Growing up fishing small streams with my father taught me many things about reading trout water and the etiquette one must show to fellow fishers and the fish themselves. While camping in the Uinta Mountains, I was taught that spawning cutthroat trout are to be considered a treasure, and that if you must fish, caution should be used around any species that are actively spawning or are on a redd.
A redd is an area of cleaned gravel, usually pea-sized, that fish have moved into a depression or nest. There is often a small heap of gravel at the downstream side of this hump. Females deposit their eggs in the redd and males fertilize them with milt. Many of the eggs settle into the gravel of the depression and the hump. During the spawn, trout—like many other animals during breeding season—are more easily caught. Even though the streams were open and the daily trout limit was 8 when I was young, my father would only allow us to fish away from the redds, and we could only keep one male if we needed food for camp. Females were to be released, as well as males if not needed.
Honor versus Law
Years later I would watch as fishermen, during the brown trout spawn on the Weber River, would keep a full limit of eight trout caught off of the redds. The snow to and from the river leading to their vehicles was littered with the roe of dead female trout. I was ashamed for these fellow anglers, and asked my father why people would do this. It was then I learned another lesson: Honor and respect are greater than the law. The fishermen were not doing anything illegal, but there was no honor in what they were doing.
For me to say someone should never fish during a spawn would be foolish and unrealistic. Brown and brook trout spawn during the fall, and depending on the weather, their spawning season can last almost three months. Cutthroat and rainbow trout, on the other hand, spawn in the spring. Between the two seasons, anglers only be allowed to fish for a few months during the summer and winter. Here in Utah, some streams are closed to fishing during the cutthroat spawn, as they are the native trout to Utah and, in many areas, not at peak numbers.
Pros and Cons
There are many arguments for and against fishing during the spawn. If spawning fish were always off limits then you would never be able to fish for salmon or steelhead or sea-run trout of any kind. Some argue that fishing during the spawn has less of an impact on a fishery than fishing during the high temps and low waters of late summer. There is a lot of truth to that, but that does not mean fishing during the spawn has no impact. Most of our streams, lakes, and rivers are now filled with non-native fish species. Do they deserve less respect or protection? Many of these non-native species are now breeding and surviving and are wild. I am not one to lecture or preach; I simply believe in knowledge—and making good decisions based on that knowledge.
One of the most important things anglers can do is learn more about spawning fish. Ignorance is no excuse. Knowing where and when to wade and fish is good for fish and fly fishers alike. Knowing when fish are spawning can help you catch more fish. Be a better angler, and do not give in to the pressure of taking a hero picture of a fish fresh off a spawning redd. If you must fish during the spawn, do not wade through redds. Limit your kills, fight fish quickly and release them without removing them from the water if possible. An even better strategy is to fish deeper pools and avoid the redds altogether. It may be legal to fish during the spawn, but is it ethical? I guess that depends on you and where you fish. Honor should transcend the law.
Travis Jay Vernon, Fly Fishing Guide & Sales Associate Jans Park Ave