is a special time to fish in the Intermountain west. The crowds of anglers are usually down, the fish are fat, the air is cool and crisp, and the fall foliage makes our mountains a beautiful place to spend the day in. The Fall season is also a time of reproduction, as our resident Brown Trout and Brook Trout begin their spawning ritual, and are focused on making the next generation of trout. In order to help the fish get through this physically demanding process, we [anglers] need to leave them alone while they are spawning, and watch out for their fish nests, which are called redds.
While it is not illegal (yet) to fish to spawning fish, and there are, unfortunately, anglers who still continue to target spawning fish, it is not a sustainable way to fish, or an ethical thing to do. Why? Firstly, if we want to continue to have healthy fisheries, and fish in our waters, we must take steps to make sure they can reproduce and not be interfered with. Fish that are spawning are already stressed out, and many will die from exhaustion after spawning. They use their bodies to clear out small depressions in the streambed in which they lay their eggs. This digging out a nest for their eggs strips the protective slime and even the skin of the fish from their bodies-making them susceptible to parasites and infection. Every time an angler hooks a fish off of its spawning redd, they are stressing out a fish that is already pushed to the edge of its survival, and dramatically increasing the chances that it will die from exhaustion and stress. Watching where we wade is also vital to making sure we don’t kill the eggs on redds. Wading through redds is a sure-fire way to crush fish eggs, and even wading around redds can kill the eggs by smothering them with mud, silt, and debris we kick-up.
Secondly, it is not sportsmanlike in any way to target spawning fish. Trout make redds in shallow, gravelly riffles and tail-outs of pools, which means they are super exposed. They [trout] are aggressively vigilant and protective of their eggs, and like most fish, will attack anything that ventures too close to redds during the spawn. This makes what are usually very wary fish sitting ducks, and really takes away the whole point of why we fly-fish. Fly-fishing, by its nature, is not easy. It is the challenge of tying flies, rigging, fly-casting, and presentation that makes fooling a fish on a fly all the more satisfactory. If all you want to do is catch fish, without putting any effort into it, I’d recommend you spend your time at a local trout farm, or private stocked pond. You’ll catch all the fish you want, and help keep our wild fish and fisheries healthy.
If you still want to get out and fish, but do it in a place where you don’t have to worry about spawning fish, I’d highly recommend checking out lakes and reservoirs. Many of our local stillwater fisheries have Cutthroat, Rainbow, and Tiger trout in them. With the onset of Fall weather, these fish will move closer to the banks and edges, which makes them more accessible to catch, and they will feed aggressively right up until ice covers them up. If you want to continue to fish our local rivers, creeks and streams, you’ll need to make sure to focus your efforts in the deep holes and pools, focus on using techniques that have a lower chance of hooking spawning fish (like dry flies and soft hackles), and you’ll need to make sure you’re extra careful when wading so as to not inadvertently crush or smother eggs in the redds.
In summation: If you are going to fish for trout this time of year, or any time of the year when fish are actively spawning, then make sure you fish responsibly by not targeting fish that are on their redds, or wade through the redds. If you want to go fish where you don’t have to worry about dealing with spawning fish, go find a local stillwater or river with fish species not spawning. Or, focus on fishing the deeper troughs, pools, and runs with techniques that will have a lower probability not negatively impact the spawn. If we all respect the redds, we all benefit from it in the long term.
*For more info on how to identify spawning redds, and why fishing to spawning fish isn’t a smart thing to do, the folks at Redington Fly-Fishing made an informative (and entertaining) video on how to avoid the redds. You can watch it here.*