My first experience with a bull trout was on a backpacking trip near the South Fork of the Flathead in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in 1970. I was 12. My uncle was landing a really large fish on a fly rod. I went over to help land the fish, even though I had no idea what to do. I was standing in shallow water, and the fish turned to run and its tail wacked me in the shin. The hematoma was instant, but the memory of the pain was long, as was returning to a normal gait. For Montana boys like me, the bull trout has always been a legendary fish. It led me on many trips to Canada to pursue these apex predators. These large aggressive fish chase other fish and occasionally our streamers and then own the fisherman for a good period of time.
Bull trout traditionally inhabited Flathead Lake and its drainages. In 1953, the US Bureau of Reclamation built the Hungry Horse Dam. This blocked approximately 40% of the Flathead drainage. The dam isolated many bull trout to the Hungry Horse Reservoir, and isolated the entire South Fork of the Flathead drainage from non-native fish. This created bull trout heaven. The 50-mile reservoir provided the kitchen, living and dining room, and the South Fork and its tributaries became the spawning grounds. In late spring they begin their journey out of the reservoir and into the South Fork to reproduce.
This is where they can be seen and legally fished. Bull trout in this river commonly reach sizes above 30 inches, and are often caught secondarily while landing a cutthroat trout. Learning the deep holes they prefer, the streamers they will chase, and even eat, is a lifelong pursuit. They are worthy competitors and challenging to catch and land. However, they are extremely susceptible in the fall as they spawn in small creeks and are readily visible. They are also a great indicator of the health of the stream ecosystem. So, how are they doing??
Tracking, and performing population studies of bull trout in a massive wilderness area is a daunting task. Enter my friend Leo. He is the fisheries manager for the western Bob Marshall and Swan range. Figuring out the bull trout population is his day job.
First, every other year, they gill net bull trout in Hungry horse reservoir at the same locations. Next, in the non-wilderness areas, they can electrofish the tributaries, such as Wounded Buck Creek, and count juvenile bull trout. These techniques are widely used and standard in fisheries biology.
Every 3-5 years his crew does Bullies Boot Camp and studies four specific areas to count bull trout on their redds. This means packing up the horses and heading more than 25 miles into the wilderness, in October!!! That’s the easy part. Next comes the 15 to 20 miles-a-day of walking up creeks and over passes to get to the bull trout spawning redds. A trip might start at Holland pass, to Shaw cabin, to Gordon creek, to the South Fork and then back out Youngs Creek. Or it might include Pendant Pass to Big Salmon Creek, and on to Salmon Forks at the South Fork Flathead River. From there crews survey the White river and Little Salmon Creek. Rugged country at a rugged time of year. All of these miles have helped them understand the trajectory and health of the South Fork Bull trout population.
As it stands now, the South Fork of the Flathead is one of the few streams in the United States where you can legally target bull trout. It requires a card, which is free and obtained from FWP. The card helps Leo collect data on the fishery. The season ends July 31 in order to protect the migrating and spawning fish. Currently the population is stable. Treble hooks were outlawed last year, which should decrease hooking injuries and allow anglers to quickly release their fish. However, human use on all the Flathead River Wild and Scenic sections is dramatically increasing. This fact puts bull trout at great risk.
First, try to land them quickly and not fight them to exhaustion. Second, use a rubber mesh net to protect their slime coating and skin, and keep your hook from getting stuck in nylon. This also prevents dropping them on rocks, dragging them through mud, and putting fingers in their gills. Third, keep them wet. Bull trout, especially the larger fish, are susceptible to being handled, lifted out of the water, and to the prolonged air exposure that occurs while trying to get the “Hero” shot. So, as you revive them in the water and in your net, and are getting ready to release, take a quick photo supporting them in the water, before they swim off, hopefully to fight another day.
Finally, and most importantly, keep them socially distanced from your shins!!