The Unknown – Backroad Bull Trout
If you missed the first write up about our recent fly fishing trip into the Montana backcountry, be sure to read the post “The Unknown – Backcountry Cutties.” During our six day trip we not only set out to explore some of Montana’s most beautiful water, but to legally target and fish for native bull trout.
In the earlier part of this century and also within the last few decades, the bull trout was seen as a cannibal of the trout family. Many viewed it as a trash fish because of it’s highly predatory nature and its voracious appetite for other fish. There numbers soon began to plummet due to extensive logging ruining spawning habitat along with unchecked fishing practices. Today they are now found in healthy numbers and are addictive to catch. We had never fished for these trout but felt confident we could get into a few. Very few people fish for bull trout so as long as you can find them, you should be able to catch some. I figured they would be easiest to find on the main river with its deep holes and long runs. We decided to bushwack down to the river off a nearby dirt road and set up camp. To say the canyon we’d be fishing was stunning was an understatement.
We immediately scouted for a suitable campsite. Fortunately we found a small sandy area along the river and got situated. Bull trout can grow upwards of 3 feet and are very powerful fish. For this trip we decided to take a couple 8wts. It’s best to play these fish quickly and without a sturdy rod, a big fish might be running downstream with no end in sight. A big thanks goes out to Dan @ Grizzly Hackle. He was gracious enough to help outfit us for our trip. If your around Missoula, be sure to swing by. Whether it’s trout, steelhead, or tarpon, they have what you’re looking for.
We quickly set up the rods and hit the river. Immediately we found great looking water. I honestly felt like I was in some exotic place and surely not Montana.
The water is deep emerald and the surrounding rich forests and moss covered cliffs made me feel like I was in New Zealand or deep in the Canadian backcountry. The first hole looked promising and we spent almost an hour drifting streamers through every nook and cranny amongst the rocks.
Finally I heard those magic words, “I got one!” Travis had hooked into the first bull trout of the trip. After a short fight we had a nice bully in the net.
Travis was pumped up. This was his first bull trout on a streamer and things were looking good. We kept moving up the canyon, methodically working each hole. One of the problems we encountered on this stretch was the depth of each hole. Often you couldn’t see the bottom. I know some of the holes were at least 20 feet deep and with the current it was just plain tough to get your streamer deep enough and in the right spot.
We fished hard that day but never got into another bull trout. The scenery keep us in good spirits and we slowly worked our way back to camp.
With the clouds rolling in we decided to call it a day and hang out by the fire.
We had an amazing view of the river, a hot tasty meal, and good conversation to finish up the day. Just down river there was an osprey nest perched on a tall dead tree next to a tall cliff. Mom was screaming her head off and even did a bit of fishing.
Over the course of the trip we got a chance to fish a lot of water. Another day of our trip was spent exploring a second deep canyon upriver.
This canyon is only accessible from one end or the other. We worked in from the bottom and immediately were met with beautiful water. This canyon consists of long deep pools, large boulders, and some solid rapids. The water is ideal for bull trout, but again we were up against very deep holes. With little room to cast it was difficult to properly fish much of the water.
After a few hours we were beat down. The water looked perfect but the fish just weren’t emerging from the shadows.
Just as I was about to turn and begin fishing back to the truck I heard Travis yelling. I headed over to see what was going on. He had a bull trout chasing from one of the larger boulders, and I intently watched as he worked his streamer along the boulder. After a few misses he finally connected. Although it was a juvenille bully, it did re-energized me to continue working a deep run. After a long cast I let my fly drift back and down about 60 feet. I then slowly twitched my streamer across the current. Boom! These trout attack the fly and often it initially feels as if you have a snag. They soon realize their caught and the fight begins. After a few surges and small runs, I turned him into the shallows and chalked up my first bull trout of the trip.
Over the course of our trip we learned a lot about where to look for bull trout and how to fish for them. The key is to go deep and get twitchy. White and grey seemed to work best for us. Also they enjoy lurking next to any type of rock formation that allows them cover and a quick path to small fish passing by. Another characteristic we found was that when they do feed, they often will fall back into the tail out of a pool where the river condenses into a smaller area. Two pictures down are three bull trout sitting in a tail out of a pool we found.
Travis was also pretty excited that his homegrown flies did the trick. Grey Gandalf was doing work and a couple white variations had success also. The few days we spent fishing for bull trout was very educational for us. We were able to successfully explore a few areas that held bull trout and learned more about where to find these bad boys. We even got a chance to sight fish for them. I’m already looking forward to next summer as we found another spot where the bull trout are fairly numerous and should be easy to catch with the knowledge we acquired during this trip.
As they say, “The tug is the drug.” Watching your streamer get hammered is by far one of the most fun aspects of fly fishing that I have yet to experience. I now understand more of why people love fishing the salt flats for tarpon. Maybe one day. Hopefully Travis and I can get working on the video before hunting season get’s too far underway. I think we got some awesome footage and can’t wait to share it with everyone.