Most anglers' first introduction to bull trout happens by shear accident, and quite often this leaves you in disbelief. You are playing a 'little' trout or grayling of 16-inches and suddenly this ominous shadow comes out of the depths, charging your fish, trying to inhale it, leaving you to ponder on your own safety.
For years many anglers have ignored bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) as a valid sport fish. Some anglers oven considered bull trout to be a nuisance and negative impact on rainbow and cutthroat trout populations, but in the last 20 years these fish have become popular with a strong cult following.
Contemporary history of bull trout
The first bull trout was described by C. F. Girard as Salmo spectabilis in 1856. A few years later, in 1858 G. Suckley described a bull trout caught in the Puyallop River in Washington State as Salmo confluentus. Scientists later changed the name to Salvelinus confluentus as genetic data indicated that it should belong to the genus of the char and not to the genera of either Pacific or Atlantic salmon.
The common name 'Bull Trout' is by far the most widely used for the species, but other names include: 'Western Brook Char', 'Inland Char', 'Bull Char' and 'Mountain Char'. Even though Salvelinus confluentus is indeed a 'char' and not a 'true trout', it was not renamed 'Bull Char' but instead kept its official common name as bull trout.
The name 'Bull Trout' comes from the fact that this species has an enormous head. The large head and mouth symbolize a successful evolutionary path as the top predator in its environment. Just saying the name 'Bull Trout' a mental picture of pure strength and supremacy is formed in the mind of many anglers.
A common misconception about bull trout is that they are the same species as Dolly Varden. Dolly Varden is often mistaken by many anglers as bull trout and vice versa. You will still find many anglers referring to bull trout as 'Dollies', especially along the coast of BC. They are now separated into two distinct species based on morphological characteristics and genetic evidence. Probably the easiest way to distinguish a bull trout from a Dolly Varden is to look at its size. Bull trout adults are large and grow well into the 20 to 34 inch range, whereas Dolly Varden adults are quite small, at less than eight inches. As a matter of fact the largest bull trout on record, caught in Lake Pend Orielle ,Idaho, was nearly 40-inches in length and weighed 33-pounds. Apart from its size, bull trout also has a big flat head and pointed snout to set it apart. Dolly Varden has a much smaller head and its snout is more blunt ended. The spots on the back of Dolly Varden are small and crowded, whereas bull trout has much larger spots that are sparsely arranged. If you want to get really technical, bull trout also has more than 23 branchiostegal rays (gill rakers) and Dolly Varden have less than 23.
Dolly Varden is more prevalent along the coast and bull trout is more of an interior species, but there is some overlap in their ranges, especially along the coast. Bull trout are most easily found throughout the interior of BC, to a lesser extend along the coast, and are absent on Vancouver Island and in some of the shorter coastal rivers. However, larger river systems like the Squamish and Lower Fraser and tributaries do have fairly healthy populations. Anglers often catch good size 'Dollies' in the aforementioned systems, but these are actually bull trout. In Alberta, bull trout enjoys the status of being the official provincial fish, and are native to streams draining the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
Biology of bull trout
Bull trout looks like a typical salmonid, and simply put, they are beautiful fish with a light gray to brown to golden olive coloured body and pink-orange spots. They prefer cold clean water where you will find them in water cooler than 15 oC. Bull trout is a very slow growing fish that can live up to 14 years, much longer than trout and salmon. As a matter of fact the oldest recorded bull trout was from BC's North Thompson River, and was 24 years old. At the end of summer, bull trout start to migrate up to the spawning streams. They will quite often spend a month or more in their spawning stream before actually spawning.
Bull trout have evolved into four life history patterns; stream residents that are typically quite small and found in the head waters of large river systems, and three migratory life histories: large river residents (fluvial), lake residents (adfluvial) that migrate up rivers to spawn and then the very rare anadromous form. The fluvial and adfluvial fish are of much greater interest to anglers as they grow to the large legendary sizes seen in photos, books and the internet. Fluvial and adfluvial bull trout are piscivorous, feeding on other fish species with the occasional small rodent falling prey. They will feed on small baitfish like sculpins and will devour mountain whitefish, rainbow trout, westslope cutthroat, Arctic grayling and kokanee when available. In some of the coastal rivers with salmon runs, bull trout will also feed eagerly on salmon eggs and fry.
Equipment and Tactics
Along the coast of BC anglers often target bull trout with two handed rods and steelhead type flies. Patterns like Intruders, large streamers, egg sucking leeches and eggs should all be part of the coastal angler's arsenal. In the spring adding a few fry imitations to fool these large mouthed predators can be successful. The majority of anglers in the BC interior and Alberta will use single handed rods with streamer flies to imitate small bait fish.
When fishing for interior bull trout, most anglers will use a nine-foot eight or nine-weight single handed fly rod. This paired with a large arbor disk drag reel lined with a weight forward floating line and a sinktip system should cover most situations. A number of fly line companies produce change-a-tip type sinktip systems that allow you to go from a floating line all the way down to a type VIII sinktip without changing spools using loop to loop connectors. A less expensive alternative is to build your own sinktips using tungsten impregnated fly line. Bull trout are not leader shy so all you really need is ten pound breaking strength tippet or heavier, four to six feet in length.
Fishing for bull trout in systems where there is no anadromy is very different compared to where there are salmon and steelhead migration runs. With no salmon eggs and fry on the menu bull trout behavior and feeding focus on other fish. A lot has been said about fly pattern choice. A popular favourite is tied on a #2 hook, 4 XL long black rabbit strip for the back and tail, silver chenille for the body and a few red feathers around the gills. Some anglers prefer also hot pink or black bunny leeches, conehead Zonkers or a large woolly bugger like the Bow River Bugger. All these flies will catch fish, and it largely depends on what fly you have the most confidence in.
One of the biggest challenges in targeting bull trout is in locating them, but once found they are easily fooled by large flies. It is a must to understand bull trout behavior and their migration patterns in your favourite bull trout streams. This can require some extra exploratory fishing trips to unravel the secrets of their migration. Deep pools with large woody debris are excellent habitat for bull trout. Lurking in deep pools or at the head of larger runs they will pounce on anything perceived either as a threat or food. They are actually fairly easy to catch once located, which makes them vulnerable to over fishing. There is nothing exceptionally technical about bull trout fishing. The best way to fish a deep pool for bull trout is to make a quarter cast down stream so that the fly swings through the head of the pool first, and then gradually work your way down. When fishing runs cast across the current and let the fly swing or strip it in. Bull trout seldom go for long runs but once they turn their sides to the current, the extra weight from the water pushing on the fish will delay landing the fish, as you are now fighting both fish and the weight of the water pushing against it. Sometimes this will lead to tearing the hook out of the fish's mouth. One way of preventing this is to move down stream so that the fish is either up-stream or straight ahead of you. By doing this you can land the fish much faster and a fish landed quickly also needs less recovery time and has a greater chance of survival after being released.
Keep in mind that bull trout is one of the top predators so only a few big adults can be sustained within a particular ecosystem. The harvesting of these slow growing giants will have serious repercussions on a population and for this reason bull trout is protected by catch and release regulations throughout most its range. This, combined with protecting their habitat, good fish handling practices like keeping the fish in the water, and not sticking your fingers into their gills will help a great deal in sustaining a healthy population.
Fly-fishing for Bull Trout
by Danie Erasmus
First published in Summer 2018