Bushwhacking for Bull Trout in B.C.

Bushwhacking for Bull Trout in B.C.

  • By: Greg Thomas
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The first time I fished bull trout in southern British Columbia, during a record summer deluge, I could have drowned in a flash flood or been crushed by debris that sloughed off 200-foot-high banks and crumbled like Saltines.

When I returned last summer I knew the possibilities: the weather is rough in that country, the forest deep and twisted and the grizzly-bear population is significant, meaning you see signs of those brutes when bushwhacking off-trail and clamoring along remote, treacherous riverbanks.

If harm would come my way while exploring for native bull trout and westslope cutthroat, I figured the punishment would be doled out by nature and not by a self-inflicted act.

But that’s what happened after a friend, Jeff Wogoman, and I plunged off a logging road and made our own path, parting ferns and brush, and winding around cliffs and downfall, and skidding down avalanche chutes and boulder fields to the river—all the while thinking, And we have to get out the same way we came in! Shortly after arrival, we spotted a dozen or more bull trout stacked in a pool and as I brought my left arm sharply down in a double-haul motion, ready to sink a five-inch-long streamer into one of their maws, the world exploded into orange haze. I gasped for air while a summer wildfire ignited on my left forearm.

I’ve always wondered if bear spray is a suitable deterrent. Now, having discovered that the safety chain on my spray canister had torn off during the bushwhack, and that my elbow had released the trigger, I was confident I didn’t need to buy a Dirty Harry sidearm as defense—that bear spray is some bad juju.

I felt stunned, as if I’d just endured a car wreck, but the thought process returned quickly and I tore the fanny pack from my waist and launched it into the brush. Then I raced to the water, submerged my arm and yelped, “My bear spray exploded!” Wogoman, who isn’t known for sympathy, said, “No shit Sherlock.”

As the burn worsened and began to bubble I took stock of the situation: we were at least an hour’s uphill grind to the truck and another hour or more on dirt roads from the nearest hospital. But I couldn’t take my arm out of the water. And I didn’t want to quit fishing. Fifteen minutes later, when I had to relieve myself, some of the spray got where it didn’t need to be and the punishment for that blunder felt like a medieval torture technique. If anyone had wandered by in the next hour, with me laying naked in the shallows wondering when the pain might cease, and Wogs diligently casting to rising cutthroat, there may have been questions to answer. Fortunately, a couple hours later, the burn abated almost as quickly as it began.

That anyone would exert such commitment for bull trout is a relatively modern turn. Between the 1930s and 1950s, Canadian anglers commonly pitched big bulls into the brush thinking those native brutes were too much competition for the new arrivals, the introduced rainbow and brown trout. That’s not an act restricted to Canada.

In fact, between 1921 and 1941, Alaska offered a 2.5-cent bounty on Dolly Varden, which are a close relative to inland bull trout. Analysis of the tails showed that more than half belonged to coho salmon and plenty were cut off of rainbow trout, too. The program was terminated, not before six million fish were dead. This mentality was present through Idaho, Montana and Washington state, too, with anglers commonly whacking and wasting bull trout in favor of the native cutthroat and introduced species.

My first knowledge of that discrimination came when a friend showed me his hunting and fishing photo album and it included a shot of a giant, 35-inch-plus bull trout, pulled out of the South Fork Flathead, now laying across a frying pan, its head draped over one side and the tail draped well over the other. That fish had a bullet hole from a .30-06 rifle through its belly.

These days, the bull trout’s biggest enemy is habitat manipulation because the fish are sensitive to disruption of migratory routes, sedimentation and rises in water temperature. Fortunately, in the United States the fish is listed as a threatened species and since that ruling its habitat has received increased attention.

Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing a bull-trout critical habitat designation for 22,679 miles of stream and 533,426 acres of lakes and reservoirs in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Nevada. By no means is the bull trout’s future secure because they are more dependent on super-clean and cold streams than almost any other fish; but that proposal, which should be implemented by September, is promising.

There are bastions for bull trout in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia and Alberta. Montana hosts lots of bulls, too, but the only legal, directed fishing for them takes place on the South Fork Flathead River and a couple reservoirs. That’s why a trip north, to Alberta or British Columbia, is pretty much an annual ritual for many of Montana’s dedicated troutheads. What we find there is our perception of wilder country, deeper forests, more grizzlies and bigger bull trout. And we find fish in good size and numbers (the common bull measures between 15 and 25 inches but may grow to 40 inches or more). Those fish make up for Big Sky Country’s most noted angling downfall, its lack of anadromous fish, meaning steelhead and salmon.

Another appeal of getting off the beaten path for bull trout is the opportunity to perform like you wouldn’t at home and that’s why Wogs and I, both dedicated husbands and fathers, dropped serious dime at the duty-free store before crossing into the Great White North, the Fisherman’s Paradise. Shortly after, we were being eyed by a sexy border-patrol agent, whom we later named Agent 69.

(That’s what NBC scriptwriters named Agent 99 in the Mel Brooks series, Get Smart, before network brass censored it.)

Sixty-nine gave the standard questions and then launched this bomb—she glared straight into my eyes, pursed her lips and then said, “Have either of you ever been arrested, charged with a crime or been in front of a judge at any point in your life?” Who among us hasn’t?

I paused, possibly a little too long, thinking, Well, I plea-bargained out of the big one and I don’t think that’s on my record; I got married by a judge and could tell her that; there was the time we borrowed a pop machine to win a scavenger hunt; ticket scalping shouldn’t be a crime...

I turned to the trickster, trying with all my might to avoid eye contact with her shadowed, yet pronounced cleavage, and said, “No.”

Sixty-nine leaned into the cab of the truck, looked past me, lifted her eyebrows, and Wogoman spat, “No,” just as my eyes raised up to even.

I shouldn’t have dallied, but Wogs needed a fishing license. I focused on her left ear and said, “Oh, hey, do you guys have WiFi right here?”

Sixty-nine offered a snide smile, brushed back her long, blonde hair, placed hands on hips, proudly displayed her chest and said, “I have no idea. I don’t really even know what WiFi is. I think that’s a U.S. thing.”

“Wireless Internet?”

Sixty-nine responded, “Oh, okay, wireless internet. Well, we don’t have it here cause then you boys could tap into our secrets. But all the towns around here have it.” She smiled an I like you smile, twisted her hair and playfully said, “Looking for porn, eh.”

She was armed and carried handcuffs, you know. When she motioned us on we were out of there as if shot from a cannon.

The most productive bull-trout streams are usually accessed via a labyrinth of poorly marked logging roads and that was the case here. Wogs and I thought we were headed in the correct direction, but at the top of a divide we encountered a couple four-wheeler dudes who’d sped around us on the way up. I rolled down a window and said, “We’re trying to find the Wolf River”—codename for one of the areas I like to fish—“is this the right road?”

The big guy, a scary-looking dude, said, “Ah ‘fack’ you’re going the wrong way.” He made a broad sweep with his arm that suggested we might end up just south of the Yukon, and said, “You need to be way over there.” And then he added, with a note of annoyance, as if he’d just swallowed a fly, “Hey, where are you guys from?” I squeaked out, “Montana,” and Wogs said, “Jackson Hole.” The dude nodded approvingly and said, “Good, because if you were facking Albertans we’d have to kill you. They’ve ruined this place!”

I didn’t tell him I’m an outdoor writer and that most Albertans probably feel the same way about British Columbians in regard to their treasured Bow River. Nor did I tell him I like Albertans and consider several to be good friends. Anyway, by the time we found a place to camp, in the dirt on a closed logging road, it was too late to fish. Wogs and I made a dent in our duty-free haul, built a high fire and I told him stories about the last time I fished bulls in British Columbia.

“How big?” Wogs asked.

“Up to 14 pounds or so,” I crowed.

“How many?” he posed.

“Some days we caught a dozen each,” I boasted.

“Were they aggressive?”

“They ate cutthroats right off the ends of our lines and they slammed dead-drifted nymphs and swung streamers!” I replied.

“How many people did you see?” Wogs questioned.

“Only two guys,” I chimed, “and only on the road while we were driving out.”

Wogs spread the fire with a stick, poured what was left of a party-foul over the coals and said, “Let’s hold off on the drink and get up early to fish.”

Next morning Wogs struck out through the timber armed with a meat-stick and streamers galore. I carried my secret bull-trout weapons—Bitch Creek nymphs. Then something happened on the way to the pillaging: halfway through the first gorgeous morning we could see fish, but we couldn’t move them. They paid little attention to our flies and when those patterns got too close, the fish moved away. Our enthusiasm diminished and, as we continued to throw over and over at the same fish, I felt a bad sensation, like being a kid at a sportsman’s expo casting sacrificial worms to tight-lipped hatchery rainbows that had seen it all before.

As we moved to the next pool Wogs spat, “What’s up, Thomas?” I’d already come up with an answer.

“We’re too late,” I admitted.

That’s the risk anglers take when repeating memorable trips with expectations of equal success or more. Clearly we’d arrived too late in the season and the bulls weren’t moving; they were staged, waiting another month before pushing to high tributary streams where they prefer to spawn. I’d dreamed of big bulls and photos of fish with pumpkin-orange bellies, radiant pink spots, white-tipped fins and olive backs. This trip was all about photographs for me and now, it seemed, we’d have trouble gaining one picture fish. About that time Wogs’ rod bent and a big bull rolled on its side, deep in a near transparent pool. “He ate it,” Wogs yelled.

Bull trout aren’t spectacular fighters. They pull and dig for the bottom. Sometimes they peel line and charge downstream through narrow chutes where the water flows fast between vertical walls, and anglers who value their lives don’t follow. Other times they roll over and come right to shore, or at least until their belly first touches gravel. Then it’s off to the depths again.

That’s what happened to Wogs; he fought the fish to his feet and tried to beach it, only to watch that beautifully colored bull, perhaps a 12-pounder, make it back to the heart of the pool. When the hook came free, Wogs kicked a rock, cussed and sat down. He performed exactly as I would.

During our four-day exploration, we fished several rivers and found bull trout stacked in almost every pool, but they played the sockeye-salmon game, which is to say they wouldn’t eat. Except first thing in the morning when they charged streamers or attacked the cutthroats on the end of our lines, like a hammerhead nailing a tarpon.

Some bulls we got to the beach, some brutes we lost. Never did we catch two bulls from the same pool. They got savvy quick. We didn’t catch as many fish as we expected or wanted, but we landed a few big bulls and we released scads of meaty, 14- to 18-inch native cutthroats and we had stories to tell. That was good enough.

Greg Thomas is Fly Rod & Reel’s managing editor. He runs the Web site Angler’s Tonic (www.anglerstonic.com) and lives in Ennis, Montana, near the banks of the Madison River.