These bulls get big. Some stretch past 40 inches, and for those of you who fish steelhead, you know that’s a dream fish. I’ve fished through pools and buckets in these mountain streams, no wider than 30 feet, that hold dozens of these fish, many larger than any rainbow or brown you’ll ever catch. And get this—bulls do take drys.
Twice I’ve pulled bulls to the surface with large, size 8 or 10 beetle imitations. One of those fish must have weighed eight or nine pounds. I’ve considered skating flies over some of these pools, although there is something strange about considering that method on a creek that may be only 10 yards wide. But it could be fun.
The problem with bulls is that you never know exactly where they’ll be. You can guess they’ll be at the mouths of tributaries, but just as often as you find them, they are eerily absent. And you can search Google Earth for a stream and find pools that look likely, only to hike several miles to find the water brutally low and not nearly so appealing as you’d believed it to be. So the bull trout game isn’t a slam dunk, but when you find them, you’re usually in them, and the catching can be dramatic—I once caught and released 30-some of these beasts, fish up to 15 pounds, in a two-day window.
Bulls haven’t always populated the western angler’s hit list. Or maybe I should rephrase that . . . bulls have been on the hit list because they were once considered trash fish in Montana. Their seagoing cousin, the Dolly Varden, used to be considered a scourge in Alaska, too, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, from 1921 to 1941, actually paid a bounty for their tails. Once the bounty was revoked, the mind-set remained; if you caught a Dolly while fishing steelhead, sea-run cutthroat, or silvers in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, up the bank it went.
A friend of mine, Montana born and raised, once showed me a photo he’d snapped on a backpacking trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, back when he was in high school. The photo showed a large bull trout, maybe a 10-pounder, resting on its side in a frying pan, with the head hanging off one side, the tail off the other, and a bullet hole in the middle. They’d seen it in the river while hiking on a trail above, pulled out the .30-.06 rifle, and gave it the lead.
When I first moved to Montana, for college, I held a prejudice against bull trout because they ate rainbows, cutthroat, and browns. Now they are a savior for me—I can get my off-the-grid, dry fly, cutthroat experience with the possibility of landing a giant fish on any given cast.
Before you key in my email address, the answer is yes: I do know that you can’t specifically target bull trout in Montana, outside a couple of places, one being the South Fork Flathead River in northwest Montana. But you do encounter bulls while fishing Western Montana’s mountain streams, and any time you tie on a streamer, it could be “game on.” In Idaho, you can specifically target bulls. Ditto for British Columbia, Oregon, Washington, and Alberta. No matter where you find them, and whether you pursue them specifically or they come your way by chance, bulls must be quickly released. They are an indicator species, meaning their abundance or lack thereof suggests the overall quality of a watershed. We lose the bulls, we likely lose the cutthroat and everything else soon after.
An admission: Sleeping on an air mattress ain’t as easy as it used to be. But my love for wilderness and getting away from people and our daily lives only has increased with the daily digital onslaught. I can’t float a river playing driftboat bang-o-rama and feel as if I really got out there. Plus, on most rivers, cell service is available—and you know how that can change the dynamic of a day on the water for those who take along a mobile phone. Which is another reason these cutthroat and bull trout streams appeal. No cell service here. If you get in trouble, you can power up your SPOT locator and type in, Save My Ass! That’s all you get. I like the sense of being mostly alone, relying on my outdoor skills to get me in and out alive.
Not long ago, I spent a few days five miles back, camped in a small meadow with bull trout pools upstream and down and lively cuts practically outside the tent door. In the evenings, a friend and I would chill because, really, there was nothing else to do. We’d catch our share of fish each day and return to camp with that completely worn-out yet euphoric feeling, from hiking and climbing the banks and testing our bodies to the limits. Then we’d cook a simple meal on a tiny one-burner stove. We’d drink a little, watch the stars, crawl into our tents at a reasonable hour, and get some sleep. We’d wake in the morning, boil water for oatmeal and coffee, then hit the water for another 10-hour fishfest. One morning, while we were drinking coffee, a cow moose walked right between our tents; another time, a black bear wandered through the meadow as if it owned the place, which we admitted by grabbing our bear spray and patiently allowing him by.
I’ve survived a wicked flash flood while fishing deep in an isolated canyon for bull trout, and I’ve laughed for days at a friend who brought two left-foot wading boots on a multiday trip into the backcountry. (I lent him some New Balance running shoes that sort of worked on slick bottom rocks.) I’ve heard the first elk bugles of the year while hiking through these damp cedar, spruce, and larch forests, and once, I landed 100 cutthroat on my birthday and released 99 of them, saving one for a special dinner eight miles deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
There’s something in me and many of you, I’m sure, that isn’t satisfied with the cookie-cutter experience. Mountain climbers have it, backpackers, too; astronauts, spelunkers, and deep-ocean explorers feel a similar urge: some sort of drive to accept a unique challenge and see the unknown. For us, I believe, the beautiful places don’t include people, pollution, highways, and homes. That’s the draw to these bull trout and cutthroat waters.
So, when you’re planning trips this winter, and you’re about to book another day in a driftboat, consider a day or two away from the big names, where you can be off the grid and ease that mind while tempting trout to the surface with drys. Then get yourself in shape and do it.