Spring is one of the more productive seasons to fish! Not only are trout feeding opportunistically after months of cold weather, but there are a growing number of bugs in and on the water to gorge themselves on. Spring is the time to whip out those dry flies and rig up some beefy streamers as trout have been revived and are actively seeking out sustenance in a variety of types of water. While fly fishing in the spring has its advantages, it is also a crucial time for rainbow and cutthroat trout as they begin to reproduce. This can be a very heated topic and one we don’t take lightly. However, we believe with the right information and a healthy appreciation for conservation, we can protect current and future generations of trout while thoroughly enjoying the bounty that spring fly fishing has to offer.
Trout Behavior and Spawning Location
As far as timing goes, rainbow and cutthroat spawning will occur between February and May. The specific time for which this begins can vary from river to river given differing geographic locations and weather patterns, but at the end of the day it all comes down to water temperature. When water temps rise above 42 degrees F, it's game on!
At this point, trout will venture out of their winter lies and seek out shallow water and more specifically gravel beds. Here, the hen (female trout) will use her caudal, or tail fin to clear out debris and sediment to create a spawning bed, or redd, to lay her eggs. Redds are easy to overlook, especially if you’re not paying close attention. If you’re unsure as to whether or not it is in fact a redd, treat it as if it is one as it’s always better to err on the side of caution. As far as appearance goes, you’re looking for shiny gravel sections in the shape of an oval that are 1 to 3 feet wide. You’ll know for sure that you are looking at a redd if the coloration of the gravel is brighter than those surrounding them.
Meanwhile, the bucks (male trout) become territorial and aggressive to other male trout in an effort to protect its significant other’s spawning ground. Once the hen lays her eggs on the established redd, the buck will fertilize them from which point they are covered up to mature for several months.
Ethics of Fly Fishing During the Trout Spawn
Now that we know what to be looking for in terms of the characteristics of redds, their location and trout behavior, let’s talk ethics for a moment. Before you begin to fish, we encourage you to survey the water from the bank. By doing so, it offers you a better vantage point to locate holding trout and identify redds. If you see a pair of trout holding idle in shallow water, the odds are they are on a redd and either spawning or protecting their future offspring. In this case, leave the trout be. Not only is it unsportly to target spawning trout, but it dramatically decreases its odds of survival and prevents nature from running its course. Spawning is already taxing enough on trout and by hooking into one, you’re adding stress that they are not fully equipped to handle. If you are unsure whether or not trout are spawning or if they are on a redd, it is always best to treat it as if they are. Again, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Okay, that’s all for my ethics of fly fishing during the spawn sermon. Now for the fun stuff!
How to Ethically Fish During the Trout Spawn
Fishing during the spawn can be incredibly productive as trout require extra nutrients to support the lost calories associated with reproduction. Not only that, the males, in particular, get a big head and utilize their burst of ego to prey on smaller trout and bait fish. As a result, trout will feed more actively, making for an awesome time on the water. While you shouldn’t target trout on redds, there’s a good chance that you’ll find some feeding directly below. In this case, trout are feeding on bugs that were stirred up from those spawning above as well as the eggs that didn’t make it safely to the redd.
Nymphing is a great option this time of year and you’ll be glad to know that you can stash those #26 larva and pupa patterns for another time. During the spawn, trout are feeding opportunistically and more willing to move about the water for bigger bites. As such, attractor patterns like leeches, worms, eggs and stonefly larva make for great lead flies. Otherwise, imitative (#18-22) midge and baetis larva/pupa make for great trailer flies.
Dry fly fishing can be a great option as well given that hatch activity begins to intensify and trout are increasingly looking up to the surface to feed. The spring midge hatch is the first big hatch to be aware of. During this time, midges cover the water and trout stuff themselves with copious amounts of these tiny morsels. Beyond that, starting in late March and early April, the BWO hatch has trout going wild.
Last, but not least, streamers will have you on the fighting end of some beefy and aggressive trout. We mentioned it earlier, but trout, particularly males, become territorial and will devour smaller trout and bait fish. Make some waves along the banks or strip slowly through the soft water for the best results.