Everything about bull trout is cool. They definitely look cool. Their scientific name, Salvelinus confluentus, is cool. It’s cool that they will attack a cutthroat trout that would be a decent catch in its own right. They live in cool places, often remote and picturesque. It’s cool that they grow to larger sizes than most other river-going trout and char. They offer really cool sight-fishing opportunities in water so pure it appears translucent. It’s cool that they are known to eat streamers large enough to scare some musky. There is no wonder why every fly fishing Insta-celebrity has a couple of grip and grins with this extraordinary species.
Further investigation of bull trout reveals an increasingly complicated picture. Bull trout are susceptible fish over much of their range. In fact, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists them on the “Red List,” meaning they are vulnerable to future extinction. They rely on cold, pristine water for their spawn, a resource increasingly at risk due to logging, grazing, climate change, and pollutants. Their propensity to school-up in large, crystal-clear pools exposes bull trout to unscrupulous anglers who could use unethical or illegal techniques to capture them. Rightfully so, in some major drainages, it is actually illegal to even target bull trout.
Fortunately, factors like good regulation, remoteness, and habitat restoration provide healthy populations of bull trout in some river systems. Ironically, the same dams that threaten or extirpate other migratory fish species have augmented some adfluvial bull trout populations. The massive reservoirs where these piscivores spend the majority of the year allow for quick growth on abundant forage fish. Despite the challenges bull trout face throughout some of their range, bull trout can provide an ethical and exciting target in certain river systems.
My recent bull trout expedition was years in the making. Fly fishermen are a fairly tight-lipped bunch in general and with a coveted species like bull trout information was difficult to acquire. I scoured fly fishing resources on the internet, which usually provided little more than vague mentions about various river systems. I pestered multiple experts on Instagram and by text message (you know who you are, thank you), and gained some valuable tips in the process. I spent hours pinning likely locations on Google Maps. Per usual, some of the best resources were scientific papers written on the subject. I could have simply hired a guide, but what’s the fun in that? Eventually, I had a plan for a certain river and plane tickets to get me there. My aspirations of catching a bull trout would soon be reality.
I generally encountered two types of bull trout during my trip. Most of the fish were large, adfluvial bulls that hugged the bottoms of the deepest pools. They were easy to spot, but difficult to catch. While these fish had murderous intentions for any unfortunate cutthroat that wound up on the end of my line, interestingly, these fish seemed impossible to catch with streamers. These fish had an impressive ability to distinguish a wriggly 12” cutthroat from my largest Drunk and Disorderly or Dolly Llama streamer. Otherwise, these fish seemed to have entered zombie-mode in preparation for the end of their migration and the upcoming spawn. But as with most species, we stumbled upon the occasional village idiot who could not resist a well-placed weighted stonefly or mayfly nymph.
We also encountered several bullies that lived up to their reputation as ambush predators. These fish were smaller although not little (22-26” in length). I imagine they are resident river fish. They would come from behind root balls, log jams, and boulders to occasionally crush a streamer. This was more of what I had in mind when I started dreaming of bull trout years ago.
Most names for fish tend to make sense. Does anyone question why a cutthroat, rainbow, brown, or lake trout gained their respective appellations? I do not know the reason bull trout received their name. A “great white shark trout” or “zombie trout” would be more descriptive depending on the behavior one wanted to honor. The one feature that was somewhat bull-like was the fight the fish displayed while on the end of a line. Like a long contest between a toro and matador, the bull trout I encountered fought tenaciously. Several fish, including a 33” trophy, tested my 8-weight Scott Meridian to the limit. These fish are not often acrobatic, and they won’t usually strip you to your backing. However, they have an intense desire to remain in the depths of the pools from which they came. Runs are often brutal and relentless, and several fish were lost to unavoidable snags.
This bull trout journey proved to be a worthy summer adventure. I got to hold some of the most incredible fish on the continent, including one of my favorite fish of my fly fishing career. I explored some beautiful and remote landscapes. And I didn’t get eaten by any of the bears or wolves whose footprints were prevalent on the same sandbars that I explored! The experience may have deviated from my expectations formulated when I started dreaming of bull trout years ago. But in ways, it also exceeded the vision I had for the trip. There is no doubt that bull trout are indeed very, very cool.