Sunday, August 1, 2021

No Bull. These Giant “Trout” Fight
By Dave Burns

Could the upper Columbia River produce the next record bull trout? Golden, British Columbia guide Dave Burns thinks so, and he’s trying to find it.

Evening light fades, filtering through a thick forest on the far shore. I should have been home an hour ago. But after looking around the next bend, I couldn’t leave. Now I’m stepping toward a nice tailout. Each cast brings me closer to the end of another day, the end of swirling currents lulling my mind to somewhere between focus and hypnosis.

As my fly swings toward shore, the running line snaps tight and I bury the hook. Right away it’s clear that this fish is much bigger than the 8-to 12-pound bull trout I released earlier in the day . . . and it’s getting increasingly upset with every head-shake.

My 13-foot long rod is fully bowed, but I’m making headway and bringing this fish closer to hand with every turn of the reel. It’s only been on two good runs, so far, and I’m sure there’s another one coming. The fish finally shows itself at the surface and my seven-inch long streamer is looking very small against the hulking backdrop. Suddenly, the fish barrel rolls twice and blasts across the river. It slips into an eddy line on the far bank and I feel the dreaded bump, bump, and then slack. This massive bull trout has thrown the hook.

My heart races as I reel in, wondering what went wrong, knowing I missed a chance to land the fish I’ve pursued all year. Reluctantly, I accept this fact: I’ll have to wait until next year before getting another shot at a 20-pound plus bully.

The Columbia River around my home in Golden, British Columbia is our crown jewel. It draws from a massive area, including dozens of prime tributaries, and offers tremendous opportunities for rainbow trout and bull trout (which are actually a char) for most of the year. The Columbia flows into the uppermost reservoir on the Columbia system, Kinbasket Lake, which is held back by Mica Dam (located north of Revelstoke). At average water levels, Kinbasket is almost 170 miles long, and offers a number of arms that extend to the east and west. This massive water body acts as an inland sea and allows most of our big bulls and rainbows to get big and strong while feeding on sculpins, whitefish, and kokanee salmon. Kokanee were introduced to Kinbasket years ago, as biologists tried to mimic the upper Columbia’s once abundant wild salmon and steelhead runs, which were destroyed by the construction of dams on the Columbia system (17 in all) in the 1930s and beyond. Kokanee added protein to the entire system and allowed trout and char to grow fast.

You can catch bull trout around Golden during spring, but the Columbia and its tributaries really perk in the second half of summer. But the time that really gets me going is late summer and fall.

As summer closes, bull trout head upstream and seek calm, clean waters in which to spawn. Not all bulls spawn each year. Some may wait three years between spawning runs as they recover from the rigors of their last spawning effort. Those fish may stay in and around Kinbasket, feeding on kokanee and any other protein sources that happen to swim past. We hunt bulls throughout this time, targeting areas far away from spawning grounds, looking for young bulls and those silver brutes that feed heavily during their year/years off from the spawn. Those are the fish that stretch into the double-digit weight range and could exceed 20 pounds. During late summer and fall we also catch some big, migratory bulls that are headed upstream to spawn. We fight, land-and-release these fish in a timely manner, and allow them to fully recover, before sending them along on their upstream journey.

In early-to mid-September, kokanee stage for their spawning run and the bulls follow them. Bulls that are in an off-spawning year chase these salmon as they move up the Columbia and its tributaries. Later, as bull trout fall back from their redds, they aggressively feed on these kokanee and any other food sources they find, while trying to recover the energy they spent during the spawn.

The first few frosts of fall seem to trigger the fish feed, as if they are getting ready to survive another long, cold, Canadian winter. They attack anything that fits in their mouths. Thirty-plus-inch fish may put on almost four pounds in a month, preparing for winter. This makes fall a very good time to be an angler in Golden.

As November approaches, most of the big bulls move down from the tributaries and slowly back down the Columbia toward their winter homes in Kinbasket. There’s just something about standing knee-deep in a huge river, throwing massive streamers for giant freshwater fish, that keeps the blood pumping through frozen extremities. The fishing keeps getting better right up until the rivers begin to freeze, and anglers who can stand frigid temperatures, iced guides, and throwing heavy lines with huge flies all day, often get rewarded with a quality of bull trout that hardly exists anywhere else in the world. We have clients who return each year, seeking a true supertanker, and they don’t bother with cameras until a fish stretches over 30 inches and weighs 15 pounds or more.

There’s a sort of twisted addiction for those who’ll suffer through harsh weather, in wild, rugged terrain, just for a shot at a fish that makes it all worthwhile. It’s a moment we think about all winter, practice for all spring and summer, then put the time in all fall. When the stars align and your line tugs tight, all you can do is set the hook, hang on tight, be patient but forceful, and hope that just maybe this fish lets you spend a brief up-close moment with it.

Back on the river last fall, the last of the evening night is all but gone. Weary legs make the long trudge back to the truck. Those who don’t fish may assume that my feelings would be that of sorrow or anger, after the moment I was hoping to experience didn’t quite happen, and the giant bull was lost. Those of us who hunt for river unicorns understand that losing another one of these beasts only serves to broaden my smile, confident that fish like that are still out there, and willing to take my fly.

Logistics

WHERE

Golden, British Columbia, upper Columbia River system.

TIMING

You can take bulls when the ice comes off tributary streams during spring. More productive fishing arrives mid-to late summer and only gets better through fall.

TERMINAL TACKLE

Bull trout run big and fight hard. They use deep holes, logs and other debris to their advantage. They also swim in a massive river—the Columbia—and use heavy current to their benefit. They regularly top 10 pounds and may exceed 20. No dainty dry fly rods here, boys! Burns—the Golden Gillie requires 7-weight or heavier rods. Single-handers play here, but spey rods work well, too. Burns insists that clients fight their fish aggressively and bring those “beasts” to hand in a timely fashion, so they recover quickly. Burns likes spey rods in particular as, he assures, they are the most efficient tool to bomb out long casts with big flies and heavy sink-tips.

GEAR

Depending on your timing, you could wet-wade the Columbia in shorts during summer or be fully bulked up, with snow flying through the air, during the fall season. By November, just before the river locks up for winter, you may need multiple layers and still need to seek refuge in the truck, with the heater blasting, every hour or two. No matter when you visit, bring micro-thin long underwear, a warm second layer, fleece gloves and a stocking hat. Quality rain jackets are needed, even during summer when thunderstorms might drop a bunch of rain or hail. Waders are necessary and a quality pair of breathables should bring you years of dry and successful fishing. Studded wading boots are a must—those bottom rocks be slippery!

BOOK THIS TRIP

Contact Fly Fishing International (info@flyfishinginternational.com) or reach out to Burns directly on Instagram(@thegoldengillie).

Photography by

Dave Burns

Melinda Part