Photo of the Month: Springtime Smoky Mountain Brown Trout

Photo of the Month: Springtime Smoky Mountain Brown Trout

Monday, April 05, 2021

The Hunt for Bull Trout Day Two: A Bitter Disappointment and Baby Bull Trout

Have you ever had one of those rare trips where all the good things happen right at the beginning? My hunt for bull trout very nearly turned out that way. The first day gave me a taste of what hooking one of these fish was like. If you haven't read that story yet, do so HERE first, and then come back and read this sad tale. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your perspective), the good things didn't happen at the beginning. If they had, we probably would have missed out on some really cool experiences and the story wouldn't have turned out as good. 

For several months, I had been formulating a game plan for the fishing part of our trip. The main part of this fishing excursion involved lots of hiking. That wouldn't be a problem after all of our Glacier National Park hiking. We had hiked 75 miles in eight days. Two or three of those days had been rather short hikes while the longest was a hair over 20 miles. In other words, we were in peak hiking condition, at least for us. The tricky part was going to be hauling our fishing gear. My poor wife does not do well hiking in wading boots. I decided it was probably better for my feet to wear normal shoes as well. So, we packed our heavy wading boots the five miles in to our fishing spot.

The day went downhill right from the get go. We were planning on starting about five miles in, but as we approached the area where I expected to start, I was surprised to see a couple of backpacking tents and a campfire. Someone else had beat us there. They looked just about as shocked as we were feeling. This simply wasn't the kind of place you expected to come up on another angler. After exchanging brief pleasantries, I asked them which way they were fishing so we could go elsewhere. The tributary creek I had been banking on had already been fished. Seriously. They had just hit all the water we had drove across the country and hiked a ways to fish. 

Immediately, I had a sinking feeling. Maybe, just maybe, catching a bull trout wasn't going to happen for me on this trip. Luck was clearly not on my side, at least not yet. We contemplated hiking well up the canyon above where they had turned around. In fact, we forded the main creek and hiked a decent distance on out the trail that followed the tributary. We had switched to wading boots to ford the creek, so my wife was now hiking in them. After probably a mile or so, I finally had to admit that the trail just wasn't going to get down close to that creek. That was valuable information for a possible future trip.

After giving up on my first stream choice, we headed back to the ford to fish up the main stream instead. As it turns out, our plan B wasn't so bad. The cutthroat were willing, plentiful, and really nice sized. The wildflowers were phenomenal as well. Later on, I would begin to suspect that it might have been the best choice for bull trout after all. On this day, however, all I could think about was that the wheels were starting to come off on my trip plans.



As we worked our way up the stream away from the trail crossing, we had to remind ourselves that the only way out (that we knew of), was going to be back downstream the same way we came up. There was no trail access into the upper reaches of this drainage. While we might have located some game trails, we weren't counting on that possibility since we were in an unfamiliar area. I don't like taking chances unnecessarily.

The first section of stream was fast riffle water with a few deeper pockets thrown in for good measure. The largest fish we saw in this section was maybe six or seven inches. It felt a lot like fishing back in the Smokies as far as the fish size was concerned. The only difference is that we were catching native westslope cutthroat trout. Fish were rising well to our big foam dry flies that doubled as a good strike indicator. Even more fish were attacking our nymph droppers.



The first good pool we approached looked incredible. I figured that maybe, just maybe, there might be a bull trout in this one. I switched to the streamer rod and gave it a good workout. Unfortunately, there just weren't any fish willing to play, at least not any bull trout. The larger cutthroat trout in this pool made several valiant attempts to eat the streamer. I even hooked a couple that shook off after a brief fight and landed one.

A quality cutthroat
A quality westslope cutthroat trout ©2020 David Knapp Photography


I had my wife try the dry/dropper rod and she picked up a couple of fish here and there as well. We soon got into a good routine. When I could, I would fish the larger streamer rod. Everywhere else, I let her fish for the most part. Of course, every once in a while I would borrow the other rod and catch a fish or two that way also.

By this point in the day, we were already getting hungry. Breakfast had long since worn off and we began looking for some rocks or a dry bank to sit on for lunch. The only problem was the numerous wildflowers. Neither of us wanted to crush the beautiful flowers. Finally, we found a spot that had both wildflowers and a small area we could sit. We had carried in hummus and pita chips along with some other goodies. This is always a great backcountry meal, both healthy and filling!

With my hunger under control, I turned towards some of the gorgeous flowers growing along the stream banks. My favorites were the purple monkey flowers (last flower picture). These tend to be a rich fuchsia or magenta, at least the ones I've come across in the northern Rockies. Otherwise, we also saw more flowers than I can count. Here is a small sampling from throughout the day.


Indian paintbrush ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Sticky Wild Geranium ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Showy Fleabane ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Musk Monkeyflower (I think...?) ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Purple Monkeyflower ©2020 David Knapp Photography


While the purple monkey flowers were probably my favorite, the western monkshood was an unusual treat that I don't recall seeing before. New to me flowers are always fun. These were growing along the stream, apparently liking the wet environment.


Western Monkshood
Western Monkshood ©2020 David Knapp Photography


Lunch consumed and flowers photographed, we packed up and continued upstream. Probing every likely spot with either the hopper/dropper or the streamer, we caught plenty of cutthroat but no bull trout. The shadows were soon getting longer and longer over the water. I didn't want to get caught back here in the dark. We had plans other than spending the night in the backcountry. 

Then, in one likely pool, my wife hooked a small fish that immediately looked different and got me excited. Upon landing the fish, I knew we had found our first bull trout. Of course my wife would be the one to catch it. At this point, late in day two, I was getting concerned about catching a bull trout. I would have gladly taken a baby just to knock this species off the list. I was happy for my wife, of course, but even more wanted to catch one for myself.


baby bull trout in Idaho
Baby Bull ©2020 David Knapp Photography

My wife's baby bull trout
My wife's baby bull trout ©2020 David Knapp Photography


We soon started to develop a good rhythm. My wife would fish the dry/dropper rig through a hole. Then, I would drag the streamer through a couple of times. She started to catch some really nice fish. In one deep bucket in a hard corner, she hooked the largest westslope cutthroat trout of the day. The fish was in fast water and took some careful maneuvering to land. I jumped in with the net and scooped the fish before it could get in the fast water heading downstream. Of course, we had to get a quick picture of this fine trout!


My wife's big westslope cutthroat trout
My wife's big cutthroat ©2020 David Knapp Photography


In one particularly good looking hole just upstream, I had something slam the streamer. It looked a lot like a cutthroat, but I only got a brief glimpse before it bored back under a log. Try as I might, I couldn't turn the fish and soon the hook popped free. The fish had wrapped me around the log and used it as leverage to throw the barbless fly. While I was 95% sure the fish had been just another cutthroat, the power and strength had me questioning that assumption.

It was about this time that we really got serious about the hike back out. We both had some ideas that required daylight to successfully enact. Thus, after one or two more pools, we turned a corner upstream and saw nothing but shallow pocket water for an extended distance and knew our day was over. Hiking back downstream to the trail crossing didn't take as long as expected. However, from the trail crossing, we still had a solid five mile hike out.

Just downstream, the two backpackers had packed up and left. I couldn't resist hitting the junction pool where the other tributary entered and found one last quality cutthroat trout there. Still wanting to find a bull trout, we also hit a couple of spots on the hike down. However, most of the water was generally inaccessible from the trail without a lot of hard work. Our schedule at this late hour didn't allow for much hard work.


One more cutthroat ©2020 David Knapp Photography


On the hike in, we had noticed a good supply of huckleberries all along the trail. In fact, there were so many huckleberries that we didn't know what to do. We wandered from one bush to another, filling the ziplock bags I had brought just for such a situation. I had one more bag of homemade pancake mix and we hoped for some more huckleberry pancakes in the morning. In other words, the next day would be a slower day again. We discussed some roadside fishing and decided to try that again. After all, the only bull trout I had definitely hooked so far was just below camp. We filled our two bags fuller than full. These were going to be good huckleberry pancakes. I could already taste the delicious pancakes, but first we needed to hike out and get a good nights rest. Maybe, just maybe, the next day would bring some bull trout finally.