Mountain trout fishing picks up this month
In September, autumn eases into the mountains, with the first, dull-red coloring of sourwood, dogwood and sumac leaves.
Joe Pye weed, ironweed, asters, goldenrod and oxeye daisies brighten fields, pastures and roadsides in a dazzling array of colors: deep purple, lavender, pale blue and bright yellow.
Tart fox grapes and fragrant muscadines hang in heavy clusters from ropey vines. Ripe hickory nuts, buckeyes and acorns spatter the forest floor. Mountain peaks and ranges, once obscured by summer haze, stand out clear and distinct as far as the eye can see.
It’s a bountiful time for both humans and animals. And it’s the time when brown trout and brook trout begin their annual spawning rituals. Spawning begins as early as mid-September and can continue into November, depending on weather and stream conditions.
Of the two species, the brown trout is the most visible and most active. The male brown trout’s colors, especially the distinctive red spots on its sides, become more vivid. And males develop a pronounced hook or kype in the lower jaw.
The big move
At the beginning of the cycle, adult browns leave their usual hiding places in deep pools and begin moving upstream, searching for likely places to spawn. They begin feeding heavily to build up strength and stamina for the mating ritual. The constant movement can continue for a couple of months, since all brown trout do not spawn at the same time. They’re easy to find, easy to see and much easier to catch.
Large flies such as a Nos. 12 to 10 chartreuse, olive, or black Woolly Boogers are especially effective for prespawn browns. Other deadly flies are a No. 10 Bitch Creek Nymph and a Nos. 12 to 10 Girdle Bug. Spinning lures such as a Mepps Aglia or a Panther Martin with a black body and yellow dots also work well on prespawn trout.
Females seek out spawning sites. Males merely follow to accommodate them. Once a female brown finds a suitable site, she uses her tail to dig out a small depression, or redd, in a clean, pebbly area free of silt and sand, usually at the tail end of a run or riffle where water is shallow and flow is adequate to keep the redd oxygenated.
Trout will strike at perceived threats, even when not feeding
While the female does the work, the male waits patiently until the redd is prepared and she is ready to deposit her eggs. When the female indicates she’s ready, the male joins her, and, side by side, backs arched, jaws open, they complete the ritual. The female deposits her eggs over the redd and the male emits a cloud of semen. Using her tail again, the female covers the eggs with pebbles and small rocks, anywhere from a couple of inches to 6 inches deep. Females can have several redds.
During spawning, neither the male nor the female feeds. The male, however, will strike at something he sees as a threat to the female or her eggs. Once eggs are laid and covered, parental duties are over. The eggs and subsequent fry are on their own. Eggs can survive in temperatures below zero if the water doesn’t freeze, a rarity for high-gradient Southern Appalachian streams. Once eggs are laid and covered, they remain in the redd until spring. When fry can forage on their own, they leave the redd.
Once spawning is completed, browns return to their former habitat. For post-spawn brown trout, egg patterns such as Glow Bugs are very effective because brown trout will eat the eggs and young of other trout.
Brookies spawn later
Brook trout follow much the same spawning patterns as brown trout, only spawning comes later. Prime spawning time for brook trout is mid-October through mid-November. Since wild brook trout usually are found in small streams, they don’t move as much or as far as browns.
As for catching either brook or brown trout during the spawning cycle, fishery biologists say angling activity does not adversely affect the spawn if a trout is not injured or played to exhaustion when it’s caught. When released, the trout will resume its spawning activities. The key word is “release.” Kill a spawning trout, and you’ve destroyed a generation of trout.
Best places to find larger brown trout during the spawning cycle are in the tributaries of large streams such as the Tuckasegee River, Nantahala River, the East Fork of the Pigeon River, South Toe River and Davidson River in North Carolina.
Tributaries that feed lakes also are prime spawning grounds for lake trout. Big browns from South Carolina’s Lake Jocassee move up the Thompson, Whitewater and Horsepasture rivers to spawn.
Other prime spawning grounds for big brown trout are the Oconaluftee River, Deep Creek and Bradley Fork in the North Carolina section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Good weather and good fishing. Fall in the mountains is indeed a magical time.