On 09-21-2010 Kootenai River Bull Trout in NW Montana by Colorado & New Mexico Fly Fishing Guide Rita Adams
Colorado & New Mexico Fly Fishing Guide Rita Adams
In the first fifty yards of my first ever float on the Kootenai River I caught a whitefish who pretty much hopped in the boat when an olive monstrosity of fifteen pounds or so tried to have him for lunch. Bull Trout. This post is all about Bullies- the convoluted politics as well as reports of the fish we encounter and sometimes catch, updated as we find them. Scroll to the bottom of the page to read the most recent posts...
These native north westerners are an endangered, and supposedly protected, species. It is unlawful to willfully fish for them, and those that are caught must be released unharmed. In the Kootenai river live the biggest Bull trout in the US, and they co-exist with another giant, a unique subspecies of White Sturgeon that faces the very real possibility of extinction within the next thirty years.
I have only been fishing the Kootenai for three years now. I'm no old timer, but in those first two years, almost every float we did had a Bull trout sighting. Getting on the water this year, I've seen several dead Bullies, and so far most of the large shapes sliding along the bottom are suckers. Earlier his year two large spills over the dam were done to facilitate the Sturgeon spawn. We know from past experience that the Bull Trout don't fare well with these big pushes of water. The water becomes saturated with nitrogen that stresses and often kills the bigger trout in the system. This lesson was learned the hard way in 06 when a huge spillover occurred and many big Bullies were found belly up.
The amount of water that came over the dam in '06 was over 30,000 cfs and had nothing to do with the sturgeon spawn. It was an emergency measure designed to avert massive flooding from an overly full reservoir. Tests done afterward by army corps of engineers biologists showed that nitrogen reached lethal levels in spills of over 10,000 cfs. The two spills done this year started at 10,000 cfs and were scaled back to 7,000 cfs over the course of 7-8 days. This was in early June. How the Bull Trout fared during all of this has yet to be determined. Another possible culprit for the dead fish we've seen is the long line system that biologists have put in place to trap, tag and inspect Kootenai River Sturgeon. These are lines baited with fish that are set on the river bottom. We know they have gotten at least one Sturgeon this way, but I question what happens to the other fish that encounter the traps, namely big bows and bulls....?
I've only been on the water a week and so the verdict is far from in, but the worried grumbles of guides and the paucity so far of live sightings and the several dead ones aren't good signs. You've got to be tough to survive out here in the west.
Postnote: 8/29/10: On the lookout for Bullies and we've seen several now on the big river, one of which was massive, in the 20lb. range. Not seeing as many as we're used to, but they're definitely still here. Yesterday I caught a two foot long Bully in a Kootenai tributary. This creek has a dam on it which prevents fish migrating upstream, so this fish was a resident and not a big river traveler. A male, he was mostly mouth; he gave the impression of being old or overly stressed; his tail was stubby and small and his latter half was dwarfed by his front half. He was certainly hungry; He tried to attack a 17" brown I'd nymphed up moments before he ate my nymph himself, and went after an even larger brown I hooked just after I released him- a bit too much of a mouthful, even for him I think.
09-08-10- Decided to fish the Kootenai solo today. Drizzling and misty. Started out nymphing a deep seam with a weighted stonefly and red copper john. The Kootenai is a very slick river to wade, with smooth snot-covered rocks. The run I was fishing terminated abruptly into a huge black hole and I was a bit uncomfortable wading there by myself, but I hooked my first fish in only a few drifts and the game was on. He felt small, but in bringing him in he made the mistake of running for the deep, and suddenly I had a lead weight throbbing on the line. Bully! The fish tried to escape toward the surface and they both exploded out of the water-a foot long whitefish and an eight pound Bull. He let go but attacked again before I could get the fish in and this time he stayed on almost to my feet. The whitefish was bleeding badly. I worked my way upstream and after many long fruitless drifts the nymph stopped dead on a very heavy fish. When I brought him up for the first time I saw he was a large Bull trout, and I played him like he was tethered with silk. I've had so many heart breaking last minute escapes, but this fight was a thing of beauty, and when I brought him close, I saw a male of ten pounds at least, gorgeous and healthy with a pink tail the color of conch shell and spots to match. He was absolutely well behaved and didn't do any unseemly thrashing while I unhooked the fly and slid him back. What a fish. Not a soul around to witness it, and all day I walked around with a secret sense of magic made.
09-17-10 Had my first Bully attack as a guide today. A big female latched on hard to a small rainbow in three feet of water and thrashed around the boat for several minutes before letting go. Super visual. Nice to see a chick out there-the last many have been clearly male.
09-21-10 Caught a nine pound bully yesterday in the upper Kootenai, exploring some new wade water. There have been rumors of a big Pike living around this area for the last two years, and we've been trying to get a positive id on it. It would be an extremely rare catch. About 70 miles away there are some lakes with pike, but there is no all water route from there to the Kootenai. We have heard tales of anglers losing battles to this fish, and have several times spooked a large predator fish with the boat here. It certainly doesn't move like a trout, but rather ghosts around, slow and deadly; there one minute, gone the next. It is a very large fish, in the 20lb range. If a pike, it must have quite a story. It must eat a lot of whitefish too. I got some steel leaders, broke out the heavy artillery and figured on a stealth approach from land, which ended up involving major bush thrashing, one unplanned swim, and very little stealth. Long story short, there is at least one predator in there, but he's no pike. Just a little nine pound pup of a Bull Trout. He absolutely crushed the fly, and made dazzling runs for the deep. Fun.