Watching and Learning More About Trout

We returned home in late September 2020 from a fishing trip that spanned three and a half months. Due to Covid-19, our autumn ritual of Saturday afternoon Grizzly football home games, would not occur this year. Fly fishing and “fish creeping” filled the void.

The weather in early October in the mountains of Montana was epic. Early in the month, we returned to some of our favorite nearby fly fishing waters to fish without donning cold-weather technical gear. Then, as the weather went from summer to winter in a week, I set the fly rod aside to watch.

Setting the Fly Rod Aside

A couple of autumns ago, Tim mentioned seeing a big rise in a slow-water side channel along our favorite creek. A small curiosity has turned to near obsession after being still and watching a huge brown trout swim one afternoon.

Anglers by nature, watch. We watch the weather and hope for clouds. We watch for rising fish. We watch for clues about insect hatches. We watch our backcast.

As we evolve, we watch to see a trout’s mouth open and close on a nymph as it drifts downstream. We focus more closely on the bugs that make up our quarry’s diet.

As the late October sunlight casts a deceiving warm glow on the hills, I head to the river without my fly rod. Muck boots replace my waders, a camo jacket replaces my fishing vest, and a backpack carries cameras.

A large brown trout rests after spawning

A Large Brown Trout Rests After Spawning

Brown Trout pair in October

A Pair of Brown Trout

Reading the Water in Autumn

Anglers know that “reading the water” helps you decide where fish may be located, where they may feed, and where best to cross the river. When looking for fish to observe, patience along with learning a bit of new code for deciphering fish activity, is needed.

Fish can sense approaching footsteps. In slow water, there is not the rush of water to quiet your approach nor the broken water to veil your shadow. A slow, quiet approach is needed. Find a tree to lean against and watch.

A cruising fish makes a smooth upside-down V-shaped ripple as it swims straight. A swirl in shallow water can mean a larger fish chasing a smaller fish from his territory. Busy water, unbroken and bouncy, can be spawning fish in shallow water or a group of posturing pre-spawners.

Fish Creeper camoflauged watching fish

Camo Fish Creeper 

Watching Brown Trout Prepare to Spawn

The More You Look, The More You See

Last autumn, I had success finding, photographing, and videoing spawning brown trout. Building on that, I’ve filmed spawning rainbows and kokanee salmon. So with my new-found proficiency, I set out to capture underwater scenes of pre-spawning browns.

Recently I located some fish in a new, slow-water spot. I snuck in and positioned myself, camera at the ready. Several fish swam in a small, clear pool. There are larger fish with smaller fish and no aggressive behavior. OK, it’s not quite time to spawn. I watched a large trout glide effortlessly to the surface to consume a baetis. I can easily tell it is a rainbow.

So where are the browns? Why are rainbows in a side channel? Don’t they know they are exposing themselves to overhead predators? Do they know that osprey have headed south already?

I am a zealous student of the underwater life of trout; any fish really. It’s fascinating. I am not a professor or expert. I just like to watch.

Kokanee Salmon swim in circles near a redd

Kokanee Salmon Swim In Circles Near A Redd

Rainbow Trout feeding in a small stream

Rainbow Trout Feeding in a Small Stream

Ethics and Spawning Fish

We know, as anglers, to never target and fish for spawning fish in areas where reproduction is possible.

It’s also really important to watch where you walk. Redds can be spotted easily if you know what to look for. Areas of clean rocks, usually circular, ranging in size from 6″ or great. These show up as light areas in a river or stream. Do not walk here. Precious trout eggs are deposited here.

Should you encounter fish in the act of spawning, I encourage you to stop and watch. It is a struggle and hardship on the spawners. The pair work together to ensure the future of the species. He chases away interlopers, she piles rocks on their redd. When finished, they drop into deep water to rest and recover.

They are very vulnerable to predators in their weakened state.

Our Approach

While I’ll be the first to agree that leaving the spawners alone entirely is the best idea, I do like to photograph and film them. For underwater filming, I watch for a long while before deciding camera placement. Then, I walk quickly and as quietly as possible to the spots, turn on and sink the cameras underwater, and leave. I drop a small orange rock to serve as a breadcrumb to quickly locate the cameras when I return in a couple of hours.

30-Day Challenge – Nymphing in November

So now you know my underwater secrets, I invite you to join me in a 30-Day, Nymphing in November, Challenge.

Get outside and catch some fish (not spawners) in the month of November on nymphs. Or if you live a place where fishing is closed, tie up some nymphs and share photos or videos with us on Facebook. But if you really want to get geeky, go underwater and flip some rocks, and share with us the bugs living in your home waters.

Covid sucks. Get outside or follow along. We’re all in this together. Let’s make the most of it.

Nymphing in November 30 Day Challenge

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