It started like a lot of piscatorial pilgrimages do, a whisper about a hallowed river, sacred to those who’ve had the privilege to witness it. One that flows out of the side of a volcano and a mystical fish that lives in it. I read stories about how difficult the fishing could be, but how great were the potential rewards. Yep, I’m in.
I remember telling my, then girlfriend, “someday, I’m going to catch a bull trout.” “It’s basically a three foot long brook trout,” was my over simplification of how to describe what a fish like that, a cousin to our state fish in Pennsylvania that rarely exceeds diminutive size, would mean. Let’s be honest, if I’m obsessed with a six inch brook trout, I’m exponentially excited about these fish and their brethren with every additional inch they achieve.
My interest in them only grew over the next few years. It grew to the point my (now) wife said, “Just freaking do it. Why wait?” It doesn’t take long being married to know better than to argue with your spouse. Ha!
I started probing my buddies to see what their interest level was. “You want to go where? And catch what? Sounds cool man, but you’re crazy. Maybe next time,” was pretty much the response. I can live with that. So, I booked it. All by my lonesome. What better way to spend your birthday trip than alone, sleeping in the back of a rental car, hunting the fish of a lifetime? No big deal.
Well, as planning got under way, maps and details started trolling in, leave it to your longest-standing fishing buddy to not be able to miss out. My dad decided maybe, he’d better go, too. It also worked out that one of my favorite bands was releasing their newest album and playing a live show 30 miles down the road. Well, holy shit. What a turn of events. Now, it’s turning into a fishing trip!
I spent a good deal of time talking with fly shops local to the area and a local angler, who it didn’t take me long to figure out really knew his stuff. [Thanks to local PA guy for putting me in touch!] It can be a little touchy in these types of situations to be respectful of the guys who call a river home. You want to get enough info so you have a chance to be successful, but still have enough to figure out to make it a challenge.
We timed our trip with the annual run of kokanee salmon and (hopefully) big hungry bullies following their food source. On our way into town we stopped at the fly shop to license up and finally introduce myself to the shop owner I’d been pestering sporadically with e-mails for a couple years. After a long day of travel and shrinking fall daylight, we checked in to the cabin, hung out, grilled up some dinner, and cracked a few beers. A quick walk behind the cabin as the sun was setting revealed, “Oh yeah, the salmon are here.”
Ah, my old frienemies jet lag and time zone changes. We were up about two hours before the sun, no need for alarm clocks. We had plenty of time to stretch lines and string up the 8 weights. When we finally couldn’t stand it anymore, we set off into the morning fog on our way.
We fished HARD. Covered miles on foot, probing deep undercuts, seams, and pretty much anywhere we could get a fly in the water. I don’t think I’ve ever done as many steeple casts in my life. We had to. The river was up and the banks were choked with brush and pine. It was like brook trout fishing with light musky equipment. Pretty damn cool.
I have to say, I’ve been fortunate to see a lot a places. I don’t think I have ever seen a more beautiful river. It is simply incredible. We saw kokanee by the hundreds, if not thousands. Honestly, the trout could eat whenever and however many they could want. How in the hell were we going to get our flies noticed? Persistence.
Well, at the end of the first day we were beat up. One follow from a mid teens fish (that probably wasn’t a bull trout anyway) wasn’t what we’d hoped for, but we knew what we were getting ourselves into. We had another day and a half to try.
We were back after it in the wee hours the next day. New section, new water, same outcome. Where the hell are they?
Like a bolt of lightning, I was stopped in my tracks. There he was. A Bull Trout that had to be all of three feet long and as big around as my leg. Every mini salmon imitation and whitefish fly I had swam through his territory and he didn’t flinch. He had some roughly twenty inch cronies at his side that were interested enough to follow but not eat. Damn.
About 100 yards down, I found another school of them. The biggest probably nineteen inches. I made a few casts, same result. Switched flies and suddenly something changed. A baby bull had seen enough and went in for the kill.
Not going to lie, it felt GOOD to be on the board. I am the king of small fish. Rarely do we have a trip that I don’t catch the smallest. Hey, we all have our thing. I’m just glad I can be consistent.
We kept after it and we were rewarded. It’s crazy we went a day and a half without seeing a bull trout and suddenly they were ON. My dad and I each picked up another.
We fished until we were forced off the river by setting sun, daylight to dark. Grabbed a quick bite to eat and went to town to see Billy Stings, The Whiskey Shivers, and Trout Steak Revival. All, in all, a solid day.
Our final day we were running on a couple hours of sleep, but couldn’t be kept off the river. We scrambled to make every cast we could before rushing back to the cabin to meet our checkout time. When time is short, cram in as much as you can. We stopped at the fly shop on the way out to let them know we got lucky. A guy in the shop told us he’d been fishing the river for the last 20 years and had never landed a bull trout. The river lived up to its reputation. TOUGH fishing, but SO worth it.
Persistence paid off on this trip, and not just when it came to the fishing. If you find a fish species that captivates you, it may take years for it to come together. Set yourself a goal and don’t take no for an answer.