Photo of the Month: Springtime Smoky Mountain Brown Trout

Photo of the Month: Springtime Smoky Mountain Brown Trout
Showing posts with label barbless hooks. Show all posts
Showing posts with label barbless hooks. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Hunt for Bull Trout Day One: Brief Connections and a Hint of Things to Come

On our trip to Glacier National Park last summer, I wanted to check an item off my fly fishing bucket list. My amazing wife graciously agreed to an expedition for bull trout in northern Idaho after we finished up in Glacier. Going into this portion of the trip, I had high expectations. Doing my research, I felt well prepared for this adventure.

Planning the Hunt For Bull Trout

I am a planner. I don't like going into things unprepared. That goes for traveling, of course, and fishing trips especially. Most of my fishing trips are well-researched, from where to stay to what places to fish and how to target the fish. I usually have a pretty good idea of the general outline of the trip and how it will go.   For this trip, that included lots of hours spent on Google and also various maps. I ordered a National Forest Map covering the area we intended to visit.

Bull trout are what lead me to Idaho. In Montana, it is illegal to target them intentionally in all but a few select (and mostly hard to access) places. In Idaho, on the other hand, their numbers are a bit more stable and you are allowed to fish for them with some caveats. One, of course, is that the fishing for bull trout is strictly catch and release. No problem there for me, as that is all I do anyway, but it is good to note for anyone who might not have the same approach to fishing that I do.

Over several months, I read through tons of old blog posts and trip reports from several different sources. I also found info from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. There were scholarly articles with mountains of data. In fact, the scholarly articles is what helped me to finally hone into the area I settled on for this trip. The area was already on my radar, thanks to an old Fly Fisherman magazine article I remembered from my younger years. The cutthroat fishing is noteworthy for the overall quality of the fishery. These days, it is also noteworthy for the pressure the fishery receives. However, after a bit more searching, I found a portion of this overall larger fishery that seemed to be slightly overlooked. Not "we'll have it to ourselves" overlooked, but less pressured than the nearby famous water.

Planning the Camping Part of the Trip


As with most trips, I prefer to have campground reservations in place. However, most of the campgrounds in this area either didn't take reservations or were already full for the time of our visit. There were lots of small first come first served campgrounds in the area along with the usual dispersed camping options that are normally available in the National Forest lands. Thus, we ended up knowing where we wanted to go but really had no idea if it would pan out at all. In other words, I really didn't know where we were going much better than if I had thrown a dart at the wall. The only difference was that I hoped we would at least be in the vicinity of the target. I was up for dispersed camping, but figured slightly nicer accommodations would suit my wife better. Not that we were going to find anything very nice, but even a few amenities are better than none. I was looking forward to at least having a picnic table myself. The fire ring probably would not get any use, but that is also nice to at least have around. 

Finding a Campsite

Fast forward a few months, and you would find us leaving Glacier National Park. It had been one of our all time favorite adventures, but it was time to do something else. Naturally, I was excited to do more fishing than the small taste I had enjoyed in Glacier. 


After some exploring to find the old Knapp homestead, we headed on south and west from Kalispell. Eventually, we found the right town and the right road and headed towards Idaho after a brief stop for gas and ice. The road quickly turned to gravel, and we began to realize the remoteness of the area we would be in for the next several days. By the time we hit the pass that also served as the divide between Idaho and Montana, we were already close to an hour out from town and we were only halfway there.

We began the long descent down the other side into Idaho with the sun trending lower in the sky. I didn't want to be trying to find a campsite in the dark, so we were really hoping that something would be open in the first couple of campgrounds. The first one had an added bonus of no camping fee, but the crowd that was already present looked like they might be more interested in riding ATVs. Nothing wrong with that, of course, we just didn't want to hear them roaring in and out of camp all the time. There were not picnic tables and only one very rough looking pit toilet. There was a spot or two available, however. We decided to keep it as a backup plan and keep looking.

Heading further down the drainage, we began noticing large campsites along the stream. These were all informal "dispersed" camping areas, but some of them were nice. However, we still were hoping for at least a picnic table and toilet perhaps. The next campground we came to had some sites available and we quickly swooped in. After making the usual couple of laps to look everything over, we picked a campsite shaded by giant western cedars. Filling out the camper registration card took no time at all, and soon we were setting up the tent and fixing supper. The hour was getting late, but I almost decided to go fishing anyway. The desire to stay dry for the evening prevented me from trying my luck though. We were planning on wet wading, and I wanted to be dry going to bed.

Two Small Hickups

When we woke up the next morning, I was struck anew with how beautiful this campground was. There were only a few sites, so we didn't have to worry about noisy neighbors. The campsites were spread throughout the beautiful cedar grove, with none of the sites feeling crowded. We did have a couple of small bummers that had snuck up. First, the water from the well didn't seem too clean. It may have just been rust from the pipes, but we weren't interested in drinking it. Thankfully, I had a Platypus Gravity water filtration system ready to go. Except I didn't.

I don't know what happened between the first time I used the filter and this camping trip, but it just wasn't working correctly. When I put it away after my epic brook trout backpacking trip a couple of falls ago, I had carefully followed all the instructions in the owners manual. Still, it didn't work. I should also mention that I never heard back from Platypus when I contacted them after the trip to see what I was doing wrong. In other words, I don't recommend this filter. Thankfully, I had a couple of Sawyer filters with me that I could adapt to the gravity system. Soon, we had clean fresh water again. This was our method for the rest of this trip. I also carried a Sawyer squeeze filter system with us when we were out fishing and hiking. I can't say enough good things about them. They are also very responsive when you contact them with questions. A great company and product!

The other small issue was that this campground didn't have any garbage service. It is strictly pack it in, pack it out. For the small fee of $10 a night, I understand a lack of amenities. Still, it was a little concerning keeping a full trash bag in the car every night. I'm a little paranoid about mice getting into my car due to past experiences. As me about that sometime if you really want to hear some stories. Anyway, I just hoped that the trash in the car wouldn't draw in the undesirables during the night. Of course, I wasn't interested in keeping it outside either. Choosing between bears or mice was tough, but I assumed the bears could ruin the trip even worse.

First Day of Fishing: The Cutthroat Trout

North Fork Clearwater River Idaho


I had brought too many rods as always for this fishing trip. Really, I didn't have that many, but I did have some decisions to make. To ease into the fishing and not take things too seriously, I decided to focus on the cutthroat trout for a while. After all, there isn't much that is better than casting dry flies to willing trout. At least, that is what I pictured when I thought about cutthroat. I rigged up a 9' 5 weight Orvis Helios for myself, and a 10' 3 weight Orvis Recon for my wife. The light rod and extra reach seems to work well for her.

After a short drive up the canyon looking for somewhere to fish, we hit the stream and were soon catching fish. I had to fudge a little on my hopes of good dry fly fishing. To be fair, we did catch some cutthroat on dry flies, but they clearly were getting a little more pressure than I expected and nymph droppers seemed to work better overall. Per the regulations, we pinched our barbs which meant we lost a few more than usual. Still, we both gave a good accounting of ourselves. Here are a couple from early in the day.

westslope cutthroat trout


small westslope cutthroat in Idaho

Over the next few posts, pay close attention to my wife's fish. This was one of the smallest she caught while we were in Idaho with one notable exception that I'll get to another day. In fact, on at least a couple of days, she took big fish honors. I caught a couple of dinks that were even smaller, but managed to avoid taking pictures of them. No proof so it didn't happen, right?

We continued fishing up the stream, catching fish here and there, before we came to a big beautiful pool. This particular section of river was pocket water dominant, so the pool was a welcome change. I just knew there was a good fish somewhere close by. I tried some streamers in case a big bull trout was around, but that didn't really do anything. Then, I noticed a subtle rise way over against the far bank. Crossing over wasn't really an option, so I decided to wade as far out as I could and try a reach cast with some immediate mending. The far bank was really just a big slow back eddy, so I had to get a lot of slack line into my mends to get any kind of a drift. Somehow, someway, I got everything correct and luck was on my side. The first larger cutthroat of the trip was dancing on the end of my line.

This fish was super fat and ate the big stonefly dry I was throwing just like it was the real thing. After several runs through the heavy current, I finally guided the fish over to my side. Soon, it was resting in my big Brodin net. My wife snapped a few pictures and a short video for me, and them the fish headed back for some other angler to enjoy.

Thick westslope cutthroat trout

Lunch Break

By this time, we were starting to think about lunch. Camp wasn't that far away, and it made more sense to go there where we could relax for a bit. We began looking for a good out spot to get back up to the road. That can always be an adventure on a new stream. As I was examining the stream bank looking for fishermen's trails, I started to notice the wildflowers. The shooting stars in particular got me excited. This is one I don't find often back home. I took a few cellphone pictures of these and other flowers before finding a good trail back to the car. 

Idaho Shooting Star wildflower

My wife also took the opportunity to add to her fish count. Notice that her average size catch begins to immediately creep up. 



We got back down to camp where I again stood in awe looking at the trees around our campsite. These western cedars can get really large. In an area that deals with wildfire on a regular basis, I really hope these cedar groves can avoid that destruction. I know it is a part of the natural process, but these trees take a LONG time to reach this size. Look how small our tent appears next to them. 

Camping among western red cedars in Idaho

After resting and relaxing, it was time to fish a bit longer before the sun sank low and the canyon began to cool. The evenings were a great time to fish, but we mostly avoided fishing late. Getting soaked going into the chilly evening hours wasn't our idea of fun. More accurately, I should probably say it wasn't my wife's idea of fun. I don't tend to notice it as much as she would prefer. 

First Day of Fishing: Connecting With a Bull Trout

For the afternoon fishing session, we headed downstream from camp. Not far, we found a pullout with a gorgeous pool a short distance away. I decided to add a streamer rod to my arsenal. If I didn't, then we would probably find all kinds of bull trout. Helping my wife work into position, I soon had her casting to rising cutthroat. Back over on the bank, I began rigging up the seven weight in the hopes of tangling with a monster. It didn't take her long to start catching some fish. I took videos and photos of her fishing, casting, and of course, of one or two of her catch. The fish below is notable as probably the only rainbow trout we took a picture of. This river contains both native rainbow and cutthroat trout along with the bull trout. 

Fly fishing in northern Idaho

Rainbow trout in northern Idaho

Shortly after this rainbow trout, my wife hooked a really nice cutthroat trout in the 16" range. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a huge dark shadow shot out of nowhere in hot pursuit of her catch. Bull trout!!! She worked her fish hard trying to play keep away. Suddenly, as she got it in close, the bull trout retreated right about the same time her fish threw the fly. We were both left in shock, staring at the spot that the bull trout had disappeared to.

I grabbed the streamer rod and began flogging the water, to no avail. The bull trout had been pretty hot, and I figured it would eat if I could figure out what it wanted. I remembered something from a Yellowstone trip one year. Some huge cutthroat trout on the Yellowstone River had preferred a pearl and tan Zonker dead drifted under an indicator instead of an active streamer approach. It was worth a shot. I took out the Zonker with the barb already pinched from that Yellowstone trip. Tying it on to heavy 1x tippet, I felt confident my rig could stand up to just about anything.

I began casting up towards the head of the pool and allowing the current to bring the streamer back under an indicator. Again and again I cast with no result. Then, I stepped a couple more steps upstream. Casting again did the trick. The fish had moved up a little higher than I thought. Almost as soon as the streamer hit the water, the indicator dove. I set hard, almost as hard as I set when I'm striper fishing in fact. For a split second, I thought I had hooked the bottom. Then the bull trout went ballistic. Seriously. This was the hardest pulling, hardest fighting, baddest fish I've ever hooked in fresh water. I've landed stripers up to 30 pounds on a seven weight fly rod, and this fish was just as strong if not more so.

Bad Luck

Back and forth across the pool we fought. The fish began to tire just a little after about a minute. A couple of runs came dangerously close to rubbing me off on a big boulder across the stream. Still, when the fish was finally out in the middle, I started putting more pressure. Hopeful of turning the fish and quickly bringing it to the net, I pushed even hard. Suddenly, the line went limp. 

I kid you not, the hook simply pulled out. To this day, I don't know whether the barbless hook was to blame or not. More likely, I was simply pulling to hard and it ripped out. I stared in disbelief at the spot the dark shadow had disappeared to. This might have been my one and only chance. A surge of hope led me to cast a few more times. In fact, I cast all over that pool. My wife knew I was bummed out, but them I started to look on the bright side again. After all, we had only been fishing a few hours when this bull trout showed up. If there were that many in the system, finding another shouldn't be difficult.

My plan for the next day involved some highly researched water and a bit of hiking. It was time to head back to camp and get supper and rest. We wanted to be rejuvenated for a 10+ mile day the next morning.

Evening Hatch

After supper, I walked back through the woods to the stream to get water for the filtration system. Right away, I noticed bugs everywhere. This particular pool was deep and sheltered. The long shadows had long since overtaken this water. Mayfly spinners and some caddis were all dancing above the water. Several telltale rises appeared. I quickly went back to camp to tell my wife about my discovery. She agreed to walk down with me. We both stayed on the rocks, trying to stay dry with the onset of evening. I talked her into a few casts and she caught the best fish of the evening right away. 

Dry fly caught evening westslope cutthroat trout

I managed a few casts and fish as well, but only took one picture of one in the net. These are always a good way to have a memory with minimal fish handling. 

westslope cutthroat trout in a Brodin Net

Big bull trout lost not withstanding, it had been a good first full day in Idaho. We had caught plenty of fish, enjoyed wildflowers, had amazing weather, and enjoyed the awe inspiring trees in the canyon. Tired out, we headed to bed early to rest up for another big adventure the next day. Little did I know that the heartache was just starting. Would I ever find a bull trout?


Read Day Two HERE