To someone who is passionate about fish, there is something that feels almost magical about holding a bull trout in your hands. Beneath those tangerine scales and white tipped fins, you get the sense of something that is truly wild and untamable, pulsing at your fingertips. For me, as a fly fisherman, bull trout have always been at the pinnacle of my fishing bucketlist. Maybe it’s the long streamlined shape, elongated head and jaw, and giant fins made for traveling incredible distances and eating all the smaller fish along the way. Maybe it’s the slick color scheme, with all the oranges, yellows, grays, and those bright white racing stripes that make the char family stand out among many other beautiful species of salmonids. Maybe it’s the sheer size that they can achieve. Any way you look at it, there’s no denying that bull trout are some of the coolest damn fish out there.
Chasing bull trout can be frustrating, but is one of the most rewarding experiences I have taken part in. There is a lot of mystery surrounding the whole species and they can be very difficult to locate. Anyone who has info on bull trout is extremely tight lipped (and for good reason). Bull Trout are listed as threatened in the US, one step below being endangered. They have been brought to low numbers through overharvesting (once considered a trash fish, because they did not take dry flies) and destruction of their natural habitat, due to dams, logging, and other human interaction, but have been surviving due to some major conservation efforts. Outside of being an awesome fish already, bull trout live in some of the most beautiful habitat imaginable. Bullies prefer crystal clear water, under 55 degrees Fahrenheit, with extremely low silt content for spawning. Many bull trout spawning routes have been blocked, or destroyed, causing their numbers to suffer. They require gravel and quite a bit of cover to survive. They usually prefer the deep pools of rivers or lakes, due to the colder water temps. You can usually count on jaw dropping backdrops, often with large boulders and huge turquoise pools when you are in bully country, but they are often very migratory. I once talked to a fisherman who told me “never overlook anywhere” when fishing for bulls. I found this out from my own experiences after catching fish in a couple feet of water, or from pulling them out of whitewater rapids and deep pools surrounded by cover and cutbanks. You never know where you will find a bully.
I have not had a ton of opportunities to chase Bulls, but my experiences with them are some of my very favorite of all my fly fishing memories. If you’re chasing bullies, you are going to want a fairly heavy rod (I have been fine with a 7wt). Big bulls are notorious for being almost completely piscivorous, meaning that they feed almost entirely on other smaller fish. For this reason, big streamers are always a favorite for most anglers. I have seen bulls crush giant streamers as soon as they hit the water, but I have also seen them be some of the most finicky fish I have ever thrown to. When this happens, I like to turn to a nymph rig. Although not quite as satisfying as throwing a giant wet sock at them, nymphs can be very effective when the fish are getting a little lock jawed. Bull Trout are very interesting to watch when you fish to them. They can be very lethargic, sitting on the bottom for hours at a time, then the next second you are hooked up. It seems that any action in the water around them, such as hooking another fish in the hole, excites and agitates big bulls, causing the bite to go from ice cold to red hot in a matter of minutes, almost like you just rang the dinner bell. This particular behavior reminds me more of smallmouth bass than any other trout species, and is just another thing that sets them apart from your every day trout.
Bull Trout are unlike any other species I have ever fished for, almost like an epic summer sunset and a thunderstorm collided inside a fish. They are incredible fighters, and one of the most beautiful species I have ever caught. Although they are not often super acrobatic when you hook them, bulls will pull as hard as anything out there, heading straight for any available cover, and often BULLdogging you right on the bottom, ironic eh? Their migratory behavior definitely contributes to their fighting ability and has honed them into incredibly strong swimmers. Bulls received their name from their extremely large head and jaw comparative to body size, but I feel that they resemble them in many other ways. They are hearty and strong, and some of the most majestic fish out there. If you ever get the chance to chase Bullies, don’t turn it down! I feel blessed for the opportunities I have been given, and I can’t wait to chase them again!