By Jim Christie
If catching a BIG brown is on your list, October is the best time of year to scratch it off. The coming of fall means many things here in Colorado; changing aspens, bugling elk, snow covered mountains, and of course, GREAT FISHING. One of the champions of fall is definitely the brown trout and fishing for them kicks into high gear this time of year, triggered in part by the aggressive pre-spawn nature of these normally elusive fish. This fall fishing frenzy is characterized by larger fish, fewer fishermen, cooler temperatures, beautiful scenery, and no mosquitoes- a combination too good to pass up!
The brown trout spawning period is affected by many factors, but is closely tied to water temperature and length of days. In the mountainous regions of Colorado, elevation provides a general timeframe for the spawn, which can occur anytime from late September to mid-November. For example, in the high country water temperatures are cold year-round and the fall spawn starts early, is relatively short-lived, and is triggered primarily by the shortened days. This bite consistently peaks around the last weekend of September and can be very short (often less than a week) so plan a couple of trips during this time to ensure you’re at the right place at the right time. I’ve had spectacular fishing during the last week in September on the Poudre River near Cameron Pass, only to get skunked the very next weekend, with most fish resting in slow, deep pools, exhausted and lethargic after the spawn.
The mid and low elevation spawn is affected by water temperature in addition to the shortening of the days. Even though fish may be ripe, they can delay the actual spawning process and wait for optimal water conditions. A greater variation in spawning behavior is more common in lakes than rivers as fish “decide” when the conditions to spawn have been met. During a typical fall, a given mid-elevation body of water could quite possibly have pre-spawn, spawning, and postspawn fish at the same time. A cold snap in the beginning of October can bring a massive spawning surge in just a few days and when a lot of fish decide its time to spawn at once they become even more irritable and aggressive - conditions that can lead to exceptional fishing! A warm fall can cause a partial delay in the actual spawn (especially in lakes) due to water temperature, but not prespawn behavior. The fish remain quite aggressive until the urge to spawn is over, so don’t give up on targeting these fish just because of warm weather. Look for the pre-spawn fish in the colder, deep waters of your favorite brown trout hole. Pay special attention to rivers where water temperature is affected by an upstream dam/reservoir. These waters typically have the most consistent (unnatural) water temperatures often resulting very predictable spawning patterns.
Peak fishing periods can vary depending on elevation
Although the exact dates of the peak fishing period can vary depending on elevation and the weather conditions of a given year, the overall pattern can be characterized by a pre-spawn, spawning, and post-spawn periods. Pre-spawn. This is definitely the most exciting time to get after these fish. Males start to develop a hooked-jaw (kype) and both males and females are very actively feeding to prepare for the strenuous act of spawning. This time also provides the widest spectrum of possible lures/flies to trigger a bite and hook the fish of a lifetime. The fish are still in feeding mode, so traditional luressuch as small spinners, spoons, nymphs, and streamers will get a response from most fish. However, the aggressive nature of these pre-spawn fish becomes apparent as large mature fish will start to strike at larger than usual offerings out of aggression rather than hunger. I have seen cruising fish close the distance on quickly retrieved spoons and rapalas in a hurry!
Locating fish in lakes can be much easier as the general movement of fish will be out of the deep cold-water haunts of summer, to shallow flats (1-6 ft.) with gravel or sandy bottoms. It is possible that moss die-off in lakes during this time will open up coves that were unfishable all summer- so don’t give up on spots that produced a lot of “salad bites” a few weeks earlier. One of my favorite brown lake spots is a shallow cove that is choked with moss all summer. Every year the browns move in just as soon as I can retrieve a spoon without catching any weeds. If such shallow places are unavailable, focus your efforts close to the shoreline and pay attention to structures in the 3-6 ft zone. Of course inlet streams are prime candidates to find staging fish as well. Small inlet streams are particularly attractive as fish will hold in a comfortable zone in deeper water during the day and nose their way up into the stream in the evening. When the fish decide it’s time too you will be in a prime position to intercept!
In streams and rivers the pre-spawn period triggers a general upstream movement of fish that are seeking suitable spawning structure. For this reason, fish tend to congregate downstream of barriers such as dams and heavy rapids and fishing in these places can be phenomenal! If table quality is a concern, only keep males. Females expend much of their fat reserves to produce eggs, slightly lowering the overall quality of the meat.
This pre-spawn brown hit a small floating rapala
Spawn. Just as with bass fishing, ethical considerations arise when the targeting of spawning fish is concerned. The large, mature fish will be in shallow water and highly vulnerable to fisherman and other predators alike. In lakes, groups of spawners ranging from 3 or 4 up to 50-60 fish gather to participate in the mating ritual. I have found that in lakes, the trout can become so focused on spawning that they will not even look twice at any offering. Generally, if you can see the fish, it most likely will not bite (perhaps this is nature’s way of protecting the big fish from fishermen!). In most lakes brown trout can not spawn successfully so the choice to pursue them within the legal limits will not affect the long-term health of the fishery. The DOW is well aware of this fact, and supplements bodies of water with brown fry accordingly. In streams and rivers however, browns can spawn successfully and targeting large mature spawners could decrease the productivity of the spawn and long-term trout numbers. Spawners can be seen in shallow riffles and tail-outs of pools holding over pea- to quarter sized gravel. These fish are actually more fun to watch than catch, especially if another male comes onto the scene with a spawning pair.
Post-spawn. Although large fish can be caught after the spawn, this is the least exciting time to pursue them. They become less interested in chasing the gaudy offerings that they gobbled up a week prior and now focus on low energy expending foods such as shrimp and other small invertebrates. The fight can also be disappointing. Instead of adrenaline filled runs, and powerful head shakes the fish will typically just roll until they are retrieved. Additionally, the meat quality is often poor. As their fat reserves are utilized during the spawning process the meat becomes soft and less flavorful. This effect is easily observed in lake fish, where pre-spawn meat is typically bright orange and becomes pale white afterward the spawn. I guess the bottom line is to make sure you get to your spot during pre-spawn!
Techniques for catching fall browns. Probably the most exciting method to entice the large mature browns of fall is with large lures. Spoons, rapalas, and large spinners are all very effective, and a great choice to cover a lot of water quickly and locate fish. The bite is never subtle as these fish tend to attack lures like they mean business!
These popular lures have all produced many browns. From top to bottom: Rebel crawdad, jointed floating Rapala, Thomas Special, floating Rapala, ¼ oz spoon, conehead marabou leach.
For a spin fisherman, targeting pre-spawn browns is much like bass fishing. Techniques such as jigging spoons, twitching rapalas, and running large blade spinners can all trigger a strike. Flyfishermen get into the action using large streamers, wooly buggers, and fish imitations such as muddlers or zonkers. Brown trout are one of the most nocturnal trout species and the best action is often had after the sun sinks below the horizon. In lakes and reservoirs, the influx of fish into shallow areas during the evening can be quite impressive and they are not at all shy to cruise into water less than one foot deep! If you have the time, be sure to fish that first half hour or so of the night. It may take some getting used to fishing in the dark, but it can be very rewarding. A very effective method to entice nighttime strikes is to slowly retrieve floating rapalas just below the surface. They hardly ever get hung up, and if fished close enough to the surface the slurp of a fish before it bites can give the angler a split-second heads up on the strike.
Nothing can substitute hard work and flat out spending hours on the water to crack the code of a particular lake or stream. But knowing those special times when to pursue a specific species of fish can be the extra advantage needed to transform a fruitless trip into pure fishing bliss. Fishing for brown trout during the fall is definitely one of those special times, so be sure to give it a try!