Leviathans: The Bull Trout of BC’s East Kootenays

An adventure to remember

The East Kootenay region is located in the southeast corner of British Columbia. It is nestled between the Alberta border and Rocky Mountains to the east and the Purcell Mountain range to the west. It has long been known for its mountain scenery and as an outdoor activity haven, drawing in many tourists yearly for its various outdoor activities, such as fly fishing, mountain biking and hiking in the summer months, and its backcountry skiing and snowmobiling in the winter months.

Bull trout are an incredible species that happen to live in a wonderful part of the world, and the author considers them a must for any serious angler. Photo by Chase White.
Bull trout are an incredible species that happen to live in a wonderful part of the world, and the author considers them a must for any serious angler. Photo by Chase White.

The rivers of the East Kootenays are world-renowned true freestone rivers, boasting extremely healthy populations of bull trout and west slope cutthroat trout. Anglers travel from around the globe each year to pursue these fish in some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world.

The region holds some of the highest bull trout numbers found anywhere in North America. Elsewhere, bulls are protected and thus closed to angling in many states in which they are found, so many anglers travel here to add a bull trout to the list of what they have caught. If you are interested in targeting these fish in the Kootenays, here’s some information that will help you catch one of these hard-fighting brutes of the streams.

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Bull trout. Photo by Chase White.
Photo by Chase White.

Bull trout are a member of the char family, and the Latin term for these fish is Salvelinus Confluentus, meaning, “Where rivers meet.” They’re known for their aggressive attitude and big, mean look. Many anglers have stories of fighting a cutthroat trout one minute and the next minute seeing a big flash, feeling a big tug, and then losing their fish to a hungry bull trout.

They can be targeted year-round with great success, but the tactics and gear can be changed throughout the seasons to up your odds of running into these dinosaurs of the rivers.

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Not always known or thought of as an extremely fast-fighting trout such as a brown, rainbow trout or steelhead with mind-blowing runs and acrobatics, bull trout are still no slouch. This is a dog fight with these heavy leviathans, using all the weight they have to turn sideways in current, or digging as deep as they can to try to beat the angler. Heavier fly rod setups, such as single-handed 7 to 9 weights or 5 to 7-weight switch rods, are a great choice and usually recommended by guides in the valley. The heavier rods also assist the angler in hucking out some big meat and heavy sink tips. Guides love to refer to this method as chuck-‘n’-duck fishing.

Heavier fly rod setups, such as single-handed 7 to 9 weights, or 5 to 7-weight switch rods, are a great choice and usually recommended by guides in the valley. Photo by Chase White.
Heavier fly rod setups, such as single-handed 7 to 9 weights, or 5 to 7-weight switch rods, are a great choice and usually recommended by guides in the valley. Photo by Chase White.

From early winter through spring, even though these fish are known for having eyes bigger than their stomach, and an overly aggressive reactionary strike, the waters are still cold and these fish can be found in slower and deeper water than normal, sometimes referred to as wintering holes. It is hard for a big fish to expend a lot of energy on hunting bigger fish, and then digesting them, so the angler may want to size down to some smaller streamers, such as kiwi zuddlers, muddler minnows or any small bait fish/fry pattern. Various aquatic nymphs can be used as well, such as golden stones. During the later spring months, the kokanee fry will emerge and start migrating to their summer ground, usually a large body of water, like a reservoir. Bull trout will key in and capitalize on this migration, as they can almost set up shop in a nice run and grab the fry as they float on and tumble their way to their final destination. We have great success even dead drifting or nymphing small white fry patterns during this time. A good motto for spring bull trout is if you find one, you’ve found a few, as the food must be present for fish to be feeding there.

From late spring to mid-summer, as the water temperatures begin to increase and the tributary systems become cleaner, bull trout will begin to leave the bigger systems they used for wintering and start to head to the tributaries they use to feed in, and then eventually spawn in. These fish, coming late June to early July, will begin to feed very aggressively on various larger species of fish, including whitefish, sucker fish and any poor cutthroat trout they can catch. This is many anglers’ favourite time to target them, as it seems you couldn’t tie a streamer large enough to shy them away. There isn’t anything much more exciting than seeing a giant bull in crystal clear, blue water demolish an eight-inch to 12-inch fly. This is a steamer junkie’s dream. The fish will be a little more spread out in the systems, and sometimes the catch rates aren’t as high, but that is made up for by the aggression these fish show. I’ve witnessed, on many occasions, a fish missing the streamer and chasing it a few times before finally hooking up with it. As the water is warmer, these fish will fight harder this time of year as well. For the patient angler who is willing to put in some miles through some gorgeous country, this is a great season to target these fish. Bull trout are even known for eating a skated mouse occasionally, so even a dry fly guy can have a little fun if he’s willing to try to tango with a top-water-eating bully.

Late spring to mid-summer is a great time to target bull trout in the East Kootenays. Photo by Chase White.
Late spring to mid-summer is a great time to target bull trout in the East Kootenays. Photo by Chase White.

Be sure to not leave home without some big and heavy articulated flies for getting down and dirty and into these fish’s realms of predation. Patterns such as Galloup’s Sex Dungeons and Circus Peanuts are always a great choice. We like to joke that if you aren’t losing flies, you aren’t in the right water column. Carrying a few sink tips in various lengths and sink rates will up your odds, as these rivers can change from shallow fast runs to deep canyon holes very quickly.

From mid-summer to September, bull trout begin to migrate to the upper ends of tributaries as their spawning season is drawing nearer. Further towards the end of summer, these fish start to slow on the feeding end of things and will begin to stage together in slower, deeper pools. It is not uncommon to stumble upon 30 to 100 bulls stacked together staging, pairing and preparing to spawn. These fish still must eat occasionally to sustain themselves. There will always be a few hungry fish in the crowd, but many anglers come home frustrated after seeing many fish stacked up and no luck on convincing a willing combatant to eat a fly. As the summer draws to a close, it is very important to watch for spawning activity with these fish, such as redd digging and paired fish on shallow, gravel runs. The ethical thing to do once that is seen is to put the rods away and enjoy these fish with just your eyes. Bull trout are known for vibrant spawning colours and fin colours, some ranging from Creamsicle orange to golden bar yellow. Male fish will develop large kypes as well, used to defend both their spawning partner and redds from intruders.

September to October is the true bull trout spawning season. Bulls are slow-growing old fish and should have the utmost respect during this time. It is time to leave them alone for a month and allow them to do their thing, if you catch my drift. Giving these fish a rest and allowing them to spawn uninterrupted helps ensure we have bull trout for many more generations in our rivers. Most of the heavily used and well-known spawning grounds in the East Kootenay are closed for this month to give some added protection and rest to these brutes.

From October through early winter, the spawn comes to a close and these fish will drop down from the tributaries and back to the bigger systems. They haven’t eaten for a long time and are hungry. This can be an exciting time to target these fish with big streamers. Some of the systems also get a run of kokanee salmon that are starting to die off after their spawn. This provides a massively important food source for bull trout, as it coincides perfectly with returning hungry fish. This is by far my favourite time to chase these fish, as the aggression shown is unmatched. It is not uncommon to see multiple fish chasing your streamer at one time. Bull trout gorge to the highest degree during this time and can put on weight extremely fast. Many fish are caught with big, extended bellies and kokanee tails hanging out of their mouths. It truly is an all-you-can-eat time and the advantage is taken as they need the added weight to help sustain themselves through the winter that lays ahead.

Bulls can be targeted year-round with great success, but the tactics and gear can be changed throughout the seasons to up your odds of running into these dinosaurs of the rivers. Photo by Chase White.
Bulls can be targeted year-round with great success, but the tactics and gear can be changed throughout the seasons to up your odds of running into these dinosaurs of the rivers. Photo by Chase White.

Kokanee patterns are a must have during this season and I’ve often found myself never changing a fly until it’s been destroyed and beaten to pieces by many big, angry trout.

Flesh flies drifted in the current can also work wonders as the kokanee start to decay and provide nutrients to the river. The rivers will continue to fish great until the water temps begin to cool again and the ice forms.

Bull trout are an incredible species that happen to live in a wonderful part of the world, and I consider them a must for any serious angler out there. The country and rivers they call home are worth the price of admission in themselves. With towns such as Fernie, Cranbrook, Kimberly and Golden in the Kootenays, this can be a great family vacation or holiday, as these towns boast great tourism with many restaurants, boardwalks and wonderful nightlife to keep the whole family entertained, if not everyone is interested in the fishing opportunities. The next time you are planning a trip, be sure to not overlook the East Kootenays. I hope to see you there.

If targeting bull trout interests you and you would like a guided trip, give the St. Mary Angler Fly Shop a call in Cranbrook, or Fly Fishing International for a full package trip to the Kootenays.