On the fly
Hunt, Trout Unlimited/Website photos
sun filtered through the smoky haze, casting a tarnished glow over the
high-country meadow in remote central Idaho. The state’s tallest peaks
climbed through the murk, showing up more as silhouettes rather than
snow-tipped crags in the near distance. Many miles away, both human-caused
and naturally ignited wildfires consumed timber and sage, sending the acrid
exhaust drifting over the landscape.
Everything was still and
quiet and hot. The air, heavy with a campfire aroma, felt stagnant and
lifeless. But through it all, the river moved.
Cold and clear, it gobbled up the valley floor on its way to the mighty
Salmon, giving way to thickets of willow and shin-eating wild roses. It
turned and twisted its way through the meadow, creating deep corner pools,
plunges and tail-outs. With every step, summer-fat grasshoppers clumsily
lumbered through tall grass and undergrowth, bouncing from willow branches
to limber shoots of wild grain to fragrant stands of Rocky Mountain sage.
perfect for dry-fly casting to wild and native west slope cutthroats, but,
even with the ‘hoppers bouncing around, nothing came to the top. I floated a
fat, foam Chernobyl over a likely run, eagerly expecting that purposeful,
somewhat lazy cutthroat take, but got nothing. I recast the fly and tilted
my head a bit, gazing through polarized lenses into the depths of the dark
Something moved, as if to rise to the fly. But then it settled back down on
the bottom. It was big and adorned with creamy white fin tips—that’s the
only reason I saw it. As it dropped back to the bottom, the fish
disappeared, perfectly blended among the cobble beneath the current.
It was gray and ghostly as it resumed its lie on the river bottom. I had to
squint through the moving water, the eerie glow of the sun’s smoke-filtered
light making it tough to get a feel for what might be a fish and what might
just be a rock.
And then it moved again, pushing upstream a foot or so and dislodging
another fish, just as big. I kept my diligent watch, waiting for my
“fish-eye” to kick in. These weren’t cutthroats. No sir.
These were bull trout. Big, migratory native char that might have started
their journey up this backcountry river in June or July from the Salmon,
arriving here to stage for their annual fall spawn. Bull trout are the
river’s predators, and early pioneers along this and other Northwest rivers
used to treat these threatened fish with disdain. Today, they’re enjoying
something of a rebirth, especially among anglers who value the opportunity
to catch big fish in small water.
In Idaho, it’s legal to target bull trout, but illegal to harvest them. This
approach to bull trout management might be what saves this native char—close
relatives to brook trout, lake trout, Dolly Varden and Arctic char—from
further decline. There’s a quiet subculture of Idaho fly anglers out there
who seek bull trout out and do their best to fool these beefy, aggressive
fish with streamers more representative of small rodents than they are of
Trouble was, I didn’t have any small rodents in my fly box. I was extremely
prepared for dry-fly fishing for fat backcountry cutthroat trout. But
casting to 18- to 20-inch bull trout? Not so much. And, their mere presence
likely explained the lack of cutthroats rising to grasshoppers—bull trout
are notorious piscivores, and they’ll gobble up cutthroat trout struggling
on the end of a stretch of tippet. If I were a hungry cutty, I’d think twice
before exposing myself to the angry maws of a big bull trout, too.
That said, I did manage to find a couple of small wet flies that I tied
earlier this summer for brown trout in Yellowstone’s Firehole River. Fishing
a 3-weight for cutties, though, I was a bit under-equipped to try and
grapple with a pre-spawn bull trout.
Of course, that didn’t stop me. Us fly fishers know how to adapt, you know.
I cut my leader back and clumsily cast the small “dart” into a run at the
head of the pool where I’d seen the first fish, and let a little line out to
get the fly down. As it swung tight, I began a purposeful strip, bringing
the black-and-red fly back through the depths slowly.
Immediately, the fly drew attention, as I noticed a small (15 inches or so)
bull trout rise up from the bottom of the pool and slowly start to follow
the fly. I picked up the pace of the retrieve and the fish followed suit,
closing quickly. Just before I was sure it was going to hit the fly, it
turned away, and I groaned in frustration.
I went to lift the fly out of the water and recast, when, out of nowhere,
that gray ghost that I’d noticed a bit earlier glided out from under an
overhang and smashed the little streamer. The groan turned into a giddy
giggle as my line stretched tight and the fat char trucked into the depths.
Landing the fish on the light tackle was an exercise in patience, but I got
the big fish to the bank and admired its fall colors. Bulls aren’t quite as
glorious as brook trout when it comes to pre-spawn coloration, but they
boast some pretty orange spots and those white fin tips that are indicative
of most char. I think what I admire most about bull trout, though, is that
they just look … mean. Their heads are a size too big, and their teeth are a
bit more “grabby” than those on other salmonids.
I released the big fish
back into the pool, and it slithered through the shallows, taking up a lie
just below the tailout. I watched it for a bit—a stoic, gray “rock” on the
bottom that, if I hadn’t seen it set up shop there, I would have missed
I pulled a few more big bulls from the icy flows of the stream, pleased each
time with the tug and the fight, and even more satisfied as these fish, egos
freshly wounded, glided back to their holding waters, stubbornly waiting for
the next opportunity at food.
These fish were fat and happy and healthy—a good reminder that intact
habitat matters to trout and char, even if the ecological system as a whole
is flawed (remember, the ancestors of these bull trout might have migrated
as far downstream as the Pacific via the Salmon, Snake and Columbia
rivers—barriers likely keep that from happening now). Here, in one of the
many headwaters of the Columbia basin, a cold, clear mountain river provides
the opportunity for these fish to carry on and adapt to an ever-changing
environment, and for guys like me to experience the thrill they offer at the
end of a fly line.
Even as smoke filled the valley from fires both natural and unnatural,
giving an almost-orange, very eerie aura to the skies over the mountains, I
marveled at how wild critters find a way to persist in the face of
For that, I’m grateful. Because of that, I still have hope.
Chris Hunt is the national digital director for Trout Media. He lives and
works in Idaho Falls
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