Bushwhacking for Bull Trout

Bushwhacking for Bull Trout

It started the way many fly-fishing trips do, a little vague and forbidding, but loaded with possibility. A friend described a place where large westslope

  • By: Greg Thomas
It started the way many fly-fishing trips do, a little vague and forbidding, but loaded with possibility. A friend described a place where large westslope cutthroat trout to 20 inches and bull trout to 20 pounds could be found-a remote British Columbia stream that required a challenging hike through grizzly bear country. I located the stream on a topographical map and guessed it flowed 20 or 30 miles through a forest, then several miles through a deep canyon before spilling into a larger river.

My friend didn't know exactly which portion held those big cutts and bull trout, or even which roads led to the area, but he added, "I do know that you can site-fish to those bulls and a biologist measured a 35-incher."

Thirty-five inches. Offering a report like that to a dedicated trouthead is like dangling a rat in front of a python. I phoned from my home in Washington to a friend in Oregon and told him about the biologist's report. I said something about giant bull trout and remote country and he said, great, but wasn't a thousand miles an awfully long way to go on such a vague report? He reminded me that there were a bunch of big rainbows and browns to be found a lot closer to home, fish we could locate and catch with ease.

"But hadn't we already done that?" I asked.

I didn't expect a fight-and I didn't get one. T.R. McCrystal is the easiest sell around; tell him about a road trip involving large trout, evening campfires and a cooler stocked with Miller High Life and he's in. Spontaneity is part of his soul and I understood the first day we met.

We met in Coeur d' Alene, Idaho, which marked a midway point between his home in central Oregon and my current situation in Seattle. After gaining entrance to Canada we followed a logging road through B.C.'s dense fir and pine forest. It was wild country for sure, a place where I expected to see a moose, bull elk or even a grizzly bear around each turn. Finally we came to a steep grade that brought us high on a mountainside and offered a revealing view of the river. From that vantage we studied the breadth of the country, from its towering granite peaks and dense sub-alpine forests, to its winding glacial valleys and broad runoff plains. One thing was for sure: We weren't in Kansas anymore.T.R. and I clasped hands and almost simultaneously said, "Let's find a way down there." The way down, we discovered, was through a tangle of forest where every few yards or so, we'd find our fly lines hopelessly wound in a tree and our faces introduced to fresh spider webs. Eventually we broke out of the thick stuff just above the river. We glanced upstream, then downstream, wondering which way to go. By all accounts, it wouldn't matter; it looked like a 20-pounder ought to be hiding in every emerald pool, behind every damn rock. It had been that kind of super-long drive across Washington and Idaho and into B.C., and slow-going through towns with the accompanying drive to the fishing grounds, that makes a couple of eager fishermen wonder if they might ever reach the river. To be blunt, my ass was sore from sitting in the driver's seat and my casting arm was itchy. I wanted to cast and catch a fish in the worst way, but I didn't want to engage in some kind of track meet, racing a partner for every damn fish in the stream. It didn't help matters that the first pool was jammed with large bull trout. I do believe that anglers should glean as much enjoyment from watching a friend land a good fish as they garner from their own triumphs. And, after driving as far as we had to reach the stream, I wanted to appreciate our opportunity and savor it fully. I said, "T.R., I think we ought to fish this hole one at a time and switch after each fish. And you're up." It was a methodology we'd used on many trout waters and it had worked well in the past. I looked away from the water into the dense forest and tried to control my nerves as T.R. readied his fly. It took more casts than we thought it might, but it wasn't long before my friend had a nice bull trout attached to his leader and a broad smile stretched wide across his bearded face. He released that fish, we shook hands, and I stepped to the plate. I made a couple of unsuccessful casts and was about to make another offering when a large cutthroat trout broke free of the water about three paces away from my wading boots. It was one of the largest native westslope cutthroats I'd ever seen, and I would have been thrilled if it hadn't been attached to T.R.'s line. What was this? Didn't we have an agreement, or was I mistaken about our unspoken pact on angling courtesy? Should I have asked for a signature signed in blood? I made another cast as that big cutthroat danced across the surface. Then T.R. hollered, "Yeah, check out this cutthroat. It's huge." I felt like a burglar had waltzed in the front door, made off with a family heirloom and raised the middle digit as he walked out the door. I glanced at the fish, now pushing deep, throttling the heart of the hole, spreading out all those beautiful bull trout. I twisted away from T.R. and cast. T.R. pulled forceps off his vest and repeated, "Thomas, look at this fish." It was, perhaps, the largest westslope cutt he'd ever caught. From that previous glance I knew it was as broad as a small salmon. Still, I stared into that empty water where those bull trout used to be. I reeled in, shook my head and placed the fly in the rod's cork handle. I growled, "I'm going downstream," and headed that way thinking, doesn't he get it? I'd walked downstream a hundred yards when I heard T.R.'s voice. It was muffled, but the excitement was easy to identify. I looked upstream. T.R.'s arm was raised in the air. He could have been motioning me to join him. His fly rod was bent hard and there was an awful lot of water turning around his legs. Maybe he was being attacked by a giant bull trout. Maybe he deserved to be. I turned away and waded across the current, and T.R.'s voice disappeared in the river sounds. Later, T.R. told me that fish must have weighed 10 pounds. He said he wished I'd seen it. Said he yelled as loud as he could. We hiked out of the canyon and arrived at the truck just after dark, which, during summer in British Columbia, arrives at about 10 PM. T.R. readied our meal, set up a table, propped up a couple chairs, uncapped a couple bottles of beer, set out the utensils and lit the Coleman lantern. I sat on the tailgate drinking beer and transferring flies from my chestpack to a vest. I sure as hell wasn't going to help with dinner. If it was going to be another track race in the morning I was damn well going to be ready. Remorse set in sometime after dinner, after about seven beers, when I crawled into the back of the truck and into my sleeping bag. I just stared at the canopy's roof. T.R. said, "What an awesome evening. Those fish were huge. I don't even know if I can sleep. I'd rather head back down there to the stream right now." It was the kind of enthusiasm I appreciate in a fishing partner. And even if T.R. had stolen my fish, wasn't that uncontrolled enthusiasm the very quality I most admired in him? I find bull trout to be particularly fascinating fish, and I've thrown a line for them in varied waters across the Northwest. Technically, bull trout belong to the char family, but every time I've told somebody in Idaho, Montana or Washington that I was fishing for char, they asked if I was feeling OK before adding, "Hey, bud, you're about a thousand miles too far south for char." So I go with the title of bull trout, despite the technical error. Bull trout are noted as poor fighters, a characteristic that's apparent upon first introduction. In fact, fighting a bull trout feels more like a tug-o-war with a log or an anchor than anything else; after an initial head shake or two the fish holds deep in a pool, the angler hoists the fish toward the surface, the fish dives again, and so it goes. Bull trout rarely jump, but when they do-given their size and strength-it's an amazing display. The only time a bull trout battle moves fast is when one of those brutes charges downstream through a rapid, which forces the angler to perform a boulder-hopping balancing act. A severely sprained ankle or a broken leg is always a possibility when chasing a large bull, and that's not a good thing when you're four or five miles away from the nearest road, which is where most of the quality bull trout are found these days. What bull trout lack in the fight department they more than make up for in size and appearance. They are big, way too big it seems for the streams they inhabit, and they look like a weird cross between a pink polka-dotted alligator and a shark. Somehow that odd combination works. Other than the pink spots, it's a wicked appearance, emphasized by substantial teeth and the fact that, if you fish often in Northwest waters where cutthroats and bull trout coexist, one day you'll hook an innocent little cutthroat of eight or 10 inches and a full blown bull trout will charge from the depths and swallow the smaller fish whole. T.R. and I woke, brewed an evil pot of coffee, and traced a path to the river. The sky was clear and the fishing that day was straightforward. We tied heavily weighted nymphs and streamers to our leaders and drifted those offerings through the deepest pools. Whenever the line stalled, we set the hook-and while sometimes that hook sank into the mouth of a bull trout, many other times it stuck on a rock or log and was lost. The first cast into each fresh hole produced a naive bull trout. Subsequent casts were viewed with increased skepticism. Most pools held three or four fish, and although we managed to catch-and-release several bulls ranging between five and 10 pounds, but we hadn't seen anything approaching the biologist's description of a 20-pounder. Then we came to a lengthy run where we spotted perhaps a dozen mature bull trout. Several looked like they might meet the 35-inch mark. We spread out and it wasn't long before my drift hesitated. I lifted the rod tip, felt a head shake and saw a massive fish briefly turn on its side. I turned upstream and said, "Yeah, I think this is the one we've been looking for." For at least five minutes I pulled that fish toward shore, lifting up, reeling down, exerting every ounce of pressure the rod could stand. That tactic worked until the fish felt a pebble tickle its belly and then it was off again, steadily pulling line from my reel, returning to the depths. The fight was a standoff, but I knew the fish would eventually tire and I'd win, if only I could exercise the patience required to keep a line taut and a leader intact. When he decided to leave the pool, he went downstream with the determination of a train, and it seemed as if he were trying to break my leg on one of those boulders. It's never easy when a big fish takes the upper hand in a battle. I realized that a decision had to be made: I would either fight this fish, and follow it downstream as required, grimacing and praying and swearing while I leaped from boulder to boulder and climbed over those mangled root wads, or I would simply point the rod at the fish and pinch the line. The leader would snap and I'd have my life back. T.R. and I fall into the irrational lot, so we took off after the giant bull trout, T.R. snapping photos while I tried to hold the rod high. In the end, we negotiated all those boulders, successfully crawled over those root wads, and managed to corral the fish in a little pool just above another set of rapids. That bull trout was as beautiful as they come; it offered an olive/gray back and sides punctuated by hundreds of pale pink spots. The fish had a mixed white and creamy-yellow belly and it carried white-tipped fins as broad as the palm of my hand. I drew a measuring tape from a vest and stretched it over the trout. From nose to tail that fish registered 32 inches. He may have weighed 14 or 15 pounds. T.R. quickly shot a few photos. There were times that summer morning when T.R. and I at the same time fought bull trout exceeding seven or eight pounds. I reminded T.R. that this was the kind of event that justifies a thousand-mile drive. And there were moments that morning when one of us sat on the bank in the sunshine enjoying a cigar or a hand-rolled cigarette, watching a good friend work through a hole loaded with wild fish and recalling those good and bad days gone by. It was the type of fishing pace I live for and I lapped it up like Crown Royal. For a few hours it seemed as if we might go on catching those bull trout and cutthroats forever. But when T.R. hoisted one 10-pounder for the camera and the flash fired bright I noticed how dark the background had suddenly become. And then it started to rain. As T.R. continued to fish and lightening struck the surrounding peaks, I headed for cover. Rain fell hard, and then it turned to hail. T.R. waded out of the river and we hid under a rock outcropping, waiting for the slop to end. Just as the hail lay to a half-inch on the ground around us, the sky lifted and we noticed snow on the surrounding mountain peaks. This in late July. Then the weather socked in again, turning the light of noon into dusk. This time the rain came twice as hard, washing all that hail into the river. T.R. and I moved beneath a massive, 12-foot high logjam within the riverbed until we heard a great crash and continuous rumbling from the far bank. We climbed onto the logjam and stared in disbelief at what only an hour before had been a tiny trickle feeding out of an avalanche chute. The former trickle now resembled a full-blown feeder stream that carried uprooted trees in its flow. The main river had turned to mud in which logs moved and boulders rolled. We couldn't move downstream without being rammed by a log and we couldn't move upstream due to the rising water and nearly vertical canyon walls. The only option was up-up one of those mostly bare, crumbling slopes. I grabbed an exposed root and crawled up another five feet thinking, dead men don't fish. The slope proved a dangerous route, because all that dry dirt had turned to mud that was the consistency of a freshly poured foundation. Climbing higher-at least 80 feet above the riverbed-we staked our lives on the root systems of tiny pine trees and scattered brush and grass tufts. We were just 50 feet below the canyon rim and the relative safety of the forest when T.R.'s feet slipped out from under him. I clutched a small tree with my right hand and T.R.'s hand in my left, supporting his entire weight as his legs churned, searching for a solid dig. If I lost my grip here, he would make a terrifying slide to the riverbed, right onto all those big boulders at the base of the slope. Surely, bones would break. In the end we managed to scale that slope. By the time we reached the pickup truck we were both smeared with mud and blood. We stripped off heavy, sodden clothes and sat in the cab of the truck, dazed, with the heater blasting and two fresh pilsners cracked open. Eventually we reached pavement and all seemed safe. I stopped a truck that was ahead of us. Waders and boots and various camping gear hung in a rack on its roof. Obvious hard-core fly fishermen, "Were you guys caught in that?" I asked, pointing to that remote country and those sinister clouds behind us. "Yeah dude," the passenger barked. "We had a mudslide come right across the road in front of us." "Yeah, us, too. But were you guys fishing when the water came up? We were in the canyon. All those walls came down. Rocks, logs. A wall of mud. It was crazy." "That's wild, man. We got out before it started. Did you catch some fish, bro?" I hesitated, not wanting to give away any secrets, but T.R. leaned across the cab, stretched his arms wide and yelled, "We drilled them! Bull trout to like 10 pounds, man. They were giant! Big cutthroats, too. It was awesome." The passenger nodded his head, then flashed a toothy grin and the hang-loose sign. "Right on," he said with conviction. "Us, too." I turned to T.R. and said, "Man, do you think we should have told them that?" He squinted, raised his palms and said, "Hey, share and share alike." Greg Thomas currently lives in Ennis, Montana. This is his first piece for FR&R. In his book, Trout and Salmon of North America, Dr. Robert Behnke tells us that the bull trout's native range includes most of British Columbia and Alberta, most of the Pacific Northwest, Idaho and western Montana. In the US, increased water temperatures and the siltation of stream- and riverbeds-largely caused by logging in the watersheds-has greatly reduced bull trout numbers. The introduction of non-native species into bull trout habitat has also contributed to the decline. Bull trout currently are listed as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act in the Columbia River, Upper Klamath Lake and Puget Sound basins, as well as in Montana's St. Marys-Belly River drainage. Bull trout can live for up to 10 years, and the largest one ever caught weighed 32 pounds. -ed.