Bull Trout In Northern BC

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I bet you’d agree that catching any fish, regardless of size, is significantly better than a day in the office. But there is certainly something special about battling a big, predatory fish on a fly rod. Northern BC is an excellent place to satisfy your big-fish needs, offering some of the best bull trout fly fishing in the country. All you need is the right gear, an eye for where bull trout like to hang out and the willingness for a bit of remote travel and adventure.

Bull trout are aggressive, powerful predators that can attain large sizes in big rivers and lakes. In Northern BC, 25-inch bull trout are fairly common and monsters over 30 inches are usually encountered every day. Their colouration isn’t as splashy as rainbow or brook trout, but their pink-orange body spotting, big heads and large mouths still result in a striking and intimidating profile. Bull trout are often confused with dolly varden, but they are not the same species. Bull trout have larger, more spaced out spots on their backs, broader heads and longer upper jaws. Fortunately, anglers in north-eastern BC can leave their rulers at home because bull trout is the only species of the two you’ll encounter in this region.

My interest in bull trout started a few summers ago when I landed my first monster. Up to that point, I considered myself to be a small-stream, small-fish kind of angler and really enjoyed hooking into the typical residents of mountain streams: rainbow trout, Arctic grayling and mountain whitefish. Occasionally, a bull trout would give chase to one of these little guys, leaving me with an open mouth in awe and a slack line as they raced around my legs mid-stream. Eventually, I remembered to bring a collapsible rod and streamer combo to have on hand should a bull trout show itself in this fashion. When the opportunity finally arose and I hooked the “big one,” I admit that the ensuing battle wasn’t pretty. The fish stripped line like a rocket and solidly wrapped itself around a submerged log. My partner was able to wade out and dislodge the log, which floated downstream and became of immediate interest to my dog. Fortunately, I was able to land the whole bull trout-log-dog mess and released the fish in good health. From that somewhat inglorious beginning, I have become hooked on the adrenaline-pumping experience of chasing big bull trout and have picked up a couple tricks along the way.


Where and when to find big bull trout

The Halfway River system in the Peace River basin is an excellent place to target bull trout. The best rivers in the area have very limited access by logging roads, so you’ll need a 4×4, spare gas and a GPS to travel with confidence. Although big bull trout can be found in other areas in BC and Alberta, the remoteness and rugged, raw beauty of this region make it extremely appealing to those with a frontiersman spirit.

Mid-August to early September is a good time to be on the water. During this period, bull trout are congregating to spawn or to make their spawning run, but are still hungry enough to take a streamer. Wait a few weeks longer and bull trout may be actively spawning and will totally ignore you, or spawning may be completed and the stream vacated as bull trout move downstream into bigger water to overwinter. Always check the sport fishing regulations, because some streams in this region are closed to fishing by mid-August to protect bull trout during their spawning period.


Gearing up

To catch big fish you need big gear! I’m a sucker for economy, so my rod-reel-line set up was relatively inexpensive (less than $400) and can also be used for big northern pike, steelhead and saltwater fish. An eight to nine-weight fly fishing rod is a good choice. This size of rod will help you cast out heavy streamers and weights and will allow you to apply the needed force to set the hook. I use a custom-built nine-foot, eight-weight Temple Fork rod with a medium-fast action that is forgiving on those long casts. I’ve paired my rod with a Lamson Konic 3.5 reel, which I chose because of the sealed drag system. To round out my set up, I use saltwater forward-weighted, eight-weight fly line with a clear tip, to which I add about four feet of 15-pound monofilament. It is extremely important to test the integrity of the monofilament. Recently purchased does not mean recently manufactured, and to have your line snap in the middle of a battle is not only heart breaking, but can also be very hard on the fish if the hook remains embedded in the mouth.

A couple good options for bull trout streamers are the Double Bunny, Clouser Minnow and Circus Peanut. These streamers are meant to imitate fish and are made with materials that move realistically when wet. Double Bunnies consist of two strips of rabbit fur, usually with a bit of flash or tinsel. They come in many colors, but I prefer to stick with combinations of tan, white, black and grey to reflect natural prey fish species. I’ve used some that include a bit of red marabou to mimic flaring gills, and they look very striking in the water. Double Bunnies absorb a lot of water, so I like to open and dry out my streamer boxes at night.

Clouser Minnows usually have barbell eyes with bodies made up of yak or synthetic hair. Like most flies, they can be tied either sparse or full and come in a rainbow of colours. Besides the natural colours, I’ve had some success with purple and chartreuse variations.

Circus Peanuts are articulating flies, which mean they can twist and bend in the middle. Their body is mostly marabou feathers with strips of rubber, which results in a very fluid appearance when wet.

Unlike Double Bunnies, the hooks of Clouser Minnows and Circus Peanuts point up to prevent snagging on the bottom. Whenever you purchase these big streamers, make sure you check out the hook points. Those that have the most gradual taper will be easier to set when hooking a big fish.

A problem you may run into is finding these streamers in the right colours and sizes at your local big-box fishing gear store. Usually, the ones remaining in stock are brightly coloured (hot pink, sky blue) or more appropriate for northern pike/walleye fishing (red, olive, black). I’ve used these and had some luck, but again, I like sticking to natural colours. Most streamers found in the stores will also be four inches to six inches long, which is often too small to attract large fish. I’ve sight-fished big bull trout with small streamers and usually they are ignored. So what can you do? Well, look no further for an excuse to tie your own flies!

I like to mimic a medium-sized mountain whitefish when I tie big bull trout streamers for northern BC. There are some great patterns available on the Internet, but it can be fun to get creative and try out some of your own ideas on the vice. A successful pattern my family developed borrows elements from the three types of streamers described above. We call it the Hot Mess and it works like dynamite on big bull trout. The Hot Mess is an articulating, full-bodied closure minnow that varies in colour from dark brown on the back to white on the belly. Sometimes we include red marabou for gills and use either barbells or weighted heads. We tie them big, ranging from eight inches to 10 inches long. I’ve caught all sizes of bull trout, and even some large rainbow trout, on this streamer.


Techniques to try

When you’re on the river, a great place to look for bull trout are deep pools or runs with lots of woody debris. Occasionally, they can be found in pocket water behind submerged logs and boulders if they are in mid-cruise between pools and runs. I usually fish at two depths, including some shallow drifts about a foot under the water, and then a few deep drifts a couple of feet off of the bottom. You may need to use a lot of weight to sink the streamer if the current is fast. I like to cast a few times into the middle of the pool or run and then as close as I can get to the woody debris.

I’ve had success with two approaches to streamer retrieval. The “fish in trouble” approach is done by allowing the streamer to move downstream with the current while erratically tugging in the line and changing the rod tip orientation. This technique makes the streamer look like a fish in its final death throes – an easy, tasty morsel for any bull trout. The “gotta go” approach is done by casting the streamer either up or downstream, pausing to let it sink, and then retrieving the line as fast as you can. You should be stripping in so fast that it’s a physical workout. During either approach, do not stop the movement of the streamer if a bull trout starts to chase it. Sometimes the fish may take a couple swipes at the streamer before taking the big bite, so it’s important to be patient and not prematurely set the hook. When you do set the hook, set it with a lot of force – you’re using a big hook with no barb that will not penetrate with only a gentle tug.

Once you’ve hooked the big bull, hold on! Unlike rainbow and grayling, they usually submarine and will run towards any available debris. Apply constant pressure away from the debris and be prepared for a lengthy battle with multiple runs. Once you’ve successfully landed and released the fish in good health, it’s worth making a few more casts. In big pools and runs there could be multiple bull trout lurking in the depths.

It’s challenging and exciting to chase big bull trout. When you interact with these remarkable predators, it’s important to remember that they are a species of conservation concern because of significant declines in both their range and abundance. Reducing your impact on bull trout is an essential part of being a responsible angler. This means releasing them in good condition and reducing stress by pausing your angling effort during hot temperatures. We can look forward to a future with bull trout if we use a gentle touch on these big fish.

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