NO FRESHWATER FISH swimming the American West is more badass than the bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus). Like Mongolian taimen, bulls are the undisputed apex predators of their watersheds, and they know it. A mature bull swims with the élan of a gangsta in his lifted Cadillac; when he rolls by, the little fish dart for cover.
Like Dolly Varden and Arctic char, close relatives with similar appearances, bull trout have diverse life histories. The landlocked populations tend to range up and down their watersheds, favoring the deep pools and lakes. The coastal populations tend toward anadromy; individuals will drop to the estuary and beyond in pursuit of herring, smelt, and anchovies. Wherever they live, bulls grow big. I’ve caught more over 22 inches than under.
Bull trout used to be so populous in the West that men would fish for them by tying a length of twine to their saddles, knotting on a hook and a gob of bait, and letting it all swing as they forded a stream.
For decades, anglers and fishery managers targeted bulls for the same reasons other apex predators were killed throughout their ranges—people saw them as competition, so they never missed a chance to cull the population. But it was habitat degradation that extirpated bulls from some of their native range, and left them ESA-listed in most of what remains. Bulls need cold, free-flowing rivers with plenty of woody debris and silt-free gravel. Logging and dam construction kill more bulls than hooks ever will. Yet populations remain and, in some places, these prodigious fish still roam with an aura of invincibility.
My infatuation with bulls started high in the Columbia River watershed when I was twelve. I was catching cutthroat for dinner at the base of a remote waterfall, while my dad was fishing a half-mile downstream. I had put four cutties on a stringer, tied one end of the stringer to a branch, and left the fish in the river to keep cool. When I returned with a fifth fish, I saw that the branch holding the stringer was bent toward the middle of the pool. I grabbed it and pulled and was stunned to feel headshakes. It was tug-of-war, and I was losing. When I finally got the stringer within sight, I saw three of my cutthroat had already been eaten and the fourth was locked inside the jaws of a 30-inch fish. When the cutthroat finally tore off, I fell back on to the rocks with an empty stringer in my hand.
As a teenager, I spent my summer nights fishing mouse patterns for bulls along Alberta’s upper Bow River. When the moon was full, I would follow a moose trail through the willows to some back-eddies. During the day, these eddies held nothing but fingerling trout. But by nightfall, the biggest bulls in the river came here to hunt. The first night I tried it, I stripped out line and pitched my mouse toward the moon reflecting on the pool. The fly landed with a loud plop. “That’ll scare them away,” I thought. But the fly hadn’t swum two feet before a fish ate it so violently that water splashed across my forehead.
As a twenty-something, bulls became a vital part of my game with the ladies. If I was into a girl, I would take her to a particular spring creek near me that held bull trout. We’d set up camp, then walk the cliffs until we found an especially massive specimen holding in a tailout.
The last girl I tried this on, the one who later became my wife, wasn’t too impressed. I waded onto a midstream rock, punched a long cast toward the far bank, and a fish ate at once. The grab was so vicious I fell in. When I finally righted myself, the fish charged me. As he passed upstream, my six-weight broke at the midpoint. It was hand-to-hand then, another tug-of-war, but this time I won. That bull was the biggest I’ve ever landed. But when I turned around, the girl was laughing. “That fish just whooped your ass.”
Raging Bull is one of a six part feature article. Click here to purchase your copy of the Summer 2015 Issue.