October 01, 2021
By Hilary Hutcheson
To get a closer underwater look at these upper echelon predators, click here to see the 6-minute companion film Bull Trout Bastion. The film, with author Hilary Hutcheson and guide Paul Samycia, shows what it’s like to spend a few days in a watershed where Western native species are holding strong.
This article was originally titled "Bull Trout Bastion" in the June-July 2020 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
Driving home from a Canadian bull trout trip last fall, I stopped at a roadside flea market, where I saw (and nearly purchased) a refrigerator magnet that said, "Mirror, Mirror On The Wall, I Am My Mother After All." The joke, meant to force middle-aged children to concede existence as nature and/or nurture reflections of their parents, struck close to home. Only recently have I stopped fighting the realization that my hooting laugh and stubbornness are my mother’s.
The magnet reminded me of Elk River Guiding Company head guide Darcy Richardson’s declaration just the previous day that if a bull trout looked in the mirror, it would see Mother Nature peering back.
“Bull trout are an exact reflection of their environment,” Darcy had told me over beers on the fly shop’s back porch. “Like the beautiful places where they live, they are extremely strong and resilient, but vulnerable and delicate at the same time.”
Eric Taylor, Ph.D., professor of zoology at the University of British Columbia, agrees, saying, “I can never separate them from where they occur. They reflect the magnificence of Western watersheds.”
While their distribution is historically broad in North America, today 80 percent of the world’s bull trout are found in western Canada. This, scientists say, is where they find the 4Cs: Cold, Clean water, with Connected and Complex underwater habitat.
A prime example of this is the mountainous, lush, dramatic Elk River watershed in the southeastern Kootenay district of British Columbia. The Elk and its tributaries originate near the Continental Divide and drain a heavily forested region until its waters ultimately join the Columbia River headed toward the Pacific Ocean.
While the watershed is arguably best known for its world-class native westslope cutthroat trout fishing, it’s also a magnet for streamer-huckers looking to hook into the big-headed beast of B.C., a salmonid and tip-of-the-spear predator found at the tops of angler bucket lists worldwide.
Bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) are technically not trout at all, but char. The common name is a nod to its massive head and jaws. Distinct from the Dolly Varden, a separate but similar char species, bull trout have been thriving in their once-glaciated environment for thousands of years. They’ve been known to live for up to two decades, and migratory populations often travel more than 100 miles in the fall to spawn in small, cold streams. They are identified by a light dorsal fin free of markings, fins with white edges, and yellow, orange, or salmon-colored spots on their backs.
“There are many distinct populations of bull trout,” says Taylor. “And certain populations face threats that others don’t. We have the Species at Risk Act, similar to the Endangered Species Act that protects the bull trout in the United States. Various Canadian populations are given protections based on our studies of their trends in population sizes and threats to their population.”
The bull trout of the Elk River system are part of the Pacific assemblage of populations, currently listed as "not at risk."
For anglers, this means it’s legal to fish for them in accordance with provincial regulations, including the use of single-hook barbless flies.
Running of the Bulls
While the Pacific population of bull trout near Fernie, British Columbia will chase stripped streamers all year, they offer a treat in the spring when they eat surface dry flies. In late fall, after spawning, migratory bull trout in certain zones of the system get their strength back before heading to their wintering areas by protein-loading on dying kokanee salmon that have reached the end of their life cycle.
The Elk’s resident bull trout are there all year, but migratory bull trout that winter in Lake Koocanusa make their way up into legally protected streams like the Wigwam, Michel Creek, and Skookumchuck Creek. In an effort to protect these fisheries, the government regulates these classified waters by requiring permits for both guided and nonguided fly fishing.
Elk River Guiding Company owner Paul Samycia says, “We’ve found that many anglers don’t want to mess with having to stay up until midnight when permits go up for sale on the government website on March 1, so they book with us. Each outfitter gets a limited number of rod days. We aren't allocated very many, so we usually sell out by the end of January.”
B.C.-bound fly fishers should get organized well before the season, since understanding where and how to fish the various, dynamic waters can be daunting. For example, if you hope to book a walk-wade trip in June with the goal of catching your bucket-list bull in the Wigwam, you’re out of luck. “The river opens June 15, but the fish won’t be up there until July because they are migratory,” says Samycia. Understanding the terrain is also key to success here. Since the rugged, catch-and-release-only Wigwam is restricted to wade anglers only, a hearty hike is in order.
On previous Elk River outings, I experienced something guides confirm is a natural occurrence on the Elk system—species tunnel vision. I became so enthralled with catching a personal best bull trout that I all but forgot that I was drifting my fly past my all-time favorite fish species, the native westslope cutthroat trout.
“But I understand how that happens,” says Samycia. “If you really want to do well with bull trout, you’re going to have to focus and put your time in. You have to work for it. If you get tempted to put that streamer rod down and fish dry flies for cutthroat, you could be closing the window on your opportunity for a once-in-a-lifetime beast.”
This time around, Samycia had a scope-broadening solution. He planned an afternoon of walk-wade, precision dry-fly fishing for rising cutthroat near Fernie, followed by a full-day float focused on bull trout.
On the first afternoon, the late day sun played Midas with the mellow waves and flushed its rich light through the Tiffany wings of mayflies landing on our hat bills. Native westslope cutthroat bellied up to the gravel bar’s subtle drop-off, 3 feet from the water’s edge. As we worked slowly along the rocky bank upriver, some fish faced the same direction sipping ants, while others turned aggressively downstream to chase minnows, and still others went tail-up to lip nymphs from nearly every level of the water column. True to the autumn season, we found the most success with terrestrials, and had fun experimenting with tiny, green-colored flying ants. It was good to reaffirm why cutthroat are my favorite fish.
The next day we set out early, rafts equipped with 8-weight rods, floating lines with long, 15-pound-test leaders, and white Dolly Llama streamers with single, debarbed, size 2 hooks. We also anticipated finding a zone laden with tapped-out kokanee salmon, so we had a rod rigged with a 5-inch-long orange and yellow kokanee pattern.
Samycia started with the kokanee pattern, and it paid off quickly. Before lunchtime, he had our fish of the day bullying him through a midriver trough. The 30-inch monster didn’t run into the backing or jump, but challenged Samycia with a beast-to-beast tug-of-war. “This guy could bust a hole to China with that head,” said Samycia, letting the fish take a few inches of line before reeling in a few feet, a retrieval dance he repeated until guide Dylan Forster, who had waded up to his wader rim, scooped it into the too-small net.
“I needed to keep gaining on that bull because if he got too much control it would have taken longer to get him in and I don’t want him to use so much energy since this guy is getting fat for winter and has a date with the kokanee buffet.” While no one could deny the bull trout’s colossal head and kype, the tail stole the show. Easily the largest paddle I’ve seen on a char, the nearly transparent tail was dotted with silvery-white spots and peach-colored along the edge. It spanned wider than my splayed hand. It took just two powerful tail slaps to propel the creature back toward its place at the table.
In the afternoon, we worked smaller streamers along the rugged outer banks along a heavy forest, liberal with shelter for predatory fish. Even at depth, the gleaming white Dolly Llama pattern stood out in the clear water, sliding (not darting) through trenches and along submerged logs and rocks where our targeted species lay. Each time that the ploy worked, I could see the bull’s giant head lead its body in a slow, lateral shift before propelling into a come-at-me-bro assault on the streamer.
During one retrieve, however, I had the streamer so low in a trench that I couldn’t see the white rabbit. When the pattern got smacked by a Mack truck, the truck didn’t stop. It pulled, steadily and hard. The fish didn’t seem to care that it had been hooked, but, to me, he seemed quite aware of his predicament, since he turned on his tail and bull-lined it 75 feet toward a logjam downstream. The logjam screamed certain misery, and I wouldn’t let my mind imagine the fish and all my fly line creating a dreamcatcher in the submerged strainer of limbs and forest debris that had gathered in the late spring during runoff.
Superguide Forster expertly moved the oars to backrow up an eddy so we wouldn’t float closer to the logjam. We both got out of the raft, and as I waded to control the fighting angle, Forster ran toward the logjam and used his net to spook the fish away from wood. As the bull trout changed its course, it came at me like a blitzing defensive end, and I had to switch from the reel to a hand strip to get the line in fast enough to keep up with the tension. With the fish now just a few feet from me, it went head down again, starting a classic tug competition. But Forster was ready with a scoop as soon as I was able to coax the fish’s head up. Afterward, another massive paddle strike sent the bull trout back to the depths.
Scientists say bull trout are an indicator species for general ecosystem health, and are particularly vulnerable to human-induced habitat changes.
“That’s why people who fish are so worried about the increases in selenium and nitrate contamination in the watershed,” says Richardson.
Anglers who float the Elk near the town of Sparwood will see a riverside coal mine, one of Teck Coal’s four coal mines operating in the region. While the view can be jarring, coal mining has been integral to local livelihoods since the 1890s. Artifacts recognizing the area’s prospecting history are scattered around Sparwood and Fernie. Today, the operations employ approximately 4,000 people and ship more than 26 million tonnes of coal, mostly to steel plants in Asia.
But in recent years, disquiet is growing on behalf of fly fishers as well as scientists, lawmakers, and environmental groups in Canada and the United States, as rainwater washes through large piles of mining waste, sending toxic levels of selenium and nitrate into the watershed.
“We don’t want to be all doom and gloom,” says Richardson, “And we know how important extraction has been here. But even though we may feel like the ecosystem is healthy, we see certain changes like increased algal blooms. Then we hear that the contaminants in the river and in Lake Koocanusa are going up, and they were already way higher than they should be.”
River pollution could continue for centuries if current trends continue, says Lars Sander-Green, science and communications analyst for Wildsight, an environmental organization in southeastern British Columbia. “Selenium poisoning can cause reproductive failures for fish,” says Sander-Green. "And there’s no long-term plan to stop it. British Columbia doesn’t have a solid program to make sure mines pay for proper cleanup. Strong federal regulations could make a major difference, and pressure from people who care about this place could be the key.”
Teck Resources in March 2020 reported dramatic declines in cutthroat populations in the Fording River—an Elk River tributary that passes through a mine site—but says it is trying to stabilize and reverse the trend of toxic substances in the the watershed.
Teck spokesman Doug Brown says the company plans to spend more than $1 billion by 2024 to clean up its effluent, and has already repaired and recommissioned a treatment plant now operational at their West Line Creek mine site. Two new plants will be operating by the end of the year, he said.
Sander-Green isn’t convinced. “Even with the short-term treatment plants, what happens when Teck decides it’s done mining? There’s enough waste to impact the river for a thousand years or longer, and the company won’t be running treatment facilities that long. Fishermen need to speak up in favor of a real long-term plan.”
With threats to the river in mind, if bull trout are indeed a reflection of their environment, the image within the mirror becomes less clear, like the topsy-turvy Lewis Carroll novel Through the Looking-Glass in which nothing is as it should be. The threat has the potential to encourage anglers to look beyond the tips of their 8-weights and consider the full weight of human impact on a fishery that’s thrived throughout history.
Most days, Darcy Richardson’s passion for the Elk River Valley is reflected in his clients’ experience on the water. “It’s just fun to watch people catch fish,” says Richardson. “When they hook into a fish and I see their reaction, it’s like looking in a mirror because I know I’m just as excited.”
For bull trout, Elk River Guiding Company recommends 9-foot, 8-weight rods with floating lines and 12-foot leaders. The trick is to get the fly down low, in front of the upstream-facing fish. Heavy sinking lines are counterproductive because you have to strip them too quickly to avoid getting snagged, which doesn’t give the fly enough time in front of the fish’s face. The most effective flies are white streamers like size 2 Dolly Llamas. All flies must have a single, barbless hook, so if you’d like to fish an articulated streamer, you must first clip off the forward or rear hook and clamp down the barb. Using two flies at one time is not permitted in B.C.