Fall Fishing Ethics (How To Play Nice With Spawning Fish)
Updated: Sep 7, 2021
Once upon a time there was a local river, it was not well known, that had a thriving population of naturally reproducing brown trout. It was kind of like the Treasure Valley’s little secret. If you knew about it, you never volunteered any information to people that didn’t know the secret. This was a year round fishery, lightly hit by anglers, and he fish population grew, and grew, and grew. Then over time people began to break the cardinal rule of secrets. They told. Informations spread. Soon it was appearing in publications, on TV shows, and on every online fly fishing forum in the western US. With the added attention, problems arose. The usual…trash, copious quantities of human waste scattered around common access areas, and things like that. Another thing we discovered was a new type of fisherman. “Ethics challenged anglers.” These folks, amongst other things, crowded other fishermen, and even actively targeted spawning brown trout on their redds.
Spawning salmonids are territorial and aggressive, which is no secret. When you have a small river with relatively clear water, and big fish splashing around it became too much temptation. People would grab their spinning rod with a spoon and oversized treble hook, or their fly rod with a big streamer, and go try to snag these fish who were doing nothing more than try to make more fish. I remember a time a decade back plus or minus, when I saw nearly a dozen dead fish laying on the bottom in one spawning section. I didn’t want to hike out there through all those spawners, stomping on redds full of fertilized eggs, just to do a necropsy on the dead fish…but I could tell based on seeing 4 guys snagging in there the weekend before that they were the likely cause.
Fast forward to 2021. The numbers of fish in the “secret” river are down. Low water years, high temps, flash floods dumping silt, excessive fishing pressure, some during the spawn, possibly some disease outbreak, who knows the whole cause. What we do know is there are more people fishing our local streams today than ever. Lots of people have joined the ranks of outdoorsy folks over the last couple of years and lots of new pilgrims are moving to the area. There are many people that have not been educated about where and how to fish.
Ethical behavior is something that goes above and beyond the legal definitions you find in the rules books the state puts out. Let's look at some of the things we all should keep in mind. First let’s look at why fishing during the spawn is considered unethical. These fish have a rough time procreating. They beat each other up pretty well. Predators scope in on them as well, and that takes its toll. The act of digging a redd is tough for a fish. These redds are often 3-4 feet long and 2-3 feet wide…sometimes a foot or more deep. That is a lot of excavating to do with only your flanks and tail. If we cast a big streamer in the mix, entice a bite, and pull a fish out…fighting it to near exhaustion, it does no favors to the fish or fishery. Second, snagging fish is illegal, and sometimes people are tempted to do that by the sight of dozens of big fish preoccupied with making baby fish. Third those big holes and weird uneven bottom are evidence of spawning beds, or redds. Walking through them is squishing fertilized eggs and newly hatched baby fish, killing hundreds to thousands of them, again negatively affecting the fishery. I personally consider these acts to be unethical.
I made a personal choice years ago to forgo fall fishing on rivers that primarily have a brown trout fishery. I had big problems with people who made unethical choices. I also have a problem biting my tongue at times and that can lead to conflict, which is not why I go fishing. I am not asking anyone to miss the fall fishing season. There are some great hatches and super opportunities during October, November and early December. Please understand most people fishing these streams are not being unethical. Every single fish does not spawn at the same time. The river is full of fish that are not yet mature, and will not spawn in a given year. There are always pre-spawn and post-spawn fish available, and usually they are ready and willing to eat your fly. Targeting them is not unethical (to me anyhow). Fishing water that is not spawning habitat is also fair game. Just please do us, and the fish, a few favors. Please fish ethically. If you even “kind of” questions what you are thinking about doing, it’s probably wrong. If you see someone do something unethical, educate them in a non-confrontational way. Keep fishing fun for everyone (you know, like don’t crowd other guys, clean up your trash, try no to impact Mother Nature in a negative way). If you see people actually breaking the law, call the legal authorities.