By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor
It’s hard to believe that the annual circus put on by spawning brown trout is nearly here. I hunted most of October (chasing elk through the Mt. Nebo Wilderness Area), as did our Shooting Director Justin Stapley (though he hunted deer). Usually I don’t hunt as long, or as hard, as I have this year. When I left for the elk country, the rivers were still high, temps still warm, and the hatches made up of mostly larger bugs.
Hunting season closed at the end of October, and the first thing I noticed when back on the water were redds. Not many, but enough to remind me that my favorite time to fish is right around the corner.
As I’ve made a habit of doing every year when I see fall’s first redds, I’m presenting a quick rundown of everything you need to know about fishing near and around spawning brown trout.
What’s a “redd?”
Redds are shallow, bowl-like depressions on the bottom of a river created by spawning brown trout. Redds function much the same way a bird’s nest does. Eggs are deposited in the redd, then milt (fish sperm) is sprayed to fertilize the eggs. Six months later, trout hatch and the cycle starts anew.
You’ll most often see redds on river bottoms in gravelly areas, though I’ve also seen them dug into silty bottoms as well. Brown trout especially prefer rocky terrain for digging their redds. You’ll find redds in areas where fish can easily keep these gravelly areas clean of moss and other debris.
Why do redds matter?
As you can imagine, redds are integral to self-sustaining wild brown trout populations. From about this time in November through December (and on into January in some places) brown trout will continue too dig redds, deposit eggs and milt, and then settle in for a long winter.
What should I do when I find a redd?
There’s all sorts of debate about this in the fly fishing world. The ethics of fishing to spawning brown trout are hotly debated, though I personally don’t see what the difference is between fishing the spawn and hunting during the rut.
Regardless, if you find some redds this fall while fishing, take care not to step through them. Any disturbance to the redd can potentially crush trout eggs, meaning that many fewer new trout will hatch in the spring.
Can I fish near redds?
The short answer to this question is yes. Fishing near redds, so long as you’re not stepping on them, isn’t inherently “bad” or “unethical.” Again, what’s the difference between that and shooting a bugling bull elk?
What I see as crossing the line, though, is fishing to trout that are actively spawning. These fish are really easy to spot. They tend to be paired up, nearly touching, directly over the center of a redd. Every so often, the male or female will turn, wiggle, and deposit milt or eggs into the redd. So, a good general rule of thumb is to not cast to any trout that are on a redd.
However, there’s nothing wrong with fishing around redds. All the ruckus created by spawning brown trout stirs up plenty of bugs from the river bottom, creating a fresh supply of easy food. On top of that, not every egg makes it into the redd. Eggs are a protein-rich food source for any trout, so you’ll often find fish stacked in the pools and buckets behind redds. Drifting an egg pattern off the end of a redd and into the deeper water behind it will give you some of the fastest fishing you’ll get all year.
This is a touchy subject, but it’s entirely possible to fish the spawn in a way that doesn’t negatively affect the trout. At the end of the day, all of us as anglers have a responsibility to respect and care for the resource that gives us so much. Respecting the spawn – and leaving actively spawning fish alone – is just one of the many things you can do to ensure the long-term potential of your favorite fisheries.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, novelist, and bamboo rod builder from Utah. His work has appeared in multiple national publications, including Gray’s Sporting Journal and Field & Stream. Connect with Spencer on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.