One Way to Have Better Fishing

By Scott Richmond

Over 200 rainbow trout could be seen in the river. Many were a foot-and-a-half long, some were even bigger. They were quietly finning in a gravelly stretch only two-feet deep, with a moderate flow. I admired them from the trail above the river. Then I walked on without casting to them.

Why would any angler walk past hundreds of big trout? Because it was spring, and these fish were wild, native rainbows. They were either spawning, getting ready to spawn, or recovering from spawning.

Most anglers don't realize how stressful spawning is for fish. A rainbow trout will only reproduce once or twice in its lifetime. Each time the fish spawns, its body is strained to the max.

It's obvious that a fish that is caught and killed before it has spawned will produce no progeny--no baby trout will grow to adulthood and provide sport for anglers a few years later.

Less obviously, even catch-and-release fishing for spawners has a serious impact. That's because the additional stress of being hooked and played can reduce the trout's capacity to survive until it has spawned. Even trout that have already spawned should be left alone; they need to recover their strength so they can spawn again in some future year.

Here are some tips for protecting spawning trout.

  1. First, recognize a spawning bed. If it's April or early May and you see large numbers of good-sized fish in a gravelly area, you are looking at a spawning bed. Another clue is patches of gravel that are clean and algae-free; spawning fish have swept them clean. Don't fish over spawning beds or walk through them.
  2. Target brook trout and brown trout. They are fall spawners, so it's safe to focus on them in spring.
  3. Go to hatchery-based fisheries until the spawning season is over.
  4. Don't fish on the bottom. If you're a fly fisher, stick to dry flies and emergers. Spawners rarely rise to take a fly off the surface. I used to fish the Deschutes heavily in April and May, usually dredging weighted stonefly nymphs on the bottom. Most of the fish I picked up were dark and lacked the energy they would have later in the year; they were spawners. I don't do it anymore. I won't use a stonefly nymph on the Deschutes in April or May.
  5. Backeddies are a good place to fish because you rarely find spawners there. (By May, many backeddies are full of steelhead and salmon smolts, and they should be left alone, too.)
  6. If you're catching dark-hued fish, you're into spawners. Seek another part of the river.
  7. Rivers are not the only places take care of spawners. Many lakes, such as Davis and Crane Prairie, have large populations of wild rainbows that spawn in tributary creeks. During the spring, avoid fishing at the mouths of these creeks. Give the fish a chance to recover and move into the main body of the lake.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).