Each fall in Central Pennsylvania, anglers have a choice to make - whether to fish during the height of the spawn or to put the fly rod away until say mid-December when reproduction ends. For anglers who also hunt turkey, grouse, or other game, the choice is an easy one, and the long rod is temporarily retired in favor of shotgun, rifle, or bow. Steelheaders just change their focus slightly and chase chromers on Lake Erie or Lake Ontario tributaries.
But for trout devotees like me, the option of staying off the stream for six or more weeks or to potentiallly disrupt the very activity that assures the continuation of wild trout fishing is a tough one to make. Perhaps a consideration of this question should begin with a brief look at spawning.
Although there is increasing evidence of rainbow trout spawning in central PA, fall spawning is primarily the province of wild brown and brook trout. With the obvious exception of Big Fishing Creek, most fish we see spawning on the major limestoners are browns.
Brown trout reproduce in relatively specific habitats. Preferred locations are riffles or other moderately moving waters in depths of 12-24 inches. Tails of pools are also sometimes used. Since the female trout scoops out and cleans an oval spawning bed (often termed "cuts a redd") by vigorous movement of her body and tail, she opts for bottom strata that she can easily move. Smooth gravel from pea- to half dollar-sized is preferred. The female guards the redd and will chase off other fish that attempt to use it. She will also attack or move objects that disturb the tidiness of her prospective nursery.
Males are drawn to females fashioning a redd like moths to a flame. Generally, there will be multiple cock fish competing for the right to fertilize the eggs. I have observed as many as eight males dueling for the attention of a sole female. The largest (dominant) male will usually be positioned beside the female on or just downstream of the spawning bed. Much of his time, however, is spent fending off the challenges of smaller males eager to usurp his position, and he is often off the redd chasing these smaller fish away. It is not unusual for this "agonistic behavior" to cause visible and audible surface disturbances. The results of this macho struggle can often be seen from fifty feet away and are the first indication that spawning is occurring.
After the egss are laid and fertilized, the female covers them with a fresh layer of gravel. The egss are tacky and adhere to the redd; eggs that drift out of the redd are a favorite snack for fish not engaged in spawning. Larger females may spawn multiple times until they are totally devoid of ova. Well-utilized spawning habitat will evidence multiple redds, and it is not uncommon for later spawners to intrude on earlier beds. If all goes well, the fry will swim up out of the redds in about sixty days.
In Central PA browns can spawn as early as mid-October, although November sees the bulk of the activity. Mid-December will normally find only small fish still on the beds. Ther onset of reproduction is often stimulated by a substantial rise in water levels. More water offers better access to riffled areas and helps to scour algae, silt, and other unwanted materials from the substrate. In 2012 the gush of water from Hurricane Sandy provided the stimulus to spawn in the midsection of the state.
Fishing/ No Fishing?
It has only been in the last thrty-five years that fishing during the fall spawn has been an issue. For at least the early part of my own flyfishing career, fishing, except in a few special regulations areas, was illegal after Labor Day. The extended seasons that we pretty take for granted now are a relatively recent phenomenon. For many oldtimers, including the late George Harvey, fishing during the spawn was just unethical, and I can still hear his polite, but thinly-veiled, disapproval ringing in my ears.
That opinion contrasts strongly with that of other anglers who have no idea that the fish are even spawning. Several Novembers ago I was at the Benner Springs stretch of Spring Creek, trying to get a photo of trout on a redd. (My lack of photographic skill made this impossible, but judging by photos I have seen on the web, it is a tough task!) Lying on my stomach behind a concealing bush, there was a female brown of about 18" flanked by a 16" male on a redd. An angler in light-colored clothing walked up behind me and spooked the trout at least fifty feet downstream. He asked what I was doing and was totally shocked when I related that those pale gravel ovals directly in front of us were redds. He compounded his ignorance by asking how I knew that.
I'm sure he was still skeptical when I told him that I had been watching trout spawn on Spring Creek for more than (then) thirty years. I also told him that we usually avoided spawning areas since the fine wild trout fishing we enjoy was dependent on the reproductive success of the browns. When I saw this angler and his "guide" fishing to redds a few minutes later, I bit my tongue and left. In my position as an angling business propretor, verbally abusing potential customers, no matter how warranted, is unwise.
The right answer concerning whether or not to fish during spawning season lies somwhere between the two extremes. To begin with, I avoid areas where trout are apt to spawn. Riffled areas with good gravel should be totally off limits, and I usually walk cautiously around them. When I do see redds, I back off and leave trout to their essential business. It is totally counterproductive to fish to spawning fish. Of course, walking in or near a redd, is especially stupid.
On the other hand, deep runs, where trout have no interest in spawning, are prime lies to fish nymphs. The trout holding in them are good targets. Similarly, trout that are rising to midges in slow water are also fair game. Since these are normally juvenile fish too immature to spawn, they are clear choices for fair sport.
Each angler must ultimately answer the question himself. Any angler who fishes for wild trout, however, should visit his favorite stream during the spawn. The struggle to ensure survival of the species is both profound and poignant, and I always feel a little humbled by watching it. When you obsserve how hard the trout work at it and the physical beating they take, it is understandable that as many as 25% of the spawners do not long survive the attempt. When you watch the whole process unfold, you can only respect and love the result, a wild trout, more.