We’ve all done it. . . It has been a long day, the fish are not hanging in their usual spots. . . They are all congregated in shallow, pea-size gravel chasing each other in circles as they compete with each other to carry on the family tree. A quick look over the shoulder to verify that nobody is looking, a subtle cast of a prince nymph or pheasant tail behind the active spawners, and suddenly your slow day of fishing begins to look a bit more promising. We know we should not fish them while they are spawning. . . They are pre-occupied and vulnerable, but, sometimes large trout holding in shallow water are simply too iresistible for a fly fishermen to ignore.
What is the right thing to do if you are an ethical angler and you stumble across a group of spawners in an isolated side channel? Should you fish them, and, if so, what can you do to minimize your impact upon the spawners? I think the answer to whether you should fish spawners may lie in the eyes of each fisherman. However, if you are going to fish spawners, then I think all anglers should try to follow a set of rules that protect the fish while they are spawning.
Should You Fish the Spawn?
I have been blessed to catch a lot of fish in my years of fishing. I no longer need to catch a fish to make my day a success. However, I can remember fishing the Big Horn when I was a kid and encountered a side channel absolutely filled with spawning brown trout. I was like a grizzly bear overlooking a stream chock filled with spawing Sockeyes. I had spent too many days getting skunked on the Big Horn to pass up an opportunity to catch these fish. I threw my scud into the channel, and, if memory serves me correctly, I caught more fish in an hour than I had caught on all my previous trips combined. After the sun dipped behind the Big Horns, I drove back to Billings, spent the evening tying pink scuds, and drove back to the Big Horn at first light for another go at the fish.
The second day was a lot of fun as well, but, as the day progressed, I found myself starting to feel guilty. So, I would go out to the main river, fish for the non-spawners for a while, then, after getting skunked again, I would slip back into the channel for another spawner. I did not go back for a third day. It was Christmas, and then, before I could return on the 26th, a fierce winter storm hit making the fishing a little bit too rugged for me, and I did not make it back out to the river for another round with the spawners.
As the years progressed, I spent less and less time fishing around spawning trout. Today, I would prefer to sit on the bank, eat my lunch, and watch the trout spawn. I don’t regret having fished the spawn early in my fishing career. I always treated them carefully and tried to minimize my impact upon them.
In fact, upon reflection, I think, much like a young hunter, I just had to get fishing for spawning trout out of my system. I needed to learn the lesson all young fishermen must learn – fishing is not about catching. It is about the satisfaction we feel when we persuade a trout to choose our offering over all others.
If You Are Going To Fish the Spawn, How Should You Do It?
For fly-fishermen fishing spawning trout, the first rule should be do no harm. After reading articles about fishing the spawn and spending a lot of time near spawning fish, I have developed a few rules which I think will allow anglers to fish during spawning season without jeopardizing the trout’s spawning success.
Rule #1: Do not pursue fish which are sitting on their spawning beds. You can tell fish are sitting on their beds when you see them sitting on top of cleared off gravel in pairs. Fish that have just spawned, or are in the process of spawning, will protect the spawning bed from any intruders and will investigate any nymph or other crustacean which drifts through the spawning bed.
Rule #2: When fishing near spawning fish, avoid walking on spawning beds. Spawning beds, depending upon the size of the fish, look like someone has dug a hole in the smaller gravel on the bottom of the river. Since most rivers do have vegetation on the bottom, you can typically identify spawning beds by looking where the gravel has been cleared of vegetation. When you identify the spawning beds, by all means, stay away from them. Do not walk anywhere near them. In sum, if you are fishing near spawning fish, you should really try to fish from shore.
Rule #3: When fish are about to spawn, or have just spawned, you should play the fish as quickly as possible and treat them very gently. Fish that are released quickly will generally return to their spawning activities without any noticeable effect on the success or failure of their spawning run. Do not hold fish out for extended periods of time. This will sap their strength and greatly limit their ability to spawn.
Rule #4: If you are fishing the spawn, limit your impact. Do you really need to catch a 100 fish in a day? Catch one or two fish and then move on. Leave the fish alone to do their thing. Your children will thank you if and hopefully when they enjoy the same sort of fishing you are enjoying today.
Rule #5: Do not fish spawning fish in drainages where fish populations are under pressure. For example, in Montana, during the drought years, fish populations in the Big Horn, dropped precipitously. The fish surviving the drought were strong fish, but they are under stress. Leave these fish alone, as they are the keys to re-building this population.
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, we have all felt the urge to cast our fly into a group of spawning trout. When I was just learning how to fly-fish, I spent more than a little time catching spawning browns on the Big Horn. I would not do this today. However, I understand the temptation to cast into a group of fish getting ready to spawn. If you see spawning fish, and are overcome by the need to cast a fly into the spawning channel, just follow the simple of rule of do no harm. By catching and releasing them in a quick and careful manner, fishermen can fish spawning fish without doing any harm. The fish are counting on all of us to do the right thing. The future fishermen of the world are counting on us to do the right thing. Good luck fishing this year, and remember to take good care of the fish.0