Bull Trout

Bull Trout

A 20-year obsession

  • By: John Gierach
My first glimpses of bull trout in British Columbia were like those of many other tourist fishermen. I started going to the Kootenay drainage to fish for westslope cutthroats about two decades ago, and although I was aware that there were big bull trout in those same rivers, I was still surprised to see ominously large shapes flash at some of the trout I was playing and downright shaken when one ate a 16-inch cutthroat right off my leader no more than an oar's length from the boat. The guide calmly said, "Bull trout.I said, "Holy s----t!" I could say that was the beginning of a fascination with these fish, but it was more gradual than that. I had immediately loved the westslope cutts of the region that, on a good day and with some luck, could crack 20 inches, and I stuck with them in the same way I stuck with the big brook trout in Labrador even after seeing much larger northern pike chasing them. If I remember right, I've made 14 trips to the same area in the past two decades. During that time the number of guides on some of the rivers has gone from none to dozens and the fly shops from zero to four or five although, amazingly, the cutthroat fishing is only slightly less magnificent now than it was 20 years ago. It was on some of those subsequent trips that I started fooling around with bull trout a little more seriously. The cutthroat fishing was often a little slow in the mornings before the water warmed up, so on long floats I took to fishing for bull trout before lunch and then switching to dry flies for the afternoon rise. I used weighted Double Bunny streamers on a stubby leader and a high-density sinking-tip line, casting ahead of the boat to the deepest tubs, mending line to sink the fly as we drifted down on it, then stripping it in with the halting, uneven twitches that mimic an injured bait fish. That incorporated the sum total of what I could glean about bull trout fishing from the guides and fishermen I'd talked to: big streamers as deep as you can get 'em in the deepest water. I tied my Double Bunnies on long-shank, size 4 hooks, but once you've seen a bull trout swallow a 16-inch cutthroat, you understand that you can't tie a fly that's too big to catch these things, although you can certainly tie one that's too big to cast. I caught a few fish, including some surprisingly large cutthroats and one fat bull trout that measured 26 inches and probably weighed six pounds-no more than a nice bull trout by local standards. The guide actually guessed it at eight pounds, but I'd fished with this guy before and knew that he tended to inflate numbers to pump up the clients: a forgivable bit of showmanship. As I said, there wasn't a lot of detailed information about fishing for bull trout and I wondered about that. If you were unaware of the sometimes complicated aesthetics of fly-fishing, you might assume that fishermen would naturally go after the biggest fish in the river. But I think the guides have rightly concluded that most of their clients would rather catch 15 or 20 cutthroats on dry flies than dredge streamers and sinking-tips all day for one or two bull trout. Also, a lot of visiting fishermen just aren't familiar with them. Bull trout were probably never widely distributed, but it's hard to tell for sure because for years they were commonly mistaken for Dolly Varden or arctic char. In fact it was only in the 1970's that bull trout were formally recognized as a separate species and not just a regional name for Dollys. Like many large predators, bull trout have been seriously beaten down over the years. Habitat destruction from commercial logging hasn't been kind to them and neither have dams. Bull trout have been known to make incredibly long spawning migrations (one biologist said in this way they're like inland steelhead) and for that they need the vast lengths of undammed river systems that have become increasingly rare. Fishing pressure has been hard on them too. Bull trout have the habit of staging at the mouths of small streams in late summer or fall before they run up to spawn, and when they're concentrated like that, they're easy pickings for greedy fishermen. It's probably this habit that gave them their scientific name. My Latin is a little rusty, but I'm pretty sure Salvelinus confluentus means something like "char of the confluence." As if all that weren't enough, bull trout were also once persecuted as undesirable varmints because they ate cutthroats, so they were commonly caught and thrown on the bank to rot. In some places there were even bounties on bull trout, but that was before fish managers began to ask themselves how the cutts had managed to co-exist with them in the millennia before humans showed up. In fact, there's a good argument that the large cutthroats in parts of British Columbia are there because hungry bull trout keep their numbers in check, which leaves more food for the survivors. Today you can still find bull trout in parts of five Western states (Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and a thin sliver of northern Nevada) as well as much of Alberta and virtually all of British Columbia. But bull trout have been declared a threatened species here in the US. All the states where they're found, except Nevada, have a few selected waters where you can fish for them on a limited basis, but for the most part, if you catch a bull trout it had better be by accident and you had better release it. It's more or less the same story in Alberta where bull trout are "blue-listed"-roughly the equivalent of threatened status here in the States-but in BC their populations are large, healthy and widely enough distributed that, with the exception of some catch-and-release regulations and seasonal closures for spawning, you can pretty much fish for them wherever you can find them. It's probably not overstating the case too much to say that if you want to fish for bull trout without complications or too many pangs of conscience, you should go to British Columbia. On our last trip to BC, my friends Doug Powell, Vince Zounek and I decided to pass up the larger rivers and more accessible tributaries that had begun to see some traffic, if not actual crowds, in favor of a whole third tier of headwater streams we wanted to explore. Of course none of these were unfished, but some were the places where guides fished alone on their days off and others were streams the guides hadn't fished, but were curious about. Some of these guys were happy to have us do their scouting for them while they guided paying clients on more dependable water, so we had a four-wheel-drive rental car, a stack of maps and a longer list of spots than we'd ever get to. We were still happily fishing for cutthroats, but I'd put together a kit for bull trout: a sinking-tip line and a handful of streamers that were rough copies of a bull trout pattern a guide had given me a few years before. This guy wasn't exactly a bull trout specialist, but he was known to occasionally march intrepid clients miles up nameless, grizzly bear-infested headwater streams and come back with stories of big bull trout, at least some of which you sort of had to believe. His fly was red and black, six-inches-long and tied on a stainless steel saltwater hook. Mine were tied as copper tube flies for extra weight. I thought they'd do. I was told that even when you find a pod of bull trout, you shouldn't spend a lot of time on them. Once you get your drift right, they'll either bite or they won't, and if they won't, no amount of casting or fly changing will convince them to. Better to just reel in and move on, even though the deep, aquamarine-color pools bull trout prefer can be few and far between. One day we spent the better part of the morning looking for a particular stream, getting turned around and backtracking more than once because there were more logging roads on the ground than there were on the map. We stuck with it though, because the guy who'd tipped us to this said it could be good for bull trout as well as big cutts. By early afternoon when we finally found the stream, there was a smattering of Green Drake mayflies on the water and Doug and Vince caught some cutthroats on dry flies; not a lot of them, but they were all big, including a couple that went over 20 inches. I dredged my big streamer in the deepest holes I could find and was doing a lot more walking than casting. I missed one bull trout and had another on that I lost. Then I began to get the hang of it and landed two nice big ones. I'd promised myself that if I managed to get two of them, I'd quit on general principles. Two fish suggests that you actually figured something out and any more could seem greedy. And then I'd once talked to a bull trout biologist in Montana who described himself as one who "lies awake at night worrying about bull trout." One of the things that worried him, he said, was that as big and tough as bull trout seem, they don't stand up well to being caught and handled, so hooking mortality is higher than you'd expect: further evidence that as a numbers game, catch-and-release fishing isn't always as simple as it seems. Some of us eventually arrive at a concept of restraint through reason. Others just begin to notice that at the end of certain bang-up days, we're not as proud of ourselves as we expected to be. My best bull trout was one I hadn't spotted. There was a bottomless-looking bend pool along a cliff that I couldn't see into, but that was just what a bull trout fisherman is looking for. I cast the streamer into the plunge, mended it downstream a few times to sink the fly and began a slow, uneven retrieve. The strike was unremarkable-just a dull, heavy thunk-and the fight was all business with short, boring runs and ponderous head-shaking. Unfortunately, I hadn't thought this through very well. I'd made the cast from the inside of the bend, but it became obvious that to beach the fish I'd have to be downstream and on the outside. Simple enough except that to get to the other side I'd have to wade a steep, fast riffle with a deep slot in it. I was wading wet, in shorts, because it was a warm day, and by the time I got in thigh-deep my legs were going numb and I was one step from losing my footing in the current. I was deciding what to do next when Doug and Vince appeared on either side of me, grabbed me under the arms and dragged me across. We all tea-bagged in the channel, but when they set me down on the far bank I still had the fish on. (Tea-bagging, of course, is when you're wading wet and go in deep enough to dunk your groin in ice-cold stream water. It's a minor mishap resulting in nothing more than a sinking sensation and momentary shortness of breath.) The fish turned out to be a bull trout a little over 30 inches long and weighing somewhere around nine or 10 pounds. It was grayish olive overall with white-bordered fins, faint pinkish orange spots and just a hint of yellowish orange on the belly that would slowly brighten over the next month or so into full spawning colors. He was more handsome than beautiful and a nice big double-handful of fish. I unhooked him quickly and held him in the water facing into the current to revive him. The fish seemed to get his strength back quickly and when I loosened my grip, he shot off fast enough to splash water in my face. I thought he'd be OK.