Ok, guys and girls. It's that time of year again when local anglers are trying to catch those elusive big browns. You've seen all of the hero shots of big 'ol browns and you probably want a piece of the action as well. Hell, we all do! Do you know why these fish are being caught this time of year? Well, I'll try to help to explain why these fish are all of a sudden catchable and the do's and don'ts during this time of year.
First off, brown trout spawn during the Fall. Once the weather starts to cool off in October, these fish are instinctively programmed to run upstream. This run means the trout need to be in great shape to be prepared to spawn. This makes brown trout hungrier and more aggressive during the Fall. On streams, browns will come out of the deep holes they were hiding in all year and head towards shallower water. This is also true on the tailwaters of the Watauga and South Holston. These fish will emerge from the lakes or from the lower deep holes and head upstream. They are looking for gravel beds with small, pea sized gravel that has the proper amount of sunlight, has the right amount of oxygen and is at the right temperature. Small sized gravel is best, so the female can clean the gravel by fanning her tail and create a crease on the surface to lay her eggs. This cleaned out area of the streambed is called a redd. (Bass fishermen will call them beds, but you will usually hear them referred to as redds when it comes to trout.) So, once the female has laid her eggs, the male comes by and fertilizes the eggs almost simultaneously. Next the female will cover the eggs with the cleaned gravel. This helps to protect the eggs while also allowing for the proper amount of oxygenated water. Once, the eggs are laid, fertilized and covered, the female will generally leave the redd. The male will then stick around and protect the redd for a period of time.
So, what's all of this mean to me? It sounds like a great time to be fishing? Yes, it is a great time to be fishing. Big browns have come out from the depths and are now visible, aggressive and hungry. Well, the spawn puts these fish in a very stressful situation. They are in the open, shallower water and they are trying to reproduce. All of the other predators (fish and insects) in the stream are eagerly awaiting to feast on these tasty brown trout eggs and the reproducing browns are feverishly trying to protect their eggs from all of these predators. If these eggs are actually able to be fertilized and have the proper environment to flourish, the small fish (fry) they produce are easy prey for other fish. There may be thousands of eggs on each redd, but the odds of these eggs turning into adult fish are very slim. Now here come the anglers trying to pluck them off of their redds.
This can be a delicate subject for many anglers, but you don't have to stop fishing. One thing to particularly look out for are the cleaned out areas on the streambed, or redds (see pic below). Please try to avoid damaging these areas. Go around them and leave them be. If you are dead set on fishing for that big fish that is planted on the redd, at least try not to damage the redd and be particularly careful with these fish. If it is a female, she may still have eggs in her so grab her with one hand on the tail and the other cradling her under the pectoral fins. Try to keep them in the water as much as possible and if you really need that hero shot, do it quickly. Spawning fish will need to eat, so these fish can be particularly easy to catch since they are usually visible and they will stay put on that redd at all costs. Leaving the redd, leaves the eggs susceptible to other predators and a fisherman wading through a redd can damage thousands of eggs.
You can still fish all of the same rivers without specifically targeting a reproducing fish. Plenty of big fish are moving around the river and not sitting on a redd. It's not illegal to target spawning fish and most of your friends will 'like' your Instagram post of that big brown. It's your decision to fish it or not. Just be informed of the consequences.