Cutthroat Chronicles: Fly Fish The Fall Responsibly

This is arguably the best time of year for trout anglers. As Todd Tanner wrote in his recent piece in Hatch Magazine, “Fall ushers in the finest, most consistent, fly fishing of the year.”

All of my best fish, except one, were caught during the fall. From 26-inch browns in Oregon to four-pound cutthroat trout from high country lakes, autumn produces more big fish memories than any other time of year.

Fly fishers on a boat

But as with all good things, fall fishing tends to bring out the worst in anglers. If you’ve ever been up to Challis or Stanley for the fall steelhead run, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Shoulder-to-shoulder combat fishing. Fist fights over who gets what hole. Tires popped and cars keyed. I’ve seen it all, and each time it amazes me that something as trivial as a big fish can get anglers to act like such idiots. It’s not about the fish anyways.

Perhaps the most alarming behavior, though, is a complete lack of respect (or knowledge) for spawning trout.

Right now, the water’s dropped, moss is dying, and brown trout are digging redds on the Lower Provo. Yet pick any given day between now and the end of the brown trout spawn and you’ll see at least a dozen “anglers” stomping through redds. They’re either oblivious or careless, both of which aren’t forgivable. You still get ticketed for violating fishing regulations even if you never read the proclamation. It stands to reason you shouldn’t be let off the hook when you interrupt the spawn, either. Without this time of year, we don’t have more fish to catch next year.

So how can you responsible fly fish in the fall? Let’s look at a few ways to make sure you don’t turn into that guy on the river this year.

Avoid Redds

Redds are pretty easy to spot. This photo, courtesy of the Orvis Fly Fishing Blog and the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Service, illustrates exactly what a redd looks like.

A section of "redd" in a river
Any patch of gravel – or even a gravel/silt riverbed – that looks clean and bowl shaped should be assumed a redd until proven otherwise. I’m guilty myself of not thinking a particular patch of gravel was a redd until I got a few feet away from it and spooked two browns.

Step around redds, or get out of the river altogether, to avoid disturbing them. This is especially important if you’re on a salmon or steelhead river, where those legendary fish have a hard enough time reproducing as it is. They don’t need more interference from us.

Remember, they’re just fish

Yeah, seeing a picture of your buddy holding a 25-inch brown is enough to make any angler jealous. We all want that grip-and-grin shot with a trophy trout, but it’s not worth fighting another human for. More than once, while fishing the Lower Provo River, I’ve seen heated discussions come to blows over who got to stand where. Meanwhile, I was twenty feet away from the fight and catching enough big fish to keep me happy.

Don’t be the guy who gets upset when he sees someone in his spot on his river. These rivers belong to all of us, and if you have a favorite spot you’ll have to do the hard work of getting there first if you want to fish it during this time of year.

Don’t target spawning trout

I got into an argument this past spring about this very subject. I was out-of-state fishing a river renowned for its large rainbows when my buddy and I were accused of “raping redds.”

That term refers to throwing big streamers or egg patterns to trout that are on redds, actively trying to spawn. Fishing to these trout is worthy of derision, because the second they’re hooked the fish squirt their eggs or milt everywhere – none of it landing in the redd where the eggs would be protected and hatch.

So how do you fish ethically, then, when the river seems to be nothing but redds?

Fish behind them.

This past spring, that’s what I was trying to explain to the folks who thought I was targeting spawning rainbows. Instead, I’d spent a few minutes staring at the spawning trout and marveling at their size. I’d gauged the size of the redd, found where it ended, and realized the redd stopped right on a shelf that dropped into a deep bucket of a pool.

Any angler worth their salt knows that during a spawn, stray eggs will fall into spots like this, and trout that aren’t spawning are all too eager to eat just about anything that falls in those buckets. So I would cast right on the tail end of the redd – behind the spawners – and let my rig drop into the bucket, where I kept hooking up with massive fish.

Fly fisher with his catch

It’s possible – and necessary – to responsibly fish during this time of year. If we want more fish for next year, and a bigger spirit of unity among anglers, we all have to do our part to fish responsibly when the fishing is as good as autumn fishing gets.

Spencer is a fly fishing writer and novelist from Utah. Connect with him on Twitter or Instagram @Spencer_Durrant, or on Facebook @spencerdurrantauthor.