Searching for a Bull Trout

For the last 10 years I’ve been engaged in a quest to catch all the species of trout native to North America. Why? I don’t know exactly. I guess one reason is because I like to travel to different areas and luckily our native trout live in many of the most beautiful spots our country has to offer. Another is that I simply admire the beauty of the trout in all its various forms. From the iridescent bluish flanks of the Bonneville cutthroat to the golden hues of the Apache trout, it has been a privilege to hold each jewel in my hand, if only for a moment. And finally I guess it is a way to add a sense of accomplishment to an activity I enjoy. My days of fly fishing for trout are imbued with a sense of higher purpose and I am forced by this endeavor to support conservation efforts for all our trout species but especially those that are most endangered.

So this summer I hoped to add a species to my previous count of 14. Along with the fairly ubiquitous rainbow, brown and brook trout, I had previously caught 8 species of cutthroat, Apache, Dolly Varden and golden trout. Yes, I know that brookies and Dolly Varden are technically char, but close enough, right? In fact my new target species was also a char. Accompanied by my good friend Ramsey Brock who was spending the summer working for Silver Creek Outfitters in Sun Valley, Idaho, I went looking for the trout with the meanest reputation of all, bull trout. Salvelinus confluentus confluentus loves to pray aggressively on small fish and large nymphs. They are, however, increasingly rare as their habitat of cold, clean water is degraded by logging and other development.

Thanks to some local information, we headed for Loon Creek with the advice, “it’s a long drive.” Well, apparently “long” in Idaho translates to narrow, treacherous, switch-backing, unstable and really, really long. This was 30-plus miles of “road” that would have made my little rental car quiver and turn back within seconds. Luckily we were in Ramsey’s trusty pick-up and ever so slowly and with some apprehension made progress deep into the heart of nowhere in central Idaho. Finally arriving at Loon Creek, we found a beautiful small freestone creek and began fishing. Unfortunately all we caught for awhile were west-slope cutthroats—normally an occurrence I’d hardly call unfortunate—but I had my heart set on a bull.

My spirits were flagging until I finally clambered up on an overhanging rock and looked down into a deep clear pool. Sitting at its very bottom appeared to be a large dark trout. I didn’t know for sure that it was a bull but it was the biggest fish I’d seen and I figured this was my only chance. I had to catch this fish and find out for sure. Unfortunately, he was situated in such a way that I simply could not get my streamer offerings down to him. After 30 or 40 tries, I contemplated moving on but decided this was it. I was casting my luck, so to speak, with this fish. So I stuck it out for a few more minutes and just as I tied on large stonefly nymph along with 4 split shots, the trout decided to move to the other side of the pool and I had a chance at him. This time the first cast was all it took. He hammered the fly and shot off into the current. Since Ramsey had long since given up on this pool and moved on, I was left to land him myself. With my heart racing I managed to tire the 18-inch fish and ease him into my net. My whooping cries alerted Ramsey and his girlfriend Megan who had accompanied us because they thought I’d fallen into the clutches of a bear. But these were shouts of thrilled celebration.

We admired and quickly photographed the handsome green flanks and pink spots of the bull trout and returned him to the stream. I gave thanks for nature’s bounty and my opportunity to catch this wonderful fish and was only too happy to buy dinner for my companions. Looking back, though, I’m not sure sushi was really the appropriate celebration meal.

– Jeff Kurtzman

August 2006