Spring has arrived in the Vail Valley bringing with it warmer temperatures, longer days and eager anglers. The numbers of wading anglers increases significantly in the Spring. Now is the time to discuss a subject that touches on one of the polarizing aspects of our sport, fishing the spawn. I am not trying to make any friends nor am I here to admonish other anglers’ fishing techniques. I am trying to educate the fly fishing public and more specifically the neophyte angler. Rainbow Trout spawn in the Spring offering a choice to anglers that encounter a redd. You can either harass an already stressed out resource or to assist in the production of a self sustaining commodity, a true sign of a healthy watershed. The decision falls onto the individual angler so lets present some information to educate anglers and let them make their own decisions.
What fish are spawning in the Spring?
Springtime brings Rainbow and Cutthroat trout into shallow, gravel areas to create a spawning habitat for their eggs called a redd. The egg swollen females work their fins and tail to form a shallow depression in the river bottom gravel. The focused attention to the redd creates a clean substrate for the eggs to adhere more effectively. The area of the redd varies in size depending on the intensity of the spawn but a pair of trout can easily clean a portion of the river bottom the size of a garbage can lid. And the males especially guard their redd vigorously. The spawning trout are more apt to repeatedly strike a fly or intruder out of aggression making them easy targets for anglers.
What condition are they in now?
During this period trout are highly stressed having endured the lean feeding months of a long winter. Their fins and tail are worn and battered from the physical activity of constructing a redd. They have lost a significant amount of their protective slime coating leaving them susceptible to fungal skin infections. And they have lost a major portion of their overall body weight resulting in emaciated, skinny trout all in the name of spawning. Now if we add in the external factors like haphazard waders walking in prime spawning areas, unethical anglers purposely targeting spawning trout or the unlucky angler who has had a rough day connecting and who stumbles upon a pair of rainbows guarding the clean rock bar near the truck. Nobody is looking. I’ll just see if I can catch one of them… lifting his spirits and possibly lowering the success rate of this years brood.
A lot of opinions exist surrounding how much affect anglers have when catching spawning trout. It seems to follow logic that an already stressed out resource doesn’t need additional hassles from those people who appreciate them the most. At Vail Valley Anglers we choose to not fish spawning trout actively guarding a redd. As an outfitter that prides itself on our Fish First initiative, targeting spawners is not a tactic our guides exploit.
How can we fish with success and avoid impacting the spawn?
However there are ways to successfully and ethically approach your fishing during the Spring spawning season. One easy way to reduce your negative impact on spawning trout is to stay on the bank as much as possible. With your wading boots on dry ground it becomes much more difficult to wade over active redds or to squash fertilized eggs on the river bottom. Merely wading upstream of a redd can dislodge enough sediment to smother healthy eggs.
Where you place your nymph/egg rig has a lot to do with avoiding spawning trout. When anglers locate spawning trout they need to search downstream of the redds for the first deeper water depression. Pre-spawning trout already full of aggression. Opportunistic brown trout will set up in this location to take advantage of the high protein, non-locomotive food source. Eggs are easy pickings so to speak. In this sluice box type of situation eggs fall deeper into the river currents. They tumble along the bottom where trout feed on them with ease. An egg fly, like my favorite Otter’s egg in orange or apricot color, produces repeatedly when fished below an active redd.
Streamers are another type of offering fly anglers can present with success during the spawn. Pre-spawn rainbows and cutts attack streamers with enough emphasis to set their own hook. And we all know how hard Brown trout hit meat flies. Streamers are a type of fly that will avoid spawning fish, for the most part. However, swing one over an active redd in the springtime and it will probably be struck from the instinctual guarding behavior Rainbow trout possess.
Targeting afternoon risers that are keying in on the Midge or Blue Wing Olive hatch is another successful approach to fishing during the spawn. Usually these are a smaller class of Rainbow trout that have not yet reached spawning maturity or Brown trout. The larger more mature Rainbows are in some phase of the spawn whether it is pre-spawn, spawning or post-spawn. The rising fish are actively feeding in water that is deeper than spawning depth and over broken bottom structure that is not conducive to spawning. Concentrating your efforts on this type of situation builds success and avoids spawning areas.
Time to step it up
A high percentage of fly anglers did not become fly fishers to make things easier. We accept the challenge to try and entice fish into eating rather than feeding them with bait. Spawning season is often a time when anglers need to “step up their game” to maintain successful outings. Keep up the challenge by not focusing on the spawning trout in the river but rather by targeting the other trout not so immersed in the taxing activity of procreation.
So with the warm springtime days and a touch of Daylight Savings we can stretch our fly line into the evening with a variety of productive techniques. Avoiding spawning areas and actively spawning trout helps to insure fish are there for my daughters and your kids to enjoy. Booking a trip with Vail Valley Anglers guarantees you won’t be stepping in the wrong spot. Our guides can put you on fish and insure the longevity of the trout filling our rivers.
Michael “Sal” Salomone, Vail Valley Anglers Guide and Content Writer