My most recent encounter with a legendary bull trout occurred last fall. Alder leaves had turned gold and cobwebs ballooned baby spiders across the sky. A cool breeze sent senescent leaves cascading into the river, briefly obscuring my view of the underwater world. I was ready to call it a day when a small rainbow trout rose to a well-placed no. 10 Renegade. “Nice,” I said to myself. “This one is going into the creel.”
Before I could reel the breakfast trout to shore, a large dark form burst from the cover of a submerged log, engulfed my catch, and put a deep bend in the fly rod. The fish-eating predator, a 20-inch bull trout, was eventually steered to the shallows for release, the small trout held deep in its gullet.
I am often reminded that big fish will eat little fish if provided the opportunity.
Bull trout belong to a colorful group of fishes known as char, along with Dolly Varden, lake trout, brook trout, and Arctic char. Having light spots on a dark body reveals char identity. For comparison, trout and salmon have dark spots on a light body.
For many years, the name bull trout and Dolly Varden was synonymous with a single species. Taxonomic designation changed in 1980 when genetic analysis showed the predominately inland form, bull trout, was distinct from the more northern and coastal Dolly Varden.
Nevertheless, these two species of char share enough characteristics to make their true identity nearly indistinguishable. To add to confusion, their geographic range overlaps from Puget Sound into lower British Columbia where hybrids have been found.
Bull trout and Dolly Varden both have grayish/green bodies covered with small white or pale yellow spots and intermingling pink or red spots, although sea-run individuals are more silvery in appearance. The most reliable characteristic for separating the two is number of branchiostegal rays. This fact means little except to those having advanced knowledge of trout anatomy.
At a regional fisheries conference several years back, I was surprised to hear a speaker report that bull trout were extirpated from the North Fork of the Walla Walla River as a result of the flood of 1996. I raised my hand and said, “That’s interesting. Two months ago, I hooked an 8-pound bull trout three miles up the North Fork.”
The young biologist failed to consider that bull trout will repopulate disturbed areas if a migration corridor exists. Hopefully, bull trout will return to Blue Mountain headwater streams after being displaced by this February’s destructive flood.
Every year, following the first fall freshet, I hook a bull trout or two in the lower Walla Walla River when casting for steelhead. By early summer, low flow and high water temperature chases them upstream, although some may choose to enter the Columbia River. Having the option to migrate allows fish to connect to habitat having more food or favorable water temperature and generally results in larger size individuals.
Declining populations led to bull trout being designated “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1998. Interestingly, several streams in western Washington allow limited harvest of “bull trout/Dolly Varden” (an assumption is the average angler can’t tell the difference), including the Skagit, Skykomish, and Snohomish Rivers. The Metolius River, Metolius arm of Lake Billy Chinook, and the Wenaha River downstream of the confluence of the North and South Forks have enough bull trout to allow for targeted catch-and-release. Or travel to Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho where the state record 32 lb “bull” was caught in 1949. More recently a 30 ½-inch “catch-and-release” record was established for bull trout in the Kootenai River.
Growing up at a time when it was legal to harvest bull trout, I heard stories of anglers who used “cut bait” to pull big “Dollys” from deep bedrock pools of the upper Walla Walla River. A few years back, over a cold lager, a high school friend shared he used to “drift baby mice down through holes in the Umatilla.”
A more sporting technique is for fly casters to cast a meaty fly such as a Bucktail Coachman, Clouser Minnow, or Muddler Minnow. Spinners, where legal, also attract the strike of predatory bull trout.
Another adventure in my collection of bull trout tales, also on the Umatilla River, occurred when my daughter was 6 years old. The bait of choice back then was a fat juicy nightcrawler. I hooked a legal-size rainbow trout in a deep hole where current swirled around exposed alder roots. Like any good dad, I handed Diana the rod for a try at landing the trout. She took one crank on the reel before giving me a dirty look and saying, “It’s stuck on the bottom!”
I took the rod back and felt the throb of a heavy fish. “Looks like a big Dolly ate your trout!” I yelled. “Let’s see if we can land it.”
I waded in behind the big fish to herd it to shore, but it coughed up the badly mangled trout and swam back to its protective lair.
Five decades have since rolled by, yet I remember that thrilling encounter like it was yesterday. Which only goes to prove the adventures that stick with you the longest are the ones where the big one that got away. I guess that’s why I think bull trout are worthy of conservation.