bull trout

A Grand Slam, almost. (Wrestling the Narcoleptic Goose, Part II)

(One may have gathered from the title that this is the second in a two-part series. In order to fully enjoy Part II, one must first read Part I. That being said, even then one may not enjoy Part II)

Over the course of two days the Firehole produced for us in typical fashion:  solid numbers of willing browns and rainbows, most in the 10” – 12” range, but a couple slightly larger. At one point I saw Marck headed upstream from where we’d just come and asked where he was going. He’d apparently seen but not landed a big brown in a nice hole the previous year, and was going back to see about sealing the deal. Right, whatever. An hour or so later he returned, smiling.  When he announced that he had caught the brown and it was BIG, I called Bison shit. He maintains that he caught the fish. I suggest the altitude was getting to him. Nearly all the fish were enticed by dead drifting a magical nymph pattern that I would tell you about, except for the fact that I would not be invited again on this trip if I did. I will tell you that this secret weapon can be found at either Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop or Blue Ribbon Flies or Arricks’s Fly Shop or Jacklin’s Fly Shop or West Yellowstone Fly Shop or Madison River Outfitters in West Yellowstone, but only at one of them.  99% of the fishing was subsurface without an indicator, which makes it a little easier to tolerate nymphing. We encountered one impressive BWO hatch during which only a couple fish were caught. Too much of a good thing proved to be the case, and with literally a gazillion real bugs hatching, our imitations were largely overlooked (mighta been due to less-than-perfect presentation, too). Still, it was amazing to see browns rising every few feet in a stretch of water that had hardly yielded a fish just a few hours earlier in the day. But considering the Firehole was running higher than average for this time of year, I had nothing to complain about, other than a couple of nearly sleepless nights as Stan’s roommate. Mother Nature threw everything at us, from driving snow to sunbreaks and everything in between. It’s always unpredictable fishing at 8000 feet in the Rockies during late Spring.

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Ready for the next leg of our journey, which hopefully would involve some bigger fish, we departed the comforts of the Ho Hum motel in West Yellowstone at 5:30 AM in order to be at the Rock Creek Mercantile by 10 o’clock – the time designated for meeting up with our guides for the day. Two full days of wade fishing and perhaps 4 total hours of sound sleep had left me a bit loopy, but it was nothing that a cup of Joe and the promise of fishing the infamous Rock Creek wouldn’t cure. A stop at the golden arches in West Yellowstone for a quick hit of caffeine turned into a skunk, as the coffee machine was broken. This was not the way to begin a day that required a 4 hour drive, and the lack of java did little to lift the spirits and puffy eyelids on board the Soccer Mom Express. I volunteered to take the wheel for this first leg, knowing that at this early hour of the morning there would be few cars on the road and I could drive in a relative state of shame-free anonymity. Aside from a bull moose galloping alongside the road, I don’t recall seeing another living creature until we pulled into Big Sky for coffee. That’s not to say that there weren’t other vehicles on the road, but the lack of caffeine insured that the senses remained dull and I don’t recall seeing anything other than the moose, who glanced sideways at us in a manner that bespoke his thoughts:  “Nice mini van.”

Properly revived by the ample supply of coffee acquired in Big Sky, we made excellent time heading westbound on I-90. We pulled into the Rock Creek Mercantile with 15 minutes to spare and were greeted by proprietor Doug Perisco, who was hard at work in his chair on the porch with a good cigar. The first order of business was to check into the cabins that we’d be staying in that night. In our excitement to arrive at Rock Creek, we had failed to draw the straws which would assign sleeping arrangements for that night. I watched as Stan carried his duffel bag toward the entrance to The Small Cabin. I quickly grabbed my stuff and sprinted toward The Big Cabin. After having bunked with Stan for the previous two nights I was looking forward to getting at least one night of decent sleep while on this trip. Survival of the fleetest of foot – my decisive action would have made Darwin proud. Marck was right on my heels, and as soon as we’d secured our lodging or the night, we shared a moment of silence in honor of our friend Nash, who would be bunking with The Goosemaster.

We geared up quickly and drove with our guides some 15+ miles up Rock Creek. The river was running high, as we knew it would be, and nobody to speak of had really been fishing the Creek recently. Everyone else was waiting for the salmonfly hatch to start, which could happen at any time (though it would not happen for another few days). Still, our guides assured us the fish were ready to eat, and we strung up our rods with white and yellow bead-headed variations of the woolly bugger. We boarded two rafts that would carry us downstream at a very quick pace and began pounding the banks with our flies.

The Goosemaster

The Goosemaster

I was sharing the raft with Stan (he doesn’t snore while fishing), and we got into fish shortly after the put-in. As soon as the heavily weighted flies hit the bank, we were instructed to give a quick tug and a good mend to allow them to settle into the water. We were drifting fast, which didn’t allow the fish more than a split second to see the flies and make a decision to strike. It took a few attempts and a couple of lost flies before I got the hang of this “Runnin & Gunnin” style of fishing. To describe the day as a combination of whitewater rafting and fishing would be inaccurate only because the water was less white and more the same color as the coffee with creme I’d enjoyed so much a few hours earlier. But it was a thrill to bounce through large waves while chucking flies. Soon we were hooking up at a regular rate with 12-15 inch browns , and an occasional rainbow. Stan hooked a small bull trout, and shortly thereafter I caught a bigger one – not very big by most standards, but being my first bull trout I was thrilled. And yes, I’m sure it was a bull trout.

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It was halfway through our float when our guide proclaimed that a Rock Creek grand slam wasn’t out of the relm of possibilities. The grand slam of trout fishing is when an accomplished angler has a banner day on the water, and successfully catches, in a 24 hour period, each of the trout species known to reside in those particular waters. In this case that entails rainbow, cutthroat, brown, bull and brook trout (even though a bull and Brookie are, as we all know, technically chars). Rock Creek is one of the better rivers that afford the chance of hitting a grand slam, and while I never even pondered such a milestone, I was just happy to have caught a few fish. Even though we had yet to catch a cutthroat, we knew the river had a good supply of them. The likelihood of catching a Brookie seemed unlikely until Stan caught a Brookie.  Now the reality of the Grand Slam seemed well within our reaches. I knew I wasn’t going to be honored with the achievement, but simply witnessing the act was good enough for me. Stan was standing at bat with the bases loaded, and all he needed was to connect with the right pitch. I became a Stan fan, and cheered him on with every cast. For a while I even kept my line off the water so as to give him room to work his magic. The problem was that by now we were in the lower stretches of the river, and the cutthroat tended to be higher up.  Still, each cast carried with it tremendous hope, and you could feel the tension in the air. We were still having fun, mind you, but the mood aboard our raft had taken on an intense focus. Fish continued to hit Stan’s fly, but the fish were not the coveted cutthroats we sought.  I managed to land a cuttbow, but that didn’t count (and besides, it was not I who was in the running for the grand slam). The catching slowed significantly during the last hour of the day, and unfortunately as we reached our take-out, the game winning cutthroat trout evaded us. There would be no Grand Slam for Stan the Man, but we raised a beer and toasted a great day on a great river that provided us with great angling excitement. Between the two of us we had probably landed 30 fish, and we’d each hooked up with a couple species which we had not previously caught. Our day on Rock Creek topped off another great Montana fishing adventure.

The report from Nash and Marck’s raft was that they had brought over 50 trout to the net: Browns, rainbows and a whole bunch of cutthroat which they’d caught in the first 2 hours of the day.

And in case you’re wondering, yes – I did enjoy my last night by sleeping peacefully.  At dawn I awoke to the sound of a large bird, and immediately assumed it was just geese in the cabin next door.  Poking my head out the door I realized that what I’d heard was not a gaggle, but rather a gobble. I’d already filled my turkey tag back in Washington that year, so I went back to bed for another hour.

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Hello, Dolly — or just a bunch of bull?

Pot or kettle? Tomay-to or tomah-to? Dolly Varden or bull trout? I mean, what’s the deal – they’re the same, right? I hear people refer to Dolly Varden and bull trout as the same fish, using the names interchangeably without losing an ounce of sleep over the matter. Then I hear of others who will not stand for such a gross and inaccurate generalization. This second group of enlightened folk point to conclusive evidence that the two fish are genetically unique and therefore separate species. With science behind the separate classifications I don’t know that it can be called a debate, but there is certainly enough confusion as to what the differences are that it’s worth looking into.

Let’s examine some similarities: First, they’re both fish. Next, they’re both of the family Salmonidae, which includes salmon, trout, chars and some other stuff. They are referred to as bull trout and Dolly Varden trout. This is where the confusion begins, as neither are actually trout but rather char (remember kids, trout have a light background with dark spots; char have a dark background with light spots). Until 1980 they were classified as the same species: Salvelinus confluentus. After that the Dolly Varden acquired it’s own separate identity and became known as Salvelinus malma.

According to Wikipedia – the authority on fish biology, period – the bull trout “is native to the cold, clear waters of the high mountains and coastal rivers of northwestern North America. Like other species of char, the fins of bull trout have white leading edges. Its head and mouth are unusually large for salmonids, giving it its name…bull trout are an indicator species…Bull trout reproduction requires cold water and very low amounts of silt, both of which are negatively impacted by road building and logging. Additionally, the bull trout’s need to migrate throughout river systems may be hindered by impassible fish barriers such as dams.” It also points out that the bull trout is listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered species Act.

Excellent information.

As pertaining to the Dolly Varden, Wikipedia has this to say: “…is found in coastal waters of the North Pacific from Puget Sound to the Lask Peninsula and into the eastern Aleutians, along the Bering Sea and Arctic Sea to the Mackenzie River.”

Good to know.

At this point we start to see at least a somewhat clear distinction based on the fact that Dolly Varden seem to be more coastal-ish dwellers and are not found as far inland as the bull trout (Idaho and Montana). However, they do have overlapping ranges and similar appearances, so the confusion continues to grow for those who fish in one of those overlapping ranges, such as Washington state (from where I hail). From the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, which is known for publishing regulations that require a PhD in Navigation and Deciphering: “Bull trout and Dolly Varden look very similar…both have small, pale yellow to crimson spots on a darker background…(blah blah blah)…compared to the Dolly Varden, bull trout are larger on average with a relatively longer and broader head. In Washington, both species are present in the Puget Sound area.” Read that again: Larger on average. Which leaves room to assume that one could catch a large Dolly Varden that is bigger than a small bull trout. And what of the “relatively longer and broader head”? Relative to what–each other, or relative to the size of fish that are bestowed with a much smaller head?

Uh…OK. I am not completely bull trout-headed and I accept that they are separate species: Separate species that have overlapping ranges and look so much alike that the average accomplished angler wouldn’t know the difference, especially if that person had never previously caught either clearly distinct and separate species. I read elsewhere that “bull trout and Dolly Varden were confused by anglers and biologists until 1978…” Wait a minute – I thought it was 1980? And who says the confusion ended then (in either 1978 or 1980)? It’s 2009, and after either 31 or 29 years the confusion still abounds. In fact I think I’m more confused now than I was before I started compiling this data. And I doubt I’m alone in my befuddlement.

So widespread is this confusing issue that one can easily imagine the streamside conversation between two fishing persons: One who has just successfully caught a magnificent fish bearing small, pale yellow to crimson spots with a dark background in a cold, clear river that is tributary to a body of salt water; the other, a doubting, resentful and fishless angler:

“Yee, HAW!!! Just done caught me a BULL trout!”

“I beg your pardon? You, sir, are errant in your ways on two fronts: Foremost, that is no trout; bull or otherwise. Clearly it is a Dolly Varden, and your feeble command of the English language abhors me.”

“You beg my Parton? It’s a Dolly?  Oh, I git it – yer referrin’ to the nice pectoral fins on this here bull trout! Heh heh. That’s a goodun!”

So there we have it. They are in fact separate species. Referring to both as “bull trout” is inaccurate and displays a lazy ignorance. So if you’re fishing in an area known to support both species, study up. Know the difference. If you catch a Dolly, call it what it is: It is not a bull trout.

In case you were wondering, I’m no biologist so I honestly can’t tell you the difference between a Dolly or a bull by looking at them. And in the event that anyone ever asks me if I’ve ever caught one or the other, I was previously prepared to say yes because I’ve caught one of each. Or so I thought. I caught one on Rock Creek in Montana, so let’s reference that fish as a bull trout. The other one was caught on the Skykomish River, which is in the Puget Sound region, which therefore lies within the range of both species. I was told by the experienced angler who was correcting my casting flaws at the time I caught this fish that it was a Dolly. But now I am beginning to question the accuracy of that, and think perhaps the Skykomish fish may have been a bull trout. It’s safe to assume that they weren’t both Dolly Vardens because those fish are definitely not found in Montana. I was excited when I caught the Montana fish because it was my first bull. When I caught the Washington fish I was excited because it was either my second bull trout, or my first Dolly. They sure looked the same to me. All I know for certain is that I’m looking forward to the day when I have caught 6 of each: Then I can say I’ve caught six of one – half a dozen of the other.

Clear as  mud?  Just when I thought I was beginning to grasp the difference and was ready to publish my findings, a discussion on an internet fly fishing forum arose about this very topic. I thought the timing was ironic since I had long before started my research for this blog post – so much for my career as a cutting-edge journalist.  The discussion I am referring to only served to further cloud the waters surrounding the matter of the bull trout/Dolly Varden debacle. I learned from this particular forum that the Dolly Varden of Washington (the state – not DC – just to avoid any confusion) are found only in the headwaters of a few mountain streams in the Olympic and Cascade mountains, usually above permanent barriers to the migration of anadromous fish species, and that these fish usually don’t achieve any significant size. Usually, just to be very clear. Another participant in this discussion stated that they had caught several Dolly Varden over 20 inches. In my unaccomplished opinion, 20 inches is not insignificant.This discussion also revealed that the large, anadromous char found in Washington rivers tributary to Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean are bull trout (S. confluentus). This same discussion included one participant who actually called the head of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and was told the following: “The fish in the Sauk and Skagit are bull trout. The only true Dolly Varden that are in the state are in small isolated areas and can not be legally fished for…”  If you recall a few paragraphs above here I listed information found on the website of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife that is contradictory to what the head of Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife said about bull trout/Dolly Varden.  Suffice it to say I am now officially confused, as I am sure you are as well. And for good reason, because even the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife can’t seem to agree on a clear difference in regional distribution between the two fish.  So apparently, if one believes what one reads, I may have caught two bull trout and not a single Dolly Varden.  Goll durnit – just when I thought I’d done something interesting and noteworthy! Oh well, it’s more fitting this way, what with me being The Unaccomplished Angler and all.

Bull Trout caught on Rock Creek, MT

Bull Trout caught on Rock Creek, MT

Dolly Varden/Bull Trout caught on the Skykomish River, WA

Dolly Varden/Bull Trout caught on the Skykomish River, WA

In conclusion on the matter of bull trout vs. Dolly Varden, I recommend you disregard everything I’ve written and just go fish.  If you happen to catch something that looks like the fish in these photos, marvel in it’s beauty, handle it gently and release it back into the water quickly: It’s a native char of some sort.

Native Char of some sort.

Rock Creek Native Char of some sort.

Another Native Char of some sort.

Skykomish River Native Char of some sort.