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Fishing the Spawn

by Larry Tullis   |  September 28th, 2012 0

Alaska Rainbow trout gorge themselves on salmon spawn. For pictures take the shot quickly and release the fish after gentle revival. Photo: Larry Tullis

I can remember the first time I saw my fishing companion pull a Glo-Bug out of his fly box. I was a teenager in the 1970s and I skeptically thought that no trout would go for a fake salmon egg. As a younger child, I had used real salmon eggs with deadly success, but by my teenage years I was using only flies. It was spring and we were catching rainbows below a reservoir where spawners and other trout hung out for food. The spawners were not too interested in our flies, but the trout holding behind the nests were greedily gobbling anything resembling an egg, including our orange strike indicators.

Of course, my friend with the fake egg outfished me and my dry flies about ten to one, until he gave me an egg fly and I had an attitude adjustment. I have since learned to imitate all trout foods, not just insects, and to change my strategies when the trout change their habits.

Many times I have fished to trout, salmon, bass, and panfish that had spawning activity on their brains. Like most of you, I release most of the fish I catch.

I have seen the pictures of carnage when someone kills a cooler full of spawning-crazed fish. I previously and secretly envied those anglers who could catch and show that many big trout in a day, but I also knew that there was something unethical with what they were doing. It’s this mental picture of many dead spawners and the life they could have given back that has given fishing to spawners such a bad name.

I think that everyone would agree that snagging, gaffing, or netting gamefish from their spawning beds or otherwise killing them is unsportsmanlike; but from this point on there seems to be lots of gray areas.

Many fly fishers say they will never fish for spawners and call for closures of waters during the spawn. Some say, “Don’t disturb the trout on their honeymoon.” But what about pre-spawn or post-spawn trout? Where do we as anglers draw the line?

I define pre-spawn and post-spawn as spawning-related activity but not the actual time pairs are digging and spawning in their nests. If we eliminated all fishing for spawning fish, then we would not be able to fish for Atlantic or Pacific salmon or steelhead in or near rivers. There would be no fishing for the runs of large trout coming out of lakes. We would have to close some streams for most of the year as various species spawned. There would be no spring bass and bluegill fishing. The rainbows of Alaska would be off limits, because they feed on salmon spawn or salmon fry. Since walking on spawning beds also does lots of damage, brown-trout streams would be closed from the fall until the fry hatched in the spring. High-altitude trout spawn in midsummer, so there would be little or no fishing available in mountain waters when they are ice-free.

I don’t think any angler wants all those closures, so we need to develop a set of biologically sound practices that preserve both our sport and the spawning abilities of our quarry. Lets look at what trout do during the spawn.

Browns, brookies, arctic char, Dolly Varden, mackinaw (lake trout), and bull trout spawn in the fall. Their eggs generally stay in the gravel until spring and then emerge. Rainbows, cutthroats, goldens, bass, and panfish generally spawn in the spring. Their eggs hatch in late spring or early summer.

These fish usually grow two or more years before they become sexually mature. When they feel the urge to spawn, they start by gathering with others and moving toward their spawning areas, usually in rivers or spring areas (pre-spawn activity). They hang out and feed in the areas near spawning substrate before they pair up and start moving into position.

These pre-spawn fish can be aggressive, and big specimens often throw caution to the wind as they become single-minded about feeding, finding a mate, and protecting their turf. Anyone who fishes streamers to fall brown trout or spring rainbows or bass knows this situation well because they’ve seen big gamefish aggressively attack streamers that invade their space.
Salmon and steelhead feed little on their spawning runs, but they do take items into their mouths due to aggression, curiosity, or (some anglers believe) memories of their feeding habits as juveniles in the rivers before they went to the sea.

The actual spawning takes place as the females dig their nests. Each female is usually protected by one or more males. The naturally superior males generally get the girls, but they sometimes mate with various females.

Fishing for spawning or pre-spawning trout can be ethical if we follow simple rules of behavior. Photo: Larry Tullis

Each batch of eggs is sprayed with sperm (milt) by the males and is covered with pea- to marble-size gravel by the females. The males guard the nest and the female maintains and cleans it until they are spawned out.

At this mid-spawning stage, the males might aggressively defend the nest against all interlopers and the females might fastidiously clean the nest. They generally don’t feed but may be hooked in the mouth due to their aggressive activities.

Usually, 50 to 90 percent of the fish in a spawning area are not spawning. These are pre-spawn, post-spawn, or spawn groupies that are there primarily to eat the loose eggs and nymphs and crustaceans dislodged by the spawners. Eggs are a prime source of protein for fish that are just getting off a winter of slim pickings or preparing to go through a winter.

Nonspawning trout also follow salmon (or spawning trout) upstream to their spawning grounds. In Alaska, for example, they feed heavily on loose salmon eggs. While these egg-eating trout are not spawning, they are linked inextricably with the salmon spawn, and you must fish in salmon spawning areas to catch these generally large and healthy trout.

I’m amazed at how few anglers can identify a spawning area and avoid walking on it. I constantly need to educate anglers I see walking on the nests. Spawning nests are identified by a clean (no moss), light-colored gravel depression in riffles and tailouts that have a build-up of gravel toward the lower end.

The eggs are located in the hump, not the hole. I’ve seen many fly anglers ignorantly using this mound as a casting perch, crushing many eggs. The nests may cover large areas if there are many spawners, or they may be isolated or solitary. Since the eggs require a certain amount of oxygen to stay alive, the nests are only located where the fish can find the proper current speed (or springs) and clean gravel of the proper size.

As individual fish complete their spawning, they move off to recuperate and begin to feed again (post-spawn feeding activity). These fish are usually darker in color and slim due to the rigors of the spawn and their lack of eggs (females). Anglers can catch these fish and the fat, healthy, nonspawning fish that feed on eggs and nymphs around the nests.
My observations show that spawning trout and bass caught accidentally are single-minded and go right back to their spawning activities with no obvious detriment if they are released quickly and properly. Trout that are played too long or carted around for picture taking have much less of a chance. If you hook a spawner, play it as quickly as possible and immediately release it without removing it from the water. This should be your practice with all gamefish.

I recognize the need to satisfy egos with occasional photos of big fish. I’ve photographed thousands of trout over the years, but I never do it unless the camera is in position and ready to go the instant the fish is brought into the shallows. If I have to wait for someone to come over to take the photo, the fish is immediately released.

The author pauses briefly to photograph a pre-spawn rainbow trout before releasing it. Photo: Larry Tullis

Make agreements with your fishing partners in advance to have them come immediately if you hook a picture fish. This avoids mishandling and costly delays that can harm tired trout. Remove the trout from the water only briefly (a couple seconds) for a quick shot and then revive it properly. Keep the fish over water; don’t carry it over land. Cradle the trout gently; don’t squeeze it. Proper catch-and-release techniques would require a whole article but these are the basics.

Each angler should develop his or her own ethics regarding spawners. My ethics regarding fly fishing for spawning gamefish are as follows.

1. A no-kill policy for pre-spawn fish unless the biologists say there is more than enough natural spawning occurring to allow limited take (particularly salmon or panfish) and still retain ideal fish recruitment.

2. A no-kill policy for actual spawners in spawning areas.

3. Educate all anglers on how to spot and avoid walking on spawning beds.

4. Play and release quickly all fish hooked in or near spawning areas.

5. If the fishing for spawners or fish in spawning areas is fast, voluntarily limit your catch to reduce the possibility of accidental mortality (which occasionally happens no matter how careful we are).

6. Keep the hook size relatively small to avoid spearing the vital organs of hooked fish.

7. Don’t anthropomorphize a fish’s feelings about being caught on their “honeymoon.”

8. Don’t fish in particularly sensitive areas; for example, where fish populations are in jeopardy or in heavily used spawning areas.

If we follow these guidelines, we can safely fish year-round on many waters without harming the resource. Fishing the spawn can be done ethically, if we are careful and conscience. It’s a way we can maintain great sportfishing for big fish for many generations.

[The opinions expressed in Forum are those of the authors who appear here and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies or views of Fly Fisherman magazine. We welcome polite reader responses to the issues presented here. The Editors.]

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