Bull Trout Fishing – A Story from the River

The smoke-filled sky slowly darkened while I pitched a brand-new tent. It was August, and unseasonably chilly, even for my being in a valley in northern Idaho around 9,000 feet above sea level. Blair and I had been on the road for hours, finally coming to a bumpy stop on a sagebrush covered ridge dotted with cattle. Usually, when pitching a tent, you’re looking for a spot free of rocks. But we had a harder time finding a piece of ground not covered in cow pies.

By: Spencer Durrant 

The tent went up with only a few broken stakes and a handful of creative curses, all of which were my doing. Blair fell asleep quickly – he always does – but I had a helluva time staying warm. I hadn’t packed for a night this cold. It was August, for crying out loud. I knew it’d be chilly, but not cold.

The cold wasn’t all that kept me awake. Below the ridge was a river, and in that river swam bull trout. I’d never caught one before, and they were only a few hundred yards from where I shivered. Why wasn’t I down there fishing mice by moonlight?

I didn’t have a good answer for that question, but I fell asleep eventually. We woke to the faintest bit of frost on the tent and sagebrush. Blair and I planned on wet-wading, but when we fired up the car and climbed in to eat a breakfast of frozen jelly donuts and Dr. Pepper in warmth, we saw the outside thermostat.

38 degrees Fahrenheit.

“It usually runs a bit warm,” Blair said. “So it’s probably colder than that.”

“Great,” I said. “This means we have to wear waders.”

I hate wearing waders. Or, more accurately, I hate wearing them when wet wading is a viable alternative. I knew the day would warm up enough to wet wade, but we couldn’t very well sit around waiting for the sun to crest the peaks of northern Idaho’s Rocky Mountains.
Grumbling, I pulled on waders, an extra hoodie borrowed from Blair, and rigged up my rod with a big streamer.

Any angler who’s daydreamed about bull trout probably visits the same place I do – a crystal-clear river running bright and cold, each rock clearly visible below the water’s surface. Bull trout blend in well with their surroundings, but a slight wiggle of the tail, or a long, dark spot on the riverbed that looks too fishy gives their position away. Your streamer passes its mouth, which opens into a gaping white maw that swallows your fly and immediately makes your reel scream.

That’s what I saw when I stepped into the river. Up this high it was more of a creek, and it flowed through a meadow, but other than that, it looked just like I’d imagined bull trout fishing should be.

The first half-hour of the day was miserably cold and unproductive. Blair caught one small bull that taped at maybe 13 inches. I didn’t expect things to be fast and furious, but I was discouraged that our wading hadn’t yet spooked any trout.

I was about to sit down, pull out some more jelly donuts, and wait for the sun to warm things up when I saw the telltale flash of a white-tipped pectoral fin – the dead giveaway for any char. The fin was attached to a bull trout – a big one. Then another bull joined the first, and another. Soon, there were a half-dozen fish twenty yards upstream, tailing at the end of a deep pool. I couldn’t tell how big they were from that far out, but I knew they were at least bigger than 13 inches.

Blair was downstream, but I didn’t dare yell for fear of spooking the fish. I waved my arms wildly, pointed upstream, held up six fingers, and then put one finger to my lips. Blair interpreted the angling sign language and walked up quietly. I pointed at the pool and he got the look of a kid on Christmas morning.

Now, Blair is both a better angler and man than me. He insisted I take first-crack at the pool of fish. So I walked as close as I dared, tossed in my streamer, and made a few small strips.

Most of the fish ignored it. Except one. It bulldozed the Clouser minnow, hitting it like a freight train, then immediately took to the sky. The thing was huge – bigger than expected – and for a moment I was lost in watching it jump instead of actually fighting the fish.
Thankfully, Blair hollered at me to reel, I put tension back in the line, and the trout was netted quickly. I walked to where Blair held it in the net.

It wasn’t as big as I’d thought – only 18 or so inches – but it was a bull trout. My first. And it was gorgeous.

As Blair snapped a few pictures, the sun crested the peaks and cast the meadow in golden morning sunlight. The bull trout swam back to the pool, and suddenly, I wasn’t as cold or anxious as I’d been just minutes ago.

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His writing has appeared in multiple national fly fishing magazines, including Field & Stream, Hatch Magazine, TROUT Magazine, Sporting Classics Daily, and others. Spencer is the managing editor of The Modern Trout Bum and CEO/Owner of Cutthroat Creative Media. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.