When & Where Do Freshwater Fish Spawn ?

Have you ever wondered about the spawning habits of coarse and game fish in UK waters? Successful breeding is key to healthy stocks in any freshwater fishery, but the different species have very different strategies and timings when it comes to reproducing. With spring being a key time for many of our favourite fish to spawn, avid all-rounder and Angling Trust National Regions Manager John Cheyne takes a closer look at this fascinating topic.

Like most anglers I’m fascinated by the lifecycle and habits of the fish we catch and I generally find that the more you know and understand about fish behaviour, the better an angler you become. One of the key drivers for fish behaviour at certain times of year is spawning. So when do different freshwater species spawn and where are they likely to lay their eggs ? The information below should act as an introductory guide to anyone who wants to know more, however be aware that fish don’t always follow the science ! One of the most interesting findings of the Avon Roach Project is that Roach on the Hampshire Avon seem to spawn on the 25th April each year, almost as if it’s a date in the diary, so it’s likely that while water temperature is a trigger for many fish, there may also be other triggers for localised populations of fish.

BROWN TROUT

Brown Trout don’t become sexually mature until 2 or 3 years old so this one may not be ready for spawning just yet ?

Trout spawn either very late in the year or very early in the year, depending on water temperatures and local conditions, but most spawning takes place between November and January. The eggs are made in shallow nests or “redds” which are hollowed out of the gravel by the female. Interestingly the fact that they spawn in the winter when invaisve signal crayfish are at their least active, protects their eggs from being eaten in large numbers, unlike barbel and chub which spawn in similar gravels but during the signal’s most active season.

PIKE

Pike like to spawn in shallow, weedy water when the water temperature reaches around 9 degrees C which means that they are one of the first coarse fish species to spawn and it normally takes place between February – May depending on latitude and weather conditions. The large females are usually accompanied by up to three or four smaller males and spawning can be a dangerous time. Often pike will show numerous signs of bite marks and other scale and fin damage after spawning has taken place.

The author with a pike female pike from Esthwaite in the Lake District.

PERCH

Perch, like pike, are also early spawners, but they like the water to be a little warmer at around 13 degrees C. They spawn in groups and the females lay their eggs in lacy mats on weed, twigs and sunken trees. This usually happens between April and May. If you ever pull a snag out of a canal while fishing in the spring and it’s covered in white eggs that are connected by lacy white snot then they are perch eggs !

A River Thames perch caught on the first day of the season a few years ago.

DACE

Dace are one of the species that you are least likely to see spawning as they seem to prefer to lay their eggs at night, like perch they usually spawn when the water is around 10-13 degrees C, but unlike perch they deposit their eggs in gravel. Dace will often migrate quite substantial distances to spawn in their preferred site. Again, they are an early spawner, usually in between March and April but depending on temperatures sometimes as early as February.

ROACH

Roach love to spawn on weed and other submerged vegetation (or, in the case of the amazing Avon Roach Project, Trevor & Budgie’s Spawning boards !) in well-oxygenated, shallow water when the water temperature is around 14 degrees usually between the end of April and the beginning of June depending on weather conditions and latitude. In places where there is very little weed, such as canals, they often like to spawn on the roots of bankside vegetation that hangs into the water.

CHUB

Chub are gravel spawners and congregate in large numbers, often in small feeder streams where there are good gravels, high oxygen levels and warm temperatures. They generally spawn when the water temperature is around 19-20 degrees C, so usually between late May and early June. However, in some years spawning can carry on much later.

A cracking River Wye Chub for ther author

BARBEL

The Barbel’s choice of spawning location and temperature is very similar to the chub and often they can be seen spawning on the same gravels at the same time. A typical female will produce up to 50,000 eggs which are deposited in the gravels for protection and will often migrate over long distances to spawn in their favourite areas. Again most spawning takes place in May and June but can continue on into the summer in some years.

Barbel love to spawn on gravel in well oxygenated water.

CARP

Carp are one of the easiest fish to spot spawning as they love to thrash about in the shallow weedy edges of lakes and rivers and generally make their presence well known. They like the water temperature to be at least 18 degrees C so most often spawning occurs in May or June, but like all fish, it’s very much dependent on location and weather conditions. The females deposit their sticky eggs on weeds, submerged roots and similar substrate. Carp produce a huge number of eggs and a good size female will often lay over a million. In northern parts of the UK carp often struggle to spawn successfully, except in lakes where there are extensive, sheltered, sunny, shallow and weedy locations due to their need for warm water.

A few weeks before this picture was taken there were spawning carp crashing about in the shallow water under the trees in the background.

RUDD

Rudd spawn at similar temperatures to Roach, but usually they prefer the water to be a degree or two warmer at around 15-16degrees C. In stillwaters and canals they will often favour reedbeds, but will also spawn on weed and other submerged vegetation between April and July.

Big golden Rudd love to spawn against reedbeds in stillwaters.

TENCH

Tench like to make it difficult for themselves by refusing to spawn until the water temperature rises to between 20 – 24 degrees C This means that their effective range in the UK is limited apart from in places that offer particularly sheltered, sunny, shallow, locations, meaning they often have to be stocked for angling purpose. Their love of warm water means that they are one of the latest spawning fish in many places, with eggs being laid between May and July. This late spawning also means the young have a shorter growing period and growth rates are small, making it all the more difficult for juvenile fish to successfully see out their first year.

Tench make it hard for themselves by being one of the last fish to spawn and giving their young less time to develop before the winter comes.

CRUCIANS

Crucians are enthusiastic spawners and like to get started fairly early for cyprinids, when the water temperature is around 14 degrees C. The males tend to chase the females so their spawning antics can often be witnessed if you are in the right place at the right time. The eggs are laid in weedy areas and usually hatch in just 5-7 days.

Big crucians like this 3lb + fish are rare, but crucians are succesful breeders and in small ponds the fish can become stunted due to high numbers.

GUDGEON

Gudgeon, like most cyprinids, form tubercles on the head (little light coloured bumps) at spawning time and the females lay their eggs in several batches once the water temperature reaches around 14 Degrees C so normally in May or June depending on location. The eggs are actually quite large for such a small fish.

MINNOW

I will include some information about the minnow, despite it being of limited interest to anglers other than as a bait, mostly because I was lucky enough to film a huge number of minnows spawning on the River Wye in 2020 and I thought it was worth including the video here. Minnows will often migrate quite large distances to spawn and can be witnessed trying to get over weirs and other obsticles like miniature salmon ! During spawning they change colour and their fairly dull exterior changes to bright oranges and bright greens. They like to spawn in gravel or pebble areas when the water is between 14-16 Degrees C.

BREAM

White spawning tubercles can be clearly seen on the head of this fish. They can develop these well before the actual act- but extra care always be taken! Interestingly, the term “coarse” fish is thought to derive from the way many species develop these growths and become rough or “coarse” to the touch when about to breed!

Bream are famous for having very obvious tubercles (white bumps) on their head at spawning time and the temperature they begin spawning various quite a lot ranging between 12-20 degrees. They are another species that likes shallow, weedy areas and they will spawn more than once, often with an interval of about a week between sessions. The males get very territorial during spawning and will even attack lures intended for perch quite viciously on occasion. Bream will migrate huge distances (60Km plus) to visit historic spawning areas, often swimming past very similar habitat to get to where generations of bream have spawned in years past.

FURTHER READING

Most of the information above is gleaned from exprience, other anglers and a couple of books which I can highly reccomend: Freshwater Fishes in Britain was published in 2004 by Harley Books and includes contributions from many Environment Agency Fisheries staff that I have had the pleasure to work with while running Angling Trust Regional Fisheries Forums right round the country, they include Jon Shelley, Graeme Peirson, Paul Frear and Matt Carter.

Alwyne Wheeler’s Compact Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Britain and Europe is also a really useful reference book.

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