It wasn't long ago that California had its own native population of Salvelinus confluentus. In fact, the last documented Bull Trout sighting was on the McCloud River in the late 1970's. As you could predict, irrigation needs, habitat degradation, and damns led to the fish's demise here in California. Fortunately, Bull Trout still have the habitat they demand once you're willing to travel North.
This summer, while in Montana the lure of Bull Trout coaxed my college buddy and I down a fifty mile long dirt road in search of the elusive River Wolf. When you're in a truly wild place with massive rivers, threatened species, and a deep smell of pine, you know you're doing something right. With three days in front of us and and zero experience with Bull Trout, it's no surprise that I kept telling myself, its all about the experience. However, deep inside my inner angler, I knew this trip was about more than taking in the wilds of North Western Montana. It was about hooking and landing fish. Big fish. Big, wild, elusive fish.
When the sound of tent zippers and boiling water rose with the sun, there wasn't much hesitation to jump in the car and explore the fist section of river for the day. Bull Trout typically thrive in interconnected river systems which allow them to travel from large rivers up through tributaries until they end up spawning in higher mountain rivers with intensely cold water and complex river habitat. While the smaller fish can eat like other trout, once they get to 14 or 15 inches, they feed predominantly on other fish species. With that understanding, streamers were attached to our tippet. Non-slip mono loops pulled tight allowed for maximum movement in the fast moving water.
Courtney, Marty, and I stood on the riverside cobbles, talking about past fishing trips with high hopes for the day. Marty, a local kid from the area had joined us for the day and was eager to show us one of his favorite river systems. As we stepped into the frigid water and began stripping line from our reels, I tried to temper my enthusiasm. Only a few minutes into casting, I had a fish following my fly and before I knew it, 20+ inches of Bull Trout was somersaulting through the air. As my fly floated past me in slow potion, I turned my head up stream, mouth agape, only to hear laughs from the peanut gallery as they watched on.
We moved up stream throwing dry flies and streamers, undecided on what species we were truly after. A few Westslope Cutties came to hand and the three of us put down the dry flies and committed to the hunt. Streamers swung behind rocks, darted out from white water, and eventually got crushed by the fish we'd traveled so far to meet. Each of us had a good number of chances that day. Some fish came unbuttoned in the fast water, while others found solace in bottom of our nets. Each fish we brought to hand was welcomed by smiles and high fives. When you release a fish like that into the depths of a Wild and Scenic River, you can't help but find a rock to reflect on. It's an emotional experience to encounter wild fish of this size in their native habitat. Each fish we landed was an exciting experience for all three of us.
Although Marty had to head back home at the end of the day, he wasn't sent off without a few great fish to tell stories about. Courtney and I still had two days ahead of us and we were confident that we'd find more fish to awe us. When my head hit the pillow that night I couldn't help but wonder what it would have been like to land one of these fish in my home state, on the McCloud.
As a conservationist, I recognize the importance of species like this. Species that demand perfection (and protection) from us. Any alteration of the environment they call home and they can be gone, just like the Bull Trout of the McCloud. Gone forever. So...if you decide to try your luck with Bulls, walk gently, check your regulations, and keep these guys wet.