The four-inch, yellow rabbit strip (which resembled a road killed rabbit lashed to a hook) splatted onto the surface of the pool with an audible "smack". It decended to the bottom of the crystal clear pool as rapidly as an unlucky, cement-shoed, mafioso being sent to "sleep with the fishes".
The corner of the pool was dappled with shadows from overhanging branches and thick streamside vegatation. Out of these shadowy depths, a long, darker shadow seperated itself from rest. It was shaped like a trout but more in proportion with a salmon, the fish awoke from its mid-day slumber to take advantage of another hapless victim.
A swirl, a flash and a bent rod followed, and in less time then it takes to say "Bull Trout!" the fight was on. Greg, had tied into this monster, which would easily go six or seven pounds. The bull rolled to the surface, showing his spotted, dark body and the glimmer of his white-tipped fins before regaining his equilibrium and turning downstream.
The line cut through the surface of the water, making an erie hissing sound like power lines in a hurricane. At the end of the pool, the stream broke into a series of fast chutes and rapids, and for an instant, it looked as if the fish was going to take the fight to the next hole. Instead, he quickly swapped ends and headed back upstream, forcing Greg to lift his rod high and quickly take up slack.
After a few more short runs, the bull finally reliquished the fight, allowing himself to be slowly slid into the waiting net.
The days of keeping bull trout are long over, so with a grin Greg gently removed the hook from the strong jaw and slid the magnificent fish back into the water.
After a couple of minutes of slowly working him back and forth in the current, the fish was strong enough to head back to the serene depths of the shaded pool, no worse for wear other than a bruised ego. It is hard to say if fish have a sense of "self", but if any do it would have to be bull trout. It was almost as if he could be seen looking over his shoulder, shaking his head and pouting at the insult of being caught.
What is a bull
Unless a fisherman heralds from the Northwest, he may have never heard of a bull trout, let alone ever caught one. In fact, bulls are not a trout at all but a member of the char family (as are brook and lake trout).
They are often called Dolly Varden, but recent studies indicate that they are a seperate species. Dolly Varden are known to migrate to the ocean, in the same manner as a steelhead trout. Technicalities aside, dollys and bulls can be lumped into the same catagory when discussing them in the contexts of fishing.
Bull trout are indigenous to the Northwest. They were abundant throughout the region only a century ago, but now they are one of the most threatened salmonid species, and occupy less then half their original range. However, they still can be found in parts of Montana, Idaho, Washington, Northern California and Nevada.
They are extremely sensitive to environmental changes, and many factors have contributed to their decline. Habitat destruction, siltation of spawning areas, changing water conditions (due to agriculture and diversion dams), introduction of non-native species (such as brook trout) and past governmental extermination policies have all contributed to their decline.
It would seem that with all of these factors and the threatened nature of the species, I or anyone else should have no business writing about, or fishing, for these few remaining symbols of our true wilderness heritage. I personally believe nothing can be further from the truth.
The salvation of fish or wildlife comes through awareness, appreciation and use. Without this, species fall into the catagory of "forgettable" and no money or resources are allocated to their resurection. To top this off, in certain places they are plentiful, and limited wise use is sustainable.
If sportsman are going to get excited about bull trout then they must know something about them, specifically how to catch them and enjoy them for their size, strength, ferocity and power. At the same time, we must understand and respect their threatened nature and their relative vulnerability.
Catching and retaining bull trout is illegal in most states, with some limited exceptions. Even though fishing is not the cause of their demise, we are their ultimate saviours and practicing catch and release angling (even when not required) is a must.
Several correct techniques should be practiced if you are going to target these large fish. The first is the use of selective fishing gear. This means artificial lures, and single barbless hooks. In addition, heavy line should also be used. Long battles exhaust a fish and lowers their survival rate. This is not a fishery for thoses wishing to use a feathery 3-weight rods. Eight to ten pound tippet with a six - or seven - weight rod is ideal for quickly subduing these fish.
Proper catch and release technique
While they are a hardy fish, simply 'tossing' them back isn't the proper technique. Use a hook remover or a "Ketchum release"
to quickly and easily remove the hook. If you are not comfortable handling slippery fish, try not to lift the fish from the water. If dropped, internal injuries can result. If you must touch the fish, wet your hands or use a wet cloth as to prevent damaging the protective slime. When releasing, hold the fish by the base of the tail, facing upstream and gently work him back and forth in the current until he is strong enough to swim away.
Nothing is wrong with catching a few bull trout but the key word is "few". Occassionally, large pods are encountered, and it is relatively easy to catch a fish on every cast. As tempting as it is, this should be avoided. Catch a few, have fun, enjoy the moment and the brief touch with wilderness, but then move on and leave the rest for someone else to experience. But don't tell the location of the hot spot; let others find it on their own. Revealing the hot spot, is usually as damaging as catching every fish yourself.
BIG, is the name of the game when fishing for bulls. I have found that color plays a very small part in successfully catching these fish. On a recent float
trip with Rob Endsley of Kulshan River Excursions (360) 676-1321, we floated 10 miles of the Sauk River in Washington and caught and released dollys the entire length of the float on about every color in the fly box. The tricks are size, presentation and knowing where the fish are.
Pulsing materials does seem to induce strikes, and I have found flies tied with rabbit strips, marabou and flashy synthetics all work excellent.
Like bass, size often excites bull trout, and rarely are they ever intimidated by it. Three-inch patterns, to those as long as your hand, are about right for most fishing situations.
All of my patterns for bulls are heavily weighted. Bull trout hold on the bottom of deep pools or under sheltered undercuts, and a heavy fly that gets down quickly and bounces along the bottom is what is often required to get strikes. I prefer underbody wrappings of lead or tungsten, combined with bead and coneheads for maximun sink rates. For really deep pools, a sink tip line can be employed with deadly effectiveness.
Bulls are a symbol of the Northwest; they are a holdover from an era when things were clean, pure and wild. But with a little appreciation, knowledge and suport they don't have to be only a symbol; they can regain their former glory and status on the top of the food chain in mountain rivers and streams.