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The Dos and Don’ts of Fishing the Spawn

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7 mins read
By Spencer Durrant

If there’s one thing that can rile folks up, it’s the topic of fishing the spawn. For some, fishing during the spawn is tantamount to murdering trout. For others, it’s the best chance of the year to land a really big fish. Post a picture of a fish that’s clearly been pulled from a redd, and you’ll quickly get run off social media by the morality police.

I’m not here to cast judgement or start a fight. Instead, I want to lay out the facts about spawning fish and ethical fishing practices, to help clear up any misconceptions that exist about fishing the spawn.

What’s the spawn?

When folks talk about fishing the spawn, they’re usually referring to the fall, when brown trout (and some strains of rainbow trout) mate. Brook trout are fall-spawning fish, so this conversation applies to them, too.

Redds

When trout spawn, they dig a shallow depression into the river bottom. This bowl-shaped depression is called a redd. Trout deposit eggs and milt on the redds, and the eggs will incubate and hatch in a redd.

Redds are pretty easy to identify. For starters, they’re dug in areas of the river that have a gravelly bottom. Fish also clean the redds, getting rid of any moss or algae on the rocks. Redds show up as bright, clean areas of gravel along the river bottom, a bit like this.

close up shot of a redd in a river

If you’re out fishing during the fall, and you see a redd, don’t step in it. Walking through redds is a quick way to destroy the eggs, and thus destroy future generations of trout. In a world where we’re increasingly losing wild populations of fish, preserving every one we can is imperative.

Again, I’m not out to shame anyone here. Before I knew any better, I walked through a few redds. I’m also guilty of not handling fish well during catch-and-release as a new fly angler, too. One aspect of fly fishing that’s so attractive to so many different people is that it’s impossible to master. You’re always becoming a better angler, which means you’ll inevitably make some mistakes. That’s all part of the process, as is learning.

I’d also recommend you watch this excellent video about identifying and avoiding redds, from Devin Olsen.

Should I even fish during the spawn?

So, after learning about redds and why it’s important to leave them alone, you’re probably wondering if it’s even worth fishing during the spawn?

It certainly is. Fall is my favorite time of the year to fish. I love the crisp air, the changing leaves, the vaguely upset weather, and the thinning crowds. It’s also when fish get more aggressive as they feed incessantly to pack on the pounds before a long winter.

To fish successfully during the spawn, you need to avoid stepping in or near redds. Give those redds a wide berth so you don’t disturb the spawning process.

You should also leave any actively spawning trout alone. I get it – seeing big fish sitting on a redd is mighty tempting. I’d be a liar if I said I haven’t given into that temptation before. Fish on redds are at their most vulnerable, though, and it’s up to us anglers to protect them. Let the fish do their thing, and catch them later on in the year.

underwater shot of a redd

Where to fish during the spawn

Fall brings the last of the major dry fly hatches, with blue-winged olives and October caddis comprising most of the bugs fish are looking for. Even when fish are spawning, the ones that haven’t had their turn on a redd, or aren’t old enough to reproduce, will be looking up for food. Some of the best dry fly fishing all year comes during fall hatches. Target pools, eddies, and slower water for these hatches.

You can also fish behind redds. Obviously, make sure there aren’t any other redds behind the one you’re fishing. Fish stack up behind redds to eat the eggs that naturally drift downriver during the spawning process. Eggs are a high-value food source, and you’ll stick a lot of big fish drifting eggs through riffles where trout aren’t actively spawning. I like pairing an egg pattern with a larger nymph, like a Prince, beneath an indicator. Drifting them without any split-shot is a solid combination that consistently produces fish.

It’s about preservation

You can still get out and fish during the spawn. The key is to leave actively spawning fish alone, and to avoid their redds. Do that, and you’re golden.

It’s important to learn about redds and spawning fish, because with that knowledge comes the opportunity to preserve our fisheries for as long as possible. They’re not making new trout streams anymore, and with drought gripping most of the West, it’s perhaps more important now than ever before to preserve the trout fisheries we have left. The better stewards we are of our resources, the longer they’ll last. That’s what this post is really about.

Get out there and fish this fall. Some of the best dry fly fishing you’ll have all year comes during a chilly autumn afternoon. And who knows – you just might stick a really big fish on a drifted egg pattern!

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