What’s the Best Way to Fish During the Trout Spawn? Target the Followers

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Close up image of trout.

It’s bad form to fish for spawning trout, and in some places, it’s illegal. But fishing during the spawn is perfectly OK if your angling target isn’t spawning fish.

Here, a Dolly Varden is caught on a leech pattern that’s the same color as a salmon egg. Rather than targeting spawning fish, target the fish that hold below redds and eat eggs. 

Every fall, where I live in eastern Idaho, our native whitefish and our introduced brown and brook trout pair up and spawn in their respective habitats. All three species of fish are different, but they tend to spawn right about the same time. 

Brook trout spawn in smaller tributaries. Browns will sometimes migrate into smaller water, but they also spawn in big water. Whitefish, which are salmonids like browns and brookies, tend to spawn in slower water with good gravel. 

For most ethical anglers, fishing for spawning fish is frowned upon. In some places, in order to protect these fish as they go about making babies, fishing is illegal. 

But smart anglers don’t put the rods away when trout and whitefish spawn. Instead, they take advantage of the situation and target the fish that follow the spawners. 

Who Are the Followers?

When brown trout congregate to spawn, female fish clear off nests, or “redds” in the spawning gravel. This gravel is a good place for female fish to lay eggs. Male fish can then fertilize the eggs with milt, and the eggs can rest in the gravel until they hatch. 

But not every egg stays in the gravel. Some eggs get swept away by the current, and they end up in the water column. Other fish, like rainbow and cutthroat trout, will hold below redds and gorge themselves on trout eggs. 

In the spring, when rainbow and cutthroat trout spawn, the brown trout and whitefish will return the favor and hold below the redds of the spawning trout. No trout egg is safe during the spawn. The followers are always waiting.

These are the fish you’re after if you are going to fish the spawn. 

Flies and Bait for Trout Eggs?

Baitfishers who fish for trout with spinning gear likely know that salmon eggs are great trout bait. Salmon and trout are closely related, and their eggs look a lot alike. So bait anglers can reasonably fish using salmon eggs as bait during the trout spawn. 

Fly fishers, too, can imitate the eggs in the river. Using flies like Glo-Bugs or Egg-sucking Leeches, trout anglers can enjoy great success during the trout and whitefish spawn in the fall. 

In the spring, when the cutthroats and rainbows spawn, the same flies will work for browns and whitefish that return the favor and eat wayward eggs. 

But how do you know you’re fishing for the right trout? It’s a good question, and you don’t always catch the fish you’re after. Sometimes, when you’re fishing behind a brown trout redd for rainbows and cutthroats, you’ll catch a brown trout.

During their respective mating seasons, trout get very aggressive. They might be at their most aggressive as they migrate and prepare to spawn. They can be protective of their nests. They often strike bait or flies out of aggression rather than hunger. 

So what should you do if you catch a brown trout during the brown-trout spawn? My advice? Play it quickly and immediately let it go. 

Then, drop down farther in the river where you’re likely to see more rainbows and cutthroats. The browns won’t stray too far from their redds. 

Why is It Unethical to Fish for Spawning Trout?

It’s simple. Wild trout need to be left alone when they’re spawning. This way, they can produce the next generation of trout unmolested. 

Additionally, all trout, when they spawn, undergo physiological changes. Males develop a pronounced jaw called a kype. The kype is used to fight off rival males. 

Spawning trout  become very aggressive. They don’t eat much, if at all, during the spawn. They save their energy for reproduction and for battling other trout.

Catching a big kype-jawed male brown trout right off the redd can put that fish in peril. Its energy supplies are limited. The fight from being caught can really tax the fish. This can leave it susceptible to injury from other fish. It can also exhaust the trout. Sometimes, it can be fatal. 

For these reasons, it’s best not to fish for spawning trout. 

Some anglers, though, believe it’s safe to fish for spawners. I disagree, but would ask any angler who chooses to fish for spawners to respect redds. Also, for the sake of the fish, don’t target fish that are actively spawning. 

Final Thoughts

Some trout spawn in the fall. Others spawn in the spring. Either way, the spawn is a good time to target the followers, or the fish that aren’t spawning. 

If you fish during the spawn, be sure you’re not targeting the trout that are spawning. Catching them puts them in peril. 

Instead, target the fish that hold below spawning redds and wait for wayward trout eggs. There are baits and flies that imitate the eggs, and using them is perfectly ethical. 

But give spawning trout some room. After all, they’re busy making the next generation of trout for you and others to enjoy.


When Do Trout Spawn?

Brown trout and brook trout (and all char) spawn in the fall, between October and December in the Hemisphere. Rainbow and cutthroat trout spawn in the spring, between March and June in the Northern Hemisphere

What Do Trout Need to Spawn?

Trout need fine “substrate,” or gravel to spawn. This gravel should be in at least a modest current so it is oxygenated. The gravel can protect fertilized trout eggs until they hatch. 

How Do You Know What Fish Are Spawning? 

It’s easy. Find a redd during spawning season. It will be an area of swept-clean grave about the size of a bathtub. This is the nest. If you see fish actively on the redd, or near the redd, these are likely spawners. Don’t fish to them. 

Chris Hunt Avatar


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