Skagit Bull Trout Primer Chapter 5: Some Interesting Encounters

Editor's Note: This article wraps up @Smalma's awesome series on our native char, the bull trout. If somehow you have arrived here without reading the other articles, please click this link and check them out, you won't be disappointed. For everyone else, please enjoy these stories of some really interesting encounters with bull trout that Smalma has had over the years. They do a great job of showing just how amazing these fish really are. And no, the fish in the images do not match the stories. They are just some cool fish that our community have caught over the years. You can see more photos here. -J


Photo by @Matt B

A red flag fish

In the gin clear water of the North Fork Nooksack, a flash of red from a freshly hooked bull trout turned was puzzling. As the fish was eased into the shallows there was a bright red strand on the side of its face. Perhaps, a fish that had broken off from a steelhead angler using red yarn? No, it was a piece of gill. A closer examination revealed that the first gill arch on the left side of the fish had been severed near the point it would attach at the back of the mouth. The gill arch was sticking out of gill plate it had completely healed and the fish appeared to be thriving (caught the same fish again in the same place a week later). While I had seen a ling cod that had survived such injuries, I was shocked to see a trout had survived. That was more than 45 years ago. Since then, in all the fish I and my partners have caught, all the fish I have checked and all the fish returning to hatcheries I have seen 29 other salmonids that have survived such an injury. One was an in-river adult coho, a second was rainbow trout from a put-and-take lake, and the other 27 were all bull trout. Given the fact that bulls were just a small portion of the total of fish seen those bulls exhibit an ability to survive what would normally be considered a mortal wound for the other salmonid species.

How they can do that remains unknown although I suspect it likely is a combination of behavior (seeks refuge immediately and having a general laid back attitude) and maybe their blood just coagulates more efficiently. Regardless, it does indicate that our bull trout seem to be more tolerant of angler abuse than other salmonids. In the same basin the incidental near immediate hooking mortalities (floaters) while handling sea-run cutthroat is roughly 10 times higher than what I see with bull trout. This is in spite of it being more common to deeply hook a bull trout.

I do recommend that with any deeply hooked wild salmonid that an angler desiring to release the fish not attempt to remove the hook which often results in additional injury to the fish. But rather gently clip the leader as close as easily done to the mouth. It is amazing how easily such hooked fish can dislodge those hooks on their own; especially if barbless.

A war veteran

As I slid a large bull trout into the shallows, I noticed that it was a heavily scarred fish. In addition to several body scars most of its fin had been damaged. Starting at its head the left pectoral was a mere bump, the right pectoral fin was only about 3/4 of its normal length and the fin’s rays were deformed with a wave (typically of fin regrowing a portion of a damaged fin). The front half of the dorsal fin was gone, a chunk of the anal fin was missing, and pieces of both the upper and lower portions of the tail were missing. Surprisingly, the fish gave a great account of itself, taking me into my backing twice. All the injuries were healed and were likely the result of numerous battles over spawning rights with other males and/or potential predator encounters. Given the fish’s large size it seemed unlikely that it had lost any recent battles and those injuries could have been several years old.

Bull trout are survivors!


Photo by @Long_Rod_Silvers

A difficult fish

The river had been high for nearly two weeks, and I was anxiously looking forward to getting back on the water. I had spent some time at the tying vise working on a new prototype bull trout pattern and wanted to test fish it and maybe compare it with my tried-and-true patterns. Just before the high water I had floated a section of the river a found a side channel that held a fish or two behind the first of the season’s chums. I was hopeful that with more chum activity it could be a productive spot and if not, there was other nearby water. I thought I knew how to reach that water on foot, and after a sweat producing 30 minutes of brush whacking, I reached the river just downstream of my goal. I walked upstream along the high bank watching for fish before crossing at the next upstream tail out. A number of chums were spawning above the run which itself was well populated with bulls, what appeared to be a nice resident rainbow and a steelhead, this might be good. After crossing above the salmon, I looped around given them a wide berth to step in below their spawning. I began fishing my new pattern down through the run, missed a fish right away, but soon landed a nice bull. About 3/4 of the way down, I picked up the resident rainbow I had seen earlier, and another bull quickly followed. A nice start! As I walked back up to the top, I tied on my favorite pattern to see how it compared with the protype on second water. As I eased into the water where I started before a chum caught my eye, it looked odd. No wonder it looked odd, it was a very large bull trout laying at the edge of the spawning chum I flipped a cast up above it and retrieved the fly across its face, the fish immediately turned, followed but refused the fly. After a minute or so it returned to the same spot, so I tried again with the 3 or 4 attempts before the fish again followed but refused the fly disappearing into deeper water. I took careful note of its holding spot and while it was away, I made a couple different casts to measure the best cast that would allow the fly to sink to the proper depth and pass just in front of the fish (a cast over that large white stone would be just right). As the fish move back into position, I decided to let it rest for a few minutes while fishing the rest of the run (I really wanted that fish).

As I started down the run again it was clear that it might take more than a few minutes. After hooking a number of bulls (ranging from 16 to 25 inches) landing most and landing that bonus steelhead I ready to try again for that large bull trout. Walking back over the run decided to change fly to a dark sculpin with lots of subtle action that would be visible in the clear water. Eased back into my casting position and the big boy was in placed. Waited few minutes until the chums and the big boy all seemed comfortable. Made a couple false cast over the gravel bar to insure that I had the distance right. Before casting, I made sure the fish was still holding in place and then made my cast. The fly traveled exactly as I'd hoped, just about at the fish’s eye level and when it was a few inches in from the fish, I gave the fly a twitch. The mouth opened, the fly disappeared, and the game was on. The fish fought well but was landed without incident. As the fish laid in several inches of water I laid my favorite rod aside. I knew that from the end of the reel seat to the first stripping guide it was 33 inches. The fish extended an inch or so past the stripping guide – a very nice bull trout. Once again, a reaction bite won the day!

The reason for the story is to underline that the larger bull trout are just a different fish than the smaller ones. To consistently achieve success with them, our best presentations, correct flies, and an understanding of their behavior is required. Even then we will usually catch them infrequently and at a level well below their overall abundance in the population.

They will look up

It was mid-March and the day before I had been fishing the Skwala hatch on the Yakima and my box of stonefly patterns was still in my vest as I headed to the Sauk for day of chasing bull trout. On the willows along a side channel as I hiked to a nice run below, I saw a Skwala stonefly and then another. As I reached the main channel, I stopped to watch the water for a bit and notice a splashy rise in the deeper water of the side channel just before it dumped into the main pool. After seeing another rise I decided to switch to the dry line and in a “what the heck” moment decided to tie on a Skwala. While making the changes, I noticed that 4 or 5 fish were rising. I slipped in at the bottom of the run and waited for a minute or so and then covered the water where the first riser had been. Soon I had the first fish of the day – a bull trout of maybe 4lbs. While landing that fish I saw another rise slightly above the first. A couple of casts later, I had fish number two. In the next half hour, I took 3 more bulls all in the 4-5lb range and then it was over. A great start to the day and while unusual (the only time I have seen a Skwala hatch on the Skagit/Sauk) it does confirm that the bulls can be taken on the surface if the angler is prepared.

Over the years, I have had good spurts of dry-fly action from mid-February through April on afternoon mayfly hatches. Rarely large fish, but a nice change of pace, nevertheless. Skating a variety of patterns can produce, at times, some spectacular takes, especially when a large fish goes into “shark mode”. Fishing smolt patterns on floating lines just below the surface can also produce visible takes. With bulls, surface presentations are rarely as productive as the more traditional sub-surfaces presentations; however the takes can be addictive.


Photo by @Wanative

A regular customer

In mid-January, while working a run on the middle Sauk, I hooked a very nice bull in the scour pocket next to a mid-channel stump. When I landed it, I saw that its lower jaw had fused together after being split, giving it a distinct “grin”. A year later again in mid-January along the same stump I hooked and landed the same fish once again. It was maybe 2 inches larger and now definitely a large fish. This is just one of the examples of bull trout regularly returning to the same holding/ feeding locations much like their home pool.
This type of behavior seems to even extend to the salt or freshwater over winter holding areas with tagged fish being recovered in the same area year to year. At times some of the radio tagged bull trout have held along the same beach for extended periods.

A monster, almost

Mid-swing my fly just stopped; the hook set was into something solid that did not move. Hung up? Maybe. After a second or two, my rod pressure moved the object (dead weight) towards me several feet. After hauling that dead weight halfway to me, I was convinced I had pulled a small log from the bottom but as I again pumped the rod to gain more line that log shook its head – it was alive and felt heavy. But after the head shakes it just sat there. Since it is only a couple weeks before the onset of Chinook spawning, I’m thinking I may have hooked one. My standard drill with large fish that are not legal or non-target species is pressure them hard and not really care whether I break them off. I’m keeping that pressure on with the fish alternating to gaining a few feet and then more heavy head shakes. I now had the fish within 10 feet of me but had not yet seen it, so I slowly lifted the rod and the fish was rising in the water. Holy "bleep"! It had spots – it was a frigging immense bull trout! Two things happened simultaneously – the fish awoke, and thankfully I eased my pressure. After massive head shakes on the surface throwing water everywhere the fish turned and down river it ran. Almost instantly my whole fly line was out the guides, then 10 yards of backing, then 50 yards. Unable to follow the fish I’m holding on for dear life wishing I had a heavier leader (had 8#) and hoped the fish would stop. Now it had nearly 100 yards of backing out and was getting close to the white water below. If it hits the white water, there would be no stopping until it hits the end of the backing at which point, I’m concerned about which knot would break. It is now “the stop or bleed moment” so I increased the pressure, the fish slowed and then stopped. I couldn’t hold it and suddenly it was gone; the hook pulled. I was shaking so badly I could hardly reel the line in. From the moment I first saw it (an image etched in my mind) until it was gone there was not a nano second where I had any control.

How large? I’ll never know but it looked as long and likely heavier than my best steelhead. Knowing that such monsters exist will have to be enough.