It can be a brown trout bonanza for anglers fishing Montana’s streams right now. That’s because the normally reclusive fish are on the move as they travel to or from spawning beds.
But is it ethical for anglers to target the fish at their moment of weakness?
“That’s up to each individual angler’s personal code of ethics,” said Rich Romersa, owner of East Rosebud Fly and Tackle.
Romersa said he likes to feel good about catching trout, not simply racking up a large number of fish in the net. So he won’t fish to obviously spawning trout.
Does that mean he won’t fish at all in the fall? Nope. But he does avoid spawning areas, preferring to cast to undercut banks, and he won’t use fly patterns that simulate eggs.
“Fishing with streamers tends to be more of an aggression strike,” he said.
He calls himself old school, preferring cone-headed streamers, in brown and yellow, to articulated flies — ones that are jointed in the middle. He likes to toss size 4 streamers on a 1x to 2x tippet tied to a full-sink line. After casting upstream, he’ll let the fly drift for about 15 to 20 seconds before slowly stripping the fly in.
“Frankly, the Bighorn River is like Disneyland for a middle-aged man until December,” he said. “Once the Horn clears it’s going to be a bonanza for brown trout. That’s some of the easiest fishing on the calendar.”
Brown trout numbers are down a bit from last year on the Bighorn, according to Mike Ruggles, Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologist. But there are a lot of smaller browns that should mean more fish next season as they grow.
Romersa said it’s very easy to target spawning fish on the Bighorn where they are visible in slower, shallow water. The Yellowstone and its tributaries, including the Stillwater and Boulder, are tougher places to identify spawning waters. But large brown trout do move up into tributary streams from the Yellowstone to spawn, a time when hefty fish can be pulled from the water.
If anglers are going to fish in the fall, Romersa encourages them to be cautious when wading to avoid spawning beds, called redds. They’re often visible since the fish have stirred up the gravel, making it a lighter color than undisturbed gravel. Walking on the redds can crush the eggs, so anglers should avoid them.
Romersa also suggests anglers haul the fish in as quickly as possible and return them to the water so they aren’t too tired out to spawn.
“I’m a believer that brown trout go back to spawning after they’re caught,” he said. “I think they’re tougher than people think they are.”
Rainbows fair game
Fall can also be an excellent time to catch big rainbow trout that hang out 10 to 15 yards downstream from where brown trout are laying their eggs. The rainbows greedily gobble up the protein-rich eggs that don’t make it into their gravel incubator and end up floating downstream. Romersa said he has no ethical qualms about targeting those fish, since they aren’t spawning.
Fall fishing can also be good since fish are looking to put on a little fat before winter’s cold water slows their metabolism. That’s less of a factor on dam-controlled rivers like the Bighorn, where water temperatures are more consistent because the water is pulled from the depths of the reservoir.
Spin fishermen can toss minnow-like lures like Rapalas to entice trout, or spinners like Panther Martins and Blue Foxes in silver, yellow and red to prompt strikes. It’s also tough to beat a night crawler impaled on a No. 6 hook below a split shot sinker for fish-catching ability. If you’re bumping the bottom with your sinker, you’re in the strike zone but also in the snag zone, so bring plenty of spare hooks and sinkers.
Although it’s easy to get caught up in the allure of fishing, don’t forget to stop for a moment and appreciate the fine fall day. It won’t be long until winter grips the state, and then anglers will be picking ice from their rod guides and losing all feeling in their fingers and toes from the ice-cold water.
Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 657-1387.