Fly Fishing

What's the Big Deal About Trout Spawning on the Nantahala River?

Every spring and fall, various fish species begin an annual ritual called spawning. So what’s the big deal? The big deal is that spawning is a fundamental step in the future of a river’s ecosystem, and that is particularly true on the Nantahala River. Anglers have to respect the regulations that are in place to protect our trout population. 

Let’s Start with what is Spawning

The easy answer:
Spawning is when fish go through the reproductive process of laying and fertilizing eggs 

Now to elaborate: Spawning is all about the female laying eggs – and the male fertilizing and then protecting those eggs.  When spawning occurs, the female fish searches out shallow, gravel river bottoms.  She then creates a nest –  called Redds. In doing this, she clears the area of silt, sediments, etc to give the eggs a safe and oxygenated resting area.

Then the male trout steps in.  He begins the whole ritual by dressing up in his most vibrant colors.  He also defends his mating ritual by aggressively fighting and fending off other males to attract a female.  During this time, the male  actually develops a “Kype” – which is a sex characteristic that develops at the distal tip of the lower jaw. Once the male pairs up with a female, his job is to then protect the Redd from anything that poses a threat

What’s the Big Deal with Redds

Redds are the “nest.” The female will deposit her eggs onto the Redd.  A female can lay anywhere from 200 to 8,000 eggs depending on the size of the fish and external conditions. The challenge is that even with the help of the male fertilizing, very few eggs mature to become adults.

As an Angler – especially if you are wade fishing, it is important to be on the lookout for Redds. If you are wading around in a riverbed, you run the risk of disturbing fragile Redds. And you are not just disturbing one – if there is one Redd, there are probably more in the vicinity. 


Does Spawning Kill a Trout?

No. Although the process is the most stressful and enduring part of a trout’s life cycle, it is actually improper handling that typically kills a spawning trout. If there is no human interference, trout can spawn multiple times throughout their life.

What Helps the Spawning Process?

Timing is Everything. There is a reason there are specific times of the year when you cannot fish the Nantahala River.  It is to protect spawning trout. The bottom line is that trout eggs need enough oxygen in the water to hatch, and water temperature dictates the oxygen levels. That’s why spring and fall are protected spawning seasons on the Nantahala.  Rainbow trout spawn in the spring – from February to April, when river temperatures are 42 to 44 °F (6 to 7 °C). Spawning happens again in the Fall when brown trout spawn, (Sptember to December) when water temperature drop back down to their ideal range.  

Why Not Fish During Spawning?

Trout, while prevalent in the Nantahala, are actually a fragile species.  A spawning trout is typically very vulnerable. The two biggest reasons for that vulnerability are that 1) spawning takes place in a very shallow (visible) area and 2) spawning fish are more aggressive – so they will charge at anything that moves into the spawning bed. They are easy to spot and easy to catch.  But that does not mean we should catch them.  The spawn is the most exhausting process in a trouts’ life and as fly fishing/fishing has become more and more popular on rivers like the Nantahala, it is important that ALL anglers understand and respect this critical time in the trout’s life.

Why is it bad to take big trout out of the river during spawning?

When a male “alpha” spawner is caught, the lesser male moves in and often spawns with the female.  This now messes with genetics – the lesser “stag” germinates the nest of eggs, instead of that “big boy” that you just got caught.  Even worse, if the female is caught when she is laying her eggs, all the eggs coming out of her will be wasted as she is releasing them while she is trying to fight the angler, rather than planting them in her Redd.  Bottom line:  not only do we kill trout embryos ready for life, but we also bring a lesser or “stag” genetic into the gene pool of our fish.

Finally, Guide Takeaways from Spawning

  • Learn before you go wade fishing during spawn fishing how to identify a Redd.  If you are out on a river, ask your fishing buddies when you think you see one or ask your guide to point one out.
  • Be educated.  If you learn how to identify a spawning fish, you will know how to look for indications in males, like kypes, colors, and wounds. In females large bellies, worn down tails, etc.
  • When handling these fish use extra caution and care.  During spawning months typically both male and females don’t have a protective slime layer or only partially This is true year-round, whether because of spawning or catch-and-release.  Always use proper handling techniques to keep the fish wet and make sure if you do handle the fish that your hands are wet.
  • Minimize your wading in rivers, instead keep your boots on the bank or in a boat. A small rock being dislodged can destroy fertilized eggs.
  • Know the local regulations on fishing specific sections of the Nantahala. And make sure you purchase a NC fishing license.

The final word on spawning

For a trout to successfully spawn, it has achieved its lifelong goal.   As anglers, we have two choices…
1 Fish out spawning trout and then rely on hatchery support to artificially sustain the trout population on the Nantahala, or
2. Take care in catching spawning trout and allow our trout to reproduce undisturbed and grow into the colorful, hard-fighting creatures that make the Nantahala such a great place to fish, or draw crowds for the rest of the world annually.

Whether you are an advocate for catch and release or believe that it’s okay to take a few home when regulations permit, we can all agree that we want to see the Nantahala continue to support healthy, native trout.

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