Bull Trout in Northern British Columbia: We Have To Go

Bull Trout in Northern British Columbia: We Have To Go

It was a Rubik’s cube of calendars; a six-sided complex puzzle and I’d become a major part of the scramble.  Matt Jennings from Fishing BC was trying to organize a fishing trip between me, Katy Watson of Northern Outback Adventures, photographer Jeremy Koreski, videographer Brandon Kelly, a helicopter pilot and, of course, the fish themselves.  At the rate we were heading, we’d all be in alignment by 2019.

Matt’s pitch was almost impossible to decline.  In short, Katy had contacted Matt about a northern B.C. bull trout fishery she’d heard about that had little to no foot access in its upper stretches.  She’d received her information from a biologist who’d flown in to do some studies on the species (via catch and release methods with spoons).  More specifically, “large, up to 40 inches, and unlikely to have seen a fly before”, is how it was presented to her.

“We have to go”, was the response.

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Katy was looking to further explore the myth of the large untouched bulls and she was looking for some angler friends to join her.  I was six months pregnant, rapidly approaching steelhead season, and unaware (at the time) that Katy was the enquiring outfitter.  As soon as Matt dropped her name, I dropped my conflicting schedule and before long, the pieces fell together until we were on our way to meet her in Prince George.  The plan was to stay the night at Northern Outback Adventures (the Watson’s family lodge), where we’d be picked up by the helicopter and then depart for an exploratory trip the following morning.

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We only had the helicopter booked for one day, so the pressure was on.  The pilot, who’d flown in once or twice before, hadn’t done so in several years, and he was quick to let us know that the river was more than likely different than it was when he was there last. But the uncertainty only fuelled our curiosity and as we made the flight over steep terrain, glaciers, canyons and forested drops, we speculated about other rivers, fish migration, old logging roads, and how to best utilize the helicopter.

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I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t used a helicopter to fly into remote locations before, but it’d almost always been for a week’s worth of fishing or, at the very least, for a ride out after a full day’s hard trekking and wading.  My pregnant belly and excess weight pulled at my energy level, so I counted my blessings that we had the bird… until it occurred to me that we’d need to walk back up to it after fishing down through each stretch.

Eventually the cracks widened and the gullies opened until we were looking down into the headwaters of our destination.  We hadn’t seen any photos before and had no idea what to expect.  The water ran as clear as a New Zealand stream, yellow reflecting in the current from the rocks and rays of sun.  The river looked shallow, wadeable in almost every spot, impossible to hold any sizeable fish.  I’d fished rivers like this before… optical illusions where a two-foot depth turned to five without the eye ever picking up the difference.  My heart raced at the thought of large fish lurking behind boulders; gin-clear slots holding fish where I’d never seen bull trout before.  Rainbows and browns certainly, but not the infamous logjam dwelling bulls.

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As excited as we were to land the helicopter as soon as we could, the tight access and broken water encouraged us to continue downstream to the safest landing spot and pool.  We found a spot decorated with several shadowy corners where the river hugged the bank, creating a trough of green water.  There was a decent sized landing area and we all held our breath as the pilot landed, picked up, repositioned, landed again, and then powered down.

Bull trout are notorious for taking large streamers suitable for pike.  I battled with my New Zealand nymph and dry fly experience, and I questioned what the best approach would be for a more aggressive species holding in the same water.

Should I swing?  Strip?  Use sink tips?  Approach the fish from behind?  Duck down to hide my skyline?  Time was limited… Perhaps sight fishing was our smartest option here?

My brain ran wild with techniques, appropriate gear, and a constant conflict of my past experience versus what I was presented with here.  So Katy and I decided to compromise.  I would fish stealthily with a single hand rod, floating line, and weighted, bunny streamer.  She would fish a two-hander, a tip, and similar “bitch of a fly” to cast.

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We headed up to the deep corner, immediately pleased by the water’s depth and our inability to see the river bottom.  While Katy cast, I cut a wide birth through the treeline and headed down to the run’s tail-out.  Peering into the water, I slowly stalked my way upstream, searching for wagging tails, white mouths, and dark shapes.  Apart from rocks, I saw nothing.

We held a group meeting where we strategized our best bet moving forward.  So far, the only thing that had been eaten in this fishless run was our time, and we’d quickly come to realize that venturing downstream meant needing to take the time to hike back up — time we didn’t have.

And so the ideas flew:

But the biologists were using spoons, so maybe we need deeper, more “classic” bull trout water?”

“But he said it was gin clear.  Did he mean where they were fishing, or just the river in general?”

“What time of year were they in here?  Was there run-off from snow or rain?”

“Do these fish migrate?  If so, where would they have gone?”
Then, to the pilot, “is there a tributary or anywhere we can find some bigger, slightly murkier, water?”

Of all the above questions, we only found one answer.  “Yes”, he said, “there’s a tributary down a ways”.  

We made the decision to head downstream.

The river began to widen, its colour changing more to the glacial grey so often associated with productive bull trout habitat.  But as the river changed, so too did its access, and we started to wonder if we’d made a mistake.

The biologist had indeed said that there was no access where he’d been fishing.  Had he made a mistake?  Because as far as I could tell, I was looking at an outhouse and a fellow angler’s truck.  A truck?  Had this been a “city-biologist” who perceived no access as meaning logging roads and 4×4 terrain?  But it was too late to question any further.  The water looked great, we saw no one else fishing, and there was a convenient spot for the helicopter to land.  We were committed.

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As the day ticked on, Katy and I hooked into some small bull trout — just enough to encourage us that we’d made the right move.  In the back of our heads we remembered that it’d been a spoon that lured in the big boys, and so we played with our depth, fly size, and, eventually, asked the pilot to fish the spoon rod behind us.  Where were these fish?  The pieces weren’t aligning, and I concluded that the August weather and river levels were to blame.  The fish must have pushed elsewhere.

Tick, tick, tick, the hand on my watch taunted.  Tick, tick, tick, my temper teetered on snapping with every backcast that hooked into the tight over-hanging brush behind me.  Tick, tick, tick, my pregnant belly reminded me to take it steady and try to ration just how much river we covered.  We were running out of time and I was running out of patience.  Reeling in, we asked if we could try one more spot upstream in the clear water that, admittedly, we didn’t have enough faith in at the day’s start.

Hesitation crossed our pilot’s face, his eyes glancing at the clock.  “Ten casts,” we promised.  Trying to sound believable.  But he was an outdoorsman himself.  He knew the “ten casts” schtick.  His eyebrows raised.  “OK, ten minutes… seriously, no more than ten minutes.”  He agreed and we loaded up.

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The pressure was intense.  We had one spot to choose.  If we chose too soon, we risked flying over what could have been “the one.”  If we chose too late, we might pass up on water that haunted us over dinner that night.  Now that we had a better understanding of the river’s specs from both air and ground, we opted to pass on the structured bouldery runs, focusing instead on clear troughs hugging tight against ledge rock; a perfect compromise of the river’s upper and lower stretches.

The helicopter blades had hardly finished their rotation before the four of us were geared up and racing upstream to the head of the run.  First cast, perfect swing, two steps down, nothing.  I cast again.  The line went tight and my reel broke the silence, quickly replacing it with the heavy pressure of “do not mess this up.”

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As with all fishing, a balance of focus and tension brought the fish to hand, its wide tail and vibrant spots magnificent against the clear blue water.  We captured a photo, watched quietly as it swam back to the comfort of the ledge rock, and then took a moment to congratulate each other for finally finding the large fish the biologist was talking about.  We had less than eight minutes left in the countdown and were hopeful we might get Katy into a fish as well.

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Then the real excitement began.  As Katy cast, I walked slightly downstream to see what I could spot.  Sure enough, in the current behind a large submerged rock lay an absolute pig of a fish.  Its tail glowed red, bright red, a fiery beacon under cool water.  It was bigger than mine, undisturbed, swaying in the flow, thick sides rounded like a pregnant mare in the meadow.  “Oh my God…” I dropped low as if avoiding the helicopter rotors and tiptoed back up to Katy as if the fish might hear me.  Pointing out the part of the ledge rock from which the fish sat out from, I gave her a general idea of its whereabouts, then proceeded to go back downstream to give her feedback on the fish’s reaction to her fly.  But as I snuck back to watch the show, I noticed yet another enormous fish just a few inches back from the red-tail beast!  This one was silver and almost as large.  My stomach did a flip and my speech hastened to a bossy shout in all the excitement.

“More left!”

“Cast further upstream!”

“Yup!  Yup!  Yup!  He’s on it!  Wait for it!”

He followed her streamer aggressively, a submarine with an open mouth, out of his lie and close to the bank.  It was all too much to bear, and Katy couldn’t see the reaction.  The fly was pulled back for the next cast and Jeremy and I crumbled in “aghs!”  Red-tail fish wanted her fly and he wanted it bad.  She cast again, and again he showed interest.  We all knew what we had to do.  We had to sit down for 10 minutes, wait it out, change flies, and start over.  We also had to fish below him to see if we might tempt one of his other inhabitants.  I’d spotted at least three more large bulls and was certain one was a biter.  But our pilot was now standing across the river in front of us, out of the fish’s sight, yet clearly in ours.

“We have to go.”

I could have cried.  We were so close.  The entire day flooded back to me, laced with “what ifs” and regret.  I understood that all good things must come to an end, but weren’t they supposed to at least start first?  We all knew what we could have done differently, but we also realized why we made the decisions we did.  It didn’t remove the bitter from the sweet.

A sobered triumph hung over our heads as we loaded up for departure.  After all, we were appreciative to have found the fish, but the reality of our schedules lining up anytime soon again were slim to none.  Realistically it would be a year before any of us could get back in there and each of us knew it.  So while silence filled the aircraft and reflection filled our heads, the theme of the trip inched its way into our conversation until it was more clear than it’d ever been before.

We had to go … back.

~April Vokey

Here’s a short video of our day:

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