Twenty-five states, one bull trout

Bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus), like their cousins the eastern brook trout (S. fontinalisˆ), are not actually true trout. They are char, in the same family as arctic char, lake trout, and Dolly Varden trout.  In fact, bull trout are close enough to Dolly Varden’s (S.malma) that they were not designated as a separate species until 1980.

Entering 2011, bull trout were also the only major North American member of the char family I had never caught, in part because they are endangered in most of their original habitat. I have caught trout in twenty-four U.S. states and three Canadian provinces, but (to the best of my knowledge) only once before have I ever even fished a river containing bull trout.

Like most char, bull trout need very cold water to survive and reproduce, and are often found in rivers and streams fed by snowmelt or glacial runoff. Compared to other char, brook trout are the most tolerant of warm water and can survive in water up to 65 degrees if it is clean and well aerated, which is why they are the only char that can be found south as far as Georgia. Bull trout, by contrast, cannot tolerate water much over 55 degrees. They are native to coastal waters of the Pacific northwest, and in high alpine rivers and streams as far east as Montana.

Bulls can grow up to forty inches, and are very aggressive predators. As adults, they feed primarily on rainbow trout and cutthroats. For many anglers who frequent waters that contain the rare and elusive bulls, the only time they see one is when they have a twelve-inch rainbow trout on the line, and a monster three-foot long shadow rises from the depths of a pool to make a meal of the twelve-inch trout—leaving the angler’s line broken, her fish gone, and her heart thumping.

It was on the Lander’s Fork of the Blackfoot River in Lincoln Montana that I first hoped to encounter bull. I fished the stream on a hot August day in 2010, and the water temperature was only 48 degrees. A good temperature for bulls. And the river was full of small wild cutthroats to feed them. Although it was illegal to “target” the endangered bull trout in Montana, I was still hoping to see one as I cast nymphs and dry flies for cutthroat. I figured the heart-thumping experience would be worth the loss of one cutthroat.  I caught a lot of cutthroats, ranging from eight inches up to seventeen. Never saw that monstrous dark shadow.

This October, however, I had a free Sunday and Monday to spend in the state of Washington between two scheduled portions of a business trip. Ashley Esarey, a friend who lived for two years in Middlebury and often fished and hunted with me, was back living in Washington not far from the conference I was attending.  “You’ve got to visit eastern Wasington some time and go fishing or hunting there,” he had told me on several occasions. So I called him and invited myself to spend two days fishing with him—noting as I did that Washington happens to be a state I have never fished.

Ashley agreed enthusiastically, and gave me the name of a couple rivers we might try in the southeastern portion of the state, both tributaries of the famous Snake River. A quick web search revealed that one of them held not only rainbow trout and steelhead, but also bull trout. It would be too early for much chance of spawning steelhead, but not for the possibility of hooking a trout. At the least, it would be my twenty-fifth state —halfway done with the United Sates. And, of course, a beautiful place to fish. Washington State regulations do not prohibit targeting bull trout or wild steelhead, but either of thee fish must be immediately released without even removing it from the water. To facilitate their release with minimal change of injury, barbless hooks are required.

After a ninety minute drive through lovely treeless rolling fields of grain, loaded with wild turkeys and quail, we hit the river around 9:00am.   There was a heavy salmon fly hatch. I caught a rainbow trout in the first hole I fished, on about my fifth cast. Twenty-five states. One goal accomplished. In fact, I continued to catch rainbows steadily all day, as we worked our way down about a mile and a half of river. None were bigger than eleven or twelve inches, but they were healthy and bright.

It was not until we were almost at the end of the stretch that the elusive shadow rouse from a deep pool and struck my fly. Only to miss my hook and swirl back into the depths.  Twenty minutes later, Ashley caught up to me. Fishing a fly I had tied, he managed to hook the fish—or maybe its big sister—in the same hole. After a short fight, it broke him off. That was all we would see of it that day. 

We went home with a couple rainbow trout for supper, and memories of a lot more that we released. It had been a great day. But I was still haunted by that shadow. I had to return to the river.  The next day I changed tactics. No small nymphs. Nothing to attract little rainbows. It was big fish or bust. 

The shadow came out of the third hole I fished, and slammed a black wooly bugger I had tied earlier in the summer. It was not a forty-inch fish, but a good bull trout of just over eighteen inches. It fought me thirty yards down river, and beneath overhanging branches, before I was able to get it near to shore and remove the hook.

he rest of the day was slow. I landed only two decent rainbows. I saw two more monstrous shadows of big bulls, but they both missed my fly. But that night I did not go to bed feeling haunted.


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