Why Do Trout Jump? The Answers Might Surprise You

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Man standing on his boat fishing at the river.

Trout are known to leap from the water in pursuit of prey, but it’s not all about food. Trout jump to loosen eggs and milt during the spawning season. They also jump to flush debris from their gills. And, of course, they jump when encounter waterfalls on their spawning migration. Trout jump for lots of reasons.

Trout will come out of the water for a number of reasons. Rainbow trout, in particularly, will jump when they are hooked.

Be honest. When you saw your first trout leap from the water, it was pretty cool, wasn’t it? I can’t remember the first time I saw a trout jump. But, even today, I get a thrill watching trout come to the surface. I especially love it when they jump completely out of the water. 

But for us anglers, sometimes it helps to know why trout jump. And the answer isn’t always because the fish are rising to insects and simply chasing their next meal. That’s only one reason trout jump. 

Sometimes It is About Food

Trout do, indeed, jump from the water in pursuit of food. During some very prolific caddis and mayfly hatches, I’ve seen trout come completely out the water to grab airborne insects. It’s one of the many traits that anglers really love about trout. 

Dry-fly anglers, in particular, work to elicit this behavior in trout. By presenting imitation fly patterns that float along with the current, the hope is to get trout to come to the top for a “meal.” And sometimes, the trout will jump all the way out of the water and then come down atop the fly. 

That’s not a normal reaction, and I usually witness it when I’m fishing remote water where the fish don’t see very much pressure. In backcountry rivers and streams, you’re more likely to encounter trout that are worry-free. Also, these smaller waters have shorter seasons when insects are active, so the trout are more opportunistic

Spawning Trout Will Often Jump, Too

During the spring or the fall spawn, trout will sometimes jump from the water to loosen up pre-spawn eggs and milt. Trout spawn a lot like salmon. They migrate into rivers and streams that have good gravel bottoms and then they’ll pair up. 

The female trout will clear a spawning nest, called a “redd,” and, when she’s ready, she’ll spill her eggs into the nest. The male trout will then fertilize the eggs with milt, the material that carries the fish’s sperm. 

But, before either fish can release reproductive material, they have to loosen things up a bit. That’s why, with trout and even salmon, you’ll often see fish leap from the water and splash down.

One note: while some anglers do it, I don’t like to bother trout when they’re spawning. My advice? Let them go about the business of making the next generation of trout so you can catch them in a season or two. 

In some places, it’s actually illegal to fish for spawning trout. Before you even think about it, check the regulations in your state, province or region. 

Trout Jump to Escape Predators

Some trout, particularly smaller ones, jump to escape predators, like pike or even bigger trout. They’ll even jump out of the water when they’re hunted by birds, like ospreys or eagles. This behavior is meant to confuse the predators.

A few years ago, while fishing the Bitterroot River in Montana, I watched a big, invasive northern pike chase a footlong cutthroat trout through a slow side channel. As it fled from the pike, the trout jumped completely out of the water and actually got away.

Jumping from the water is an escape mechanism employed by trout when they’re threatened. 

Some Jump to Shake the Hook

Trout fish under the water.
Rainbow trout, when hooked, will often jump. They also will come out of the water to chase flies. This rainbow was caught in Chile on a dry fly.

Last summer, while fishing for big rainbow trout in Alaska, I was treated to some aerial shows that I won’t soon forget. Rainbow trout, in particular, are known to leap from the water when they’re hooked. 

And sometimes it works. The trick, for anglers, is to dip your line down to keep it tight when a trout takes to the air. A slack line is often all it takes for a leaping rainbow trout to spit your hook. 

Final Thoughts

No matter why trout leap from the water, it’s a thrill when you get to see it. It’s especially thrilling when trout jump after flying insects. That means they’re eating, and we can imitate those bugs and, hopefully, catch them. 

But it’s not always about food. Trout will jump to avoid predators. Often, as they prepare to spawn, they’ll jump out of the water to loosen up their eggs and milt. Remember, it’s frowned upon to fish for trout that are actually spawning. Just don’t do it. 

Some trout, like rainbow trout, leap from the water when they’re hooked. They do this to try and shake the hook and escape. And trout will jump to try and clear small waterfalls or rapid when they’re on their annual spawning migration.

FAQs 

How High Can Trout Jump?

Rainbow trout are the jumpers among trout. And, the right conditions, rainbow trout can clear obstacles up to three meters (almost 10 feet) high. That usually happens during the spawning migration, though, and we’re talking low-grade waterfalls here, not 10 feet straight up. Practically speaking, an adult rainbow, on any given day, might be able to clear an obstacle about 1.5 meters high.  

Why Do Rainbow Trout Leap When They’re Hooked?

Nobody really knows, but, for some reason, leaping from the water is one of the escape mechanisms used by rainbows when they’re hooked. Other trout and salmon do it, too. Atlantic salmon are prolific leapers. As are coho salmon. 

What’s the Difference Between a Jump and a Rise?

Trout generally don’t clear the water entirely when they rise to eat insects (although sometimes they do). You can tell when a trout jumps completely out of the water as opposed to when a trout just rises to the surface to grab a bug. 

Why Shouldn’t You Fish for Spawning Trout?

Spawning trout often throw caution to the wind. Some trout, like brown trout, for instance, are very aggressive during the spawn and more susceptible to being caught and injured in the process. It’s best to leave spawning trout alone as they work to create the next generation of fish for us to catch. 

What Kind of Fish Eat Trout?

Trout are definitely predators, but they can also be prey. If they share water with fish like northern pike, walleye or even other, bigger trout, smaller trout might find themselves on the menu. When you see trout fleeing from bigger fish, you know that the trout isn’t atop the food chain in that particular stretch of water. 

Chris Hunt Avatar

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