It’s been said that one should never bring a knife to a gun fight, and, being a
reasonably marginally intelligent person, I would never intentionally do that. To be very clear I would never enter into a gun fight in the first place—not a knife fight, either. Nor would I be inclined to arm myself with a 3 weight fly rod with the intent of seeking fish that would be better suited to, say, a 6 weight.
That said, when fishing for westslope cutthroat trout on a particular Idaho panhandle river one knows that, despite being pretty rare, bull trout do inhabit these waters. During the summer months they eat their way up the system before entering small tributaries to spawn in September. But when was the last time anyone caught a bull trout while fishing small dry flies? These predatory char are known meat eaters that likely wouldn’t waste the energy to sip small bugs off the surface unless they were really bored. They’re much more likely to chase down a hooked cutthroat trout that had eaten your dry fly. But that’s not a common occurrence either, despite that I nearly had it happen once (if one were so inclined one could read about that HERE).
In my 4 previous trips to the upper Joe I’d never seen a bull trout—not that I can confirm, anyway. In 2014 Schpanky and I were fishing a couple miles above the St. Joe Lodge, which is itself 5 miles above the trailhead at Spruce Tree campground. We had just come ’round a bend in the river when we saw the shadow of a very large fish moving from beneath a logjam. It slithered, snakelike, and disappeared downstream at a rapid pace before we could get close enough to make an absolutely positive ID. At better than 2 feet in length, it was much bigger than any cutthroat likely to haunt these waters, and I’m confident it was a char. While unconfirmed, that’s the only time I’ve seen a bull trout on this river. But they are there, and they are endangered so targeting them is frowned upon, as is detaining them for questioning. Retaining them is illegal.
The upper Joe is all catch and release for any gamefish in the system and all you’re going to find here are native species: cutthroat, whitefish and, allegedly, bull trout. It’s pristine country, unpolluted by any human activity now or in the past (save for a brief garnet mining stint that proved unproductive and thankfully failed long ago). This is prime, and critical, habitat for the last self-sustaining population of bull trout in the Lake Coeur d’Alene watershed.
When the Firehole Rangers visited the Joe this year we encountered lower than normal river levels. This came as no surprise because every river in the west was low due to a mild winter that produced very little snowpack. But the Joe was still fishing pretty well despite low water: the riffles that typically hold ample cutthroat were devoid of inhabitants but deeper runs and holes still held fish and the fish appeared to be good shape. Overall the size of the fish was smaller this year than in the past but there were larger fish to be found—it just took a bit more work. The river temps were 58° F in the morning, warming to 64° at the heat of the day so it was still within the safe range without unnecessarily putting additional stress on the fish.
The first day of fishing was a bit slow but a handful of cutts were convinced to take dry fly offerings. A size 14 Purple Haze was moderately effective on a few fish, as was a size 16 black foam ant, but around mid-day things slowed considerably as we expected it would because it always does. It was during this mid-day lull that I reached into my bag of streamer tricks and extracted a white conehead Zuddler, size 6. I’ve always like fishing streamers, particularly when fish aren’t rising. It offers hope when hope is all but lost. If there’s a fish in a run that has ignored dries, there’s a decent chance it may not ignore a streamer. And little fish don’t usually chase streamers.
It should be noted that I was fishing my 7’9″ Sage Circa 3 weight. It’s a sweet little stick for throwing dries all day long, and while I may have been better off using my 4 weight rod, this was day one and I wanted to put in some time with the Circa (I fully intended to rig up the 9′ 4 weight on day two). The biggest cutthroat I’d caught on this river previously was 17″ and I knew, that while not ideal, the diminutive rod was capable of handling a a decent sized fish. My capabilities, on the other hand, are always in question. On my Circa I use a furled leader by Cutthroat Leaders, with a couple feet of 4x tippet spliced to another couple feet of 5x. This setup presents small dries nicely but it does not do a very good job of turning over large flies—especially not weighted streamers. While I managed to get the big bug out there it wasn’t pretty. After Jimmy and Morris worked through a particularly run with their diminutive dry flies I came through with the Zuddler and managed to land a chunky 15″ cutt. I would be a happy man if I didn’t catch another fish the rest of the day.
A short time later I came to a nice run with a trough of deep water against a log on the bank. A large rock protruded, breaking the current flow. Had to be a fish there, right? By this time Jimmy had fished well ahead and Morris was behind me. I’m sure Jimmy had fished this spot but he had been employing the dry fly so I approached the hole as if nobody had previously touched it. I put the streamer upstream of the rock and let it swing close. Then I began stripping (you know what I mean). An aggressive fish slammed the streamer but didn’t allow me time to set the hook properly. After an initial run and a couple of violent head shakes I got the fly back. It was a nice fish—felt like it may have been 15″ or better. Oh well, even streamer fishing, with it’s often violent strikes, doesn’t guarantee success. I knew I wouldn’t entice that particularly fish a second time and doubted there was another good fish in that run. Still, I decided to fish through the end of the deep green water (which was only actually about 3 feet deep). Another ugly cast toward the end of the log and the fly slapped down on the water. Swing, strip…strip…BAM!
This time felt different—the fish didn’t run—it just held its ground as if daring me to try to move it. The wee Circa doubled over under the strain of the stubborn fish and I’d have thought I had hooked a submerged log had it not been for the savage head shakes. When the fish began to move it did so at will, though without lightning speed: it felt more like a diesel powered truck than a sports car. All I could do was palm the Sage Click III reel and hope that my 4x-spliced-to-5x would hold up (I had my doubts). The fish made one good run but I was able to turn it before it had peeled too much line from the reel. As I coerced the fish into the shallower water opposite its lair I got a first look: that’s when I noticed fins with white leading edges. Not a cutthroat. I began to think ahead to landing the fish and wasn’t sure how that was going to happen as I had no net. Every year I tell myself I should bring a net to the Joe, and every year I decide that it’s too much crap to carry so I leave the net back at camp. Fortunately Morris was coming down the river toward me so I
hollered squealed like a school girl, “Bull trout!” He quickened his pace. I had managed to get the fish into the shallows just a few feet from where I stood and the fish remained fairly calm, as if it wasn’t particularly impressed by me. All of the bull trout I’ve caught (and there had only been 3 previously) were grayish-silver bodied; this fish was a more of a rusty-orange, and it was considerably bigger than the previous three as well.
Morris held my rod (you know what I mean) while I removed my Nikon AW1 from its case and switched to underwater shooting mode. All I could do was point the camera at the fish, depress the shutter and hope for the best—I had no idea what sort of images I would capture. The big char didn’t take kindly to my attempt at a front angle shot and darted into the faster water, giving Morris a chance to play the fish back into the shallows. After a couple more shots I grabbed my forceps and gently removed the streamer from the fish’s maw. I didn’t want to handle the fish if at all possible, and I sure wasn’t going to reach into it’s mouth with my fingers to remove the hook—its teeth were formidable and would have made short work of my phalangeal flesh.
After a clean hook extraction the big char moved quickly back to the deeper water whence it came. “That was pretty cool,” I may have said to myself and possibly to Morris as well; I don’t know—it was almost dreamlike. Following a high five we discussed the length of the fish. It was mutually agreed that it was likely equal to the distance from the end of the real seat to the stripping guide: (B) 25 inches; or on the conservative side equal to the distance from the end of the reel seat to the first ferrule joint: (A) 23 inches. I’ll agree to split the difference and call it (C) 24 inches.
No matter the size it was a fish of a lifetime and I can now die a happy man with a debt of gratitude owed to Morris for coming along at the right time and holding my rod.