It’s now mid-February, and spawning rainbow trout–both resident fish and Yellowstone River migrants–are starting to show up on the Paradise Valley spring creeks. Their spawning activity will run from now through April and into early May. (Yellowstone cutthroats spawn somewhat later, with some arriving as early as April, but most of the cutthroats spawn in May and June on the local spring creeks.)
Some responsible anglers try to stay away from the spawners completely in the spring, but during the peak of the rainbow spawn, this is almost impossible in practice. Most of the fish that are not spawning–browns, juvenile rainbows, pre- and post-spawn mature rainbows, and whitefish–will be holding downstream from the redds (spawning nests), feasting on trout eggs, as well as other foods dislodged by the females as they dig the redds. Even fish that are feeding heavily on hatching insects won’t pass up a three egg omelet if it drifts onto their dinner plate.
I leave the actual spawning pairs alone and encourage my clients and other anglers to do the same. Interfering with the process doesn’t make sense to me, and this isn’t (entirely) a noble gesture–these spawners represent the fish I hope to catch in coming seasons, both on the spring creeks and the Yellowstone. Catching an actively spawning trout on an egg pattern is not much of a challenge to one’s angling skills, so I am disappointed to see that some anglers show up on the spring creeks at this time of year to specifically target the spawning fish. My disappointment turns to disgust when I see those same people tromping through the redds and mishandling the mature fish they catch.
My approach as a guide is to build the day around whatever hatch activity I can find and to employ what I consider more classic spring creek technique, but I don’t have a problem with anglers who target the fish hanging out downstream from the redds. The reality is that this fishing involves catching trout on imitations of their natural foods at this time of year.
Whatever your personal ethics, my biologist friends tell me that catching an occasional spawner does not have much effect on overall spawning success. In order to protect the resource, the real key is to avoid wading on the redds and destroying fertilized eggs. The redds may seem obvious to experienced eyes, but every season, I see too many anglers wading right on top of this precious resource. If you can’t identify a redd, don’t wade on any clean gravel. Stand on weedbeds, on sandy or silty spots, or just stay on the bank. And if you do hook an obvious spawner, play it quickly, keep it in the water, and minimize handling as you release it–the same rules we should follow with every fish.
But don’t avoid the spawning activity completely. Even if it is only a short break from fishing, watching the hen fish churn up gravel with their tails and the males defend territory is an amazing spectacle, and it is one of the best reasons to visit the spring creeks at this time of year.