In search of northern BC Bulls
A remote place with large fish
A few summers ago, a friend and I were lucky enough to experience some of the best bull trout fishing this province has to offer. When you think of bull trout fishing, a few places may come to mind and northern BC definitely ranks up there with the best destinations. Travelling into the vast expanse of the region you will be left in awe. Simply standing at the edge of a backcountry road, and gazing at nearby valleys, raging rivers or large lakes you realize that nature in northern BC is super sized. Naturally, the size of the rivers and lakes are matched equally by the size of the bull trout that inhabit them. This story is my account of a short, but memorable bull trout fishing adventure somewhere in northern British Columbia…
Going on a fishing expedition, you can never be too prepared. For our remote destination we made sure we had an ample supply of flies - big bushy flies, sparkly flies, colourful flies, dull looking flies, heavily weighted flies, flies that are not heavily weighted, and even small minnow flies. We basically packed any fly that could peak the interest of bull trout and combined that with eight and nine weight fly rods in single handed and double handed configurations, and even a switch rod to make sure we covered every possible scenario. Of course a variety of tips was also packed - 15-foot tips in a variety of sink rates,10-foot tips in a variety of sink rates, and even MOW tips with different combinations of sinking and floating sections. We also took a small inflatable boat that could be easily carried by the two of us, and a 20-horsepower jet outboard was also squeezed in. This boat was a necessity, providing access to the water and transporting us considerable distances up- and downstream, while avoiding heavy bushwhacking. Lastly, whatever space was left in the truck was crammed with food, drink, and camping gear.
Fishing in northern BC often means that you are far from civilization and should be prepared for any situation, from running out of flies to life-threatening emergencies. On this trip as I stood at one vantage point, I could not help but think of how explorers like Alexander Mackenzie and Simon Fraser made their way through dense forests and up and down rivers, without GPS units and satellite messaging devices. Although most anglers with a sense of adventure can romanticize about these explorers, there is no need to try and reenact the past. Entering the wilderness of northern BC without a combination of GPS units, satellite messaging devices and/or sat-phones is not smart.
On this trip the most important piece of equipment for us was a two-way truck radio for use on the Forest Service Roads. We encountered many logging trucks on the narrow and dusty roads - seeing one of these trucks barreling down the road, with a big dust cloud in tow can be intimidating, and is not something you want to play chicken with. If you value your life then you need to stay out of their way. Remember that they are there making a living and you are only there in pursuit of your recreational ambitions. Make sure you are equipped with the necessary equipment and are familiar with the calling procedures on these roads.
Another testament to how rough these routes can be is the number of abandoned vehicles along the roadsides. Like the F150 we came across, riddled with bullet holes… Was it owner frustration, passers by having fun, or locals looking for relief from boredom? Such a sight in the middle of nowhere can make you a little neurotic and your imagination can go wild on what may lie ahead.
Day 1 - Searching for bull trout
We started off driving down the river valley towards a fairly large river. We knew from our Google Earth homework that there were a couple of smaller streams not too far from a bridge crossing. The first stream was only about a kilometer from the bridge, but the river banks were too steep and the bush was too thick to try and hike to it. With a lot of huffing and puffing we had to lower the inflatable boat and outboard down the steep bank. All this work could be worth it because as the first angler you are almost always guaranteed to get the big bull trout if it's around.
At the first confluence, we flogged the water into a froth without a single bite. Puzzled and amazed, we realized that there were probably no fish. We had swung and stripped flies through every single lie that could hold a fish, but with our tails between our legs we got back into the boat.
At the second stream the boat did not even come to a complete stop before we both jumped out, now a little hungrier for a hook up. Almost immediately my fishing companion hooked up and landed a small bull trout around 18 to 20-inches. This was promising, but we had hoped for bigger fish. Soon afterwards, I hooked a fish that just felt large - large in that it pulled line of the reel at will. When the fish wanted to go upstream, it did, and if it wanted to go downstream, it did. I was just along for the ride, smiling from ear to ear. After about five minutes of slugging it out, the hook pulled out without me even seeing the fish. My heart fell right into my wading boots. That was it for the first day of fishing, a little disappointing but it created enough of a tease for what was to come in the next two days.
During a northern BC summer you are guaranteed to donate blood to mosquitoes, black flies and deer flies while in the bush – they all want a proverbial pound of flesh from visiting anglers. The bugs can be so bad sometimes that if they could, they would carry you deeper into the bush and suck you dry. At a minimum, to avoid the small flying inhabitants of the boreal forest you need bug spray or a bug net. On this trip we looked to set up camp in an open area. We hit the jackpot when we discovered an old abandoned airstrip on a bluff overlooking the river. It was open and there was a breeze, both much needed factors in keeping the bugs at bay. We did make sure to setup our camp just off to the side of the airstrip, just in case a larger flying object needed it.
First published in January/February 2017
Day Two - a boat ride to bull trout
We had heard about a couple of good spots on a large river about an hour's drive north from our camp. With GPS coordinates in hand we set out to find them. The only way to reach these spots was on a very rough road that was running parallel, a kilometre east of the river. Looking for a place to launch the boat, we eventually found an old abandoned logging camp that provided access to the riverbank. This river is large and imposing, at least 80 metres across, with towering cutbanks that made us feel small. I was reminded that fishing is as much about the journey to the fishing spots as the fishing itself - a bit of a cliché, but nevertheless true. There was so much breath taking scenery around us.
The first of two destinations looked really fishy, as it had all the characteristics of bull trout water. We couldn't beach the boat fast enough as the likelihood of anyone having fished this spot this year was incredibly small. This was most likely virgin water, and knowing that the biggest fish in a pool usually falls first to a well-presented fly, we both rushed over. We both tried to be polite and give the other a fair chance, but much to our chagrin neither of us shook hands with a fish in the first 30 minutes - very unusual for this type of bull trout fishing! Eventually we did both get a fish. They were impressive specimens, massive heads and big shoulders with bodies tapering down to the tail, making them almost look out of proportion.
The second destination was another 45 minute boat ride down the river. Tracking our progress on my GPS unit, we could not get there fast enough as it was a rather uncomfortable ride. I was stuck sitting hunched over in the front of the boat clenching a five gallon Jerrycan between my legs. The Jerrycan's handle was trying to find its own comfortable spot at my expense. During the first half of the morning my enthusiasm could have numbed all discomfort, but after getting only one fish so far that day, it was less tolerable.
When we finally reached the second spot, it did not look like anything special, but as soon as we started swinging flies we realized it was anything but ordinary. That afternoon we hooked and landed several large bull trout. We spent more time with a fish on than casting and swinging flies. Some fish would take it on the swing and others grabbed the fly as it was being stripped back in. The bull trout fishing that afternoon was special, something that most anglers only experience a few times in their lives, if ever. Finally we had fishing that matched the breathtaking surroundings.
The last day – saving the best for last
On the last day we wanted to explore one more river before heading back home. Driving down a narrow Forest Service Road, dodging potholes, we eventually reached our destination. On the game trail down to the river our enthusiasm for the day was crushed by the sight of milky blue water - the river was coloured with glacial silt. Fishing in milky rivers is at best challenging, or at least I thought so at the time.
Initially there were not any fish but as we worked our way downstream, we started hooking them. First it was a bull trout every ten casts or so, and as the morning progressed the number of casts per fish decreased until it was what felt like a fish almost every cast. What made this even more unbelievable was that none of the bull trout were less than 25-inches. A 25-inch fish was a small fish! The majority of fish were probably around 28-inches with the occasional one reaching 30-inches. I know this since I had to stop to measure a few. The fish we hooked did not give up immediately either. It was a tug-of-war with everyone and this went on for probably two to three hours.
Part of the attraction to fishing is the unpredictability and the anticipation of hooking up with a fish. Since we reached the point where we expected to get a hit, we were past the point of what angling is truly about. So we called it a day, after all how many fish do you need to catch anyway?
The last afternoon and the following morning of our expedition were the most epic, the most insane, and the most unbelievable fishing for bull trout that either of us had ever experienced. And to be honest, I am not sure if we would be that lucky again. The only problem (tongue-in-cheek) is that this type of fishing creates jaded anglers – anglers who expect every outing to be like this.
In general, bull trout fishing requires a little luck as big bulls are migratory. One day a pool can be stacked with fish and the next day it is completely devoid of any. In exploring northern BC in search of bull trout I have seen migratory bull trout school up before making their final push up small streams to spawn. If the timing is perfect and you encounter one of these schools, like we did, there will be phenomenal fishing, but there is a dark side to this as well- In my opinion, these schools represent a substantial portion of the spawning fish for any particular stream as bull trout spawning runs are quite small. Small in that bull trout are the apex predator in these systems and these systems can only support a limited number of individuals. Anglers who are not aware of this and not willing to regulate themselves can easily damage a spawning run that will take years to recover, even if you practice good catch and release.