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The Streamside Guide - Exodus

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'Now, the mere fact that you might be able to irritate one, two, or even a mass of spawning trout with your fly or lure doesn't necessarily mean that they will strike at it.'

Our Streamside Guide - Peter Cammann shares tales of a lesser known wildlife migration - the spawning movements of trout and landlocked salmon within their home river systems.

by Peter Cammann

September marks the opening of the second great migration of the year. Waterfowl, like the ducks and Canada geese will begin to mass in our lakes and fields, foraging for food on their way south. Monarch butterflies also head south and that migration will take them right out of the northern hemisphere. But of particular interest to us are the millions of fish moving on during the fall spawning run.

The three major species that are part of the late season run are brook trout, landlocked salmon, and brown trout. Both the brookie and the salmon are native to Vermont. For tens of thousands of years, they have chosen the moment of the first major rainfall of autumn to begin their move out of the main stems of the rivers and lakes where they live. They travel up into the tributaries where they themselves hatched as tiny fry from the eggs their parents laid and fertilized. There, they will dig out the small nests (or "redds" as they are properly known) and get about the business of mating.

While salmon tend to pair off, brook trout mating is a somewhat more chaotic affair. While the female digs the redd, the males joust with each other, trying to find a better position to rush in and fertilize the eggs after the female has laid them. They thrash around the eggs, each trying to force himself in at the expense of his rivals. It's a wonder anything gets done at all.

Brown trout, being originally from Germany and imported to the United States during the end of the 1860's, are far more organized. Like salmon, they pair off and perform the mating ritual with more dignity and aplomb than their messy neighbors. But the important thing to note in all of this activity, regardless of the relative level of grace, or lack thereof, is that all of these fish are highly excited and can be induced to strike at a fly or an artificial lure even when their tiny minds are preoccupied with spawning.

Unlike a feeding frenzy, when fish appear to strike at almost anything that moves, these trout are in a defensive mode during spawning. They will only attack when provoked, so you have to throw lures and flies at them that are designed to threaten them, rather than to feed them. That means that large streamers are especially effective. Black Ghosts, Mickey Finns, Deceivers, and even bizarre offerings like Bitch Creeks work best. Spoon lures work can be effective as well, but I also like tossing spinners, like Mepps or Panther Martins when I fish with my ultralight rig. 

A brook troutNow, the mere fact that you might be able to irritate one, two, or even a mass of spawning trout with your fly or lure doesn't necessarily mean that they will strike at it. Salmon tend to spawn in late September and on into early October, but one mid-September morning a few years ago, I found myself fishing for trout along the lower reaches of the Clyde River in Newport, Vermont. I have to admit, I was also looking for salmon, even if I was a bit early.

The Clyde River runs out of Island Pond and heads in a westerly fashion to Lake Memphremagog. At one time, prior to 1957, the Clyde was considered one of the great salmon streams of New England until a power dam was built at a point roughly a mile and a half from the mouth of the river. Fall running salmon were blocked from a favorite spawning ground and their numbers in the river diminished rapidly.

I first fished the Clyde River in 1991 while writing a book on Vermont's rivers and lakes. I drove up for the spring run, when rainbow smelt travel out of Lake Memphremagog to spawn. They are followed by every imaginable species of freshwater gamefish, looking to feed on the protein rich smelt. Bass, walleye, trout, and salmon all compete to attack the tiny fish. This happens even while the rainbow trout, walleye, and bass fight over spawning territory themselves. But the salmon fishing just wasn't what it could have been as the migrating fish were frustrated by the presence of Citizen's Utilities' furthest downstream dam. The dam blew out in '94 and the salmon quickly reverted back to their old ways. By '96, salmon were running upriver in huge numbers both in the spring to feed and in the fall to breed.

This doesn't mean that fishing the Clyde is a sure thing. Like any other piece of water, you need to put your time in to get results. Salmon fishing can be a daunting process too. Most successful salmon anglers I know will work a single pool for a couple of hours before getting a strike during the fall run. After all, these fish really aren't into feeding, if you know what I mean. They will strike though. You just have to really tick them off. I don't mean doing anything unethical or illegal, like calling them names, fouling the water, or gently lobbing low-grade explosives into the upstream end of the pool where they're holding. Oddly enough, you can irritate the hell out of these big spawning fish simply by trying to crowd them.

Of course, sometimes all you are able to do is to make a damned fool of yourself.

On the September morning I mentioned, I was using my ultralight spinning gear and having pretty good success with the brown trout, using 1/6-ounce gold colored Phoebe spoons. I saw two large salmon in a hole just downstream and began to cast to them. I threw my Phoebe at them for about a half an hour. Nothing. The two great fish just circled each other in the pool, oblivious to me efforts. I changed lures. I changed again. Still nothing.

And so I wandered down to the edge of the pool, to the point where I quite literally was standing less than six feet away from where the two salmon swam. I was so close to them that I was actually able to see the bulge in the female's belly, from where the hundreds of eggs she was to lay resided. I could also see that the male, a far more streamlined version of his mate, was also close to six inches shorter than the female. His movements were quicker and less predictable than the females. She glided serenely through the river current, making a looping circle around the bottom two thirds of the pool while the male followed her movements, occasionally flitting dramatically off to one side or another before returning to his orbit around her.

As I stood there watching the salmon, husband and wife who had been fly fishing just upstream from me waded by to ask what I was staring at so intently. I pointed down into the pool and immediately they saw the two salmon.

"Are you going to fish for them?" asked the man.

"No," I replied. "They seem much too interested in each other to disturb."

"Do you mind if I try?"

"Knock yourself out!" I laughed. It was time to move on.

Copyright 2008 by Peter Cammann 
Patience is a virtue for any fly fisher

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