By RALPH BARTHOLDT
To catch the smaller fish, strip the streamer across the current.
Bigger bull trout prefer the dead drift.
If there is one thing Evan Darst has learned about the char that inhabit cold streams in North Idaho, he knows they mostly lay low until presented with something that looks like meat.
“We didn’t catch a lot of them (in the past) because we fished with dry flies,” said Darst, a lifelong North Idaho angler.
“Once we started targeting them, they were pretty easy to catch,” he said.
Bull trout, a native char present in a lot of North Idaho’s higher elevation fisheries, is considered a threatened species, but the Idaho Department of Fish and Game calls the big, snaky, native fish an opportunity.
“They’re one of Idaho’s most overlooked trophy fishing opportunities, but many anglers are still confused whether they can target bull trout for catch-and-release fishing,” Roger Phillips of Fish and Game said. The short answer, Phillips said, is yes. Bull trout, which many local anglers refer to as Dolly Varden, dollies, or char, may be targeted by anglers despite their designation under the Endangered Species Act, as long as the fish are promptly released back into the water.
“When bull trout were listed as threatened … in 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined state fishing regulations provided sufficient conservation benefits,” Phillips wrote in an article for Fish and Game.
“In Idaho, that meant bull trout fishing was allowed, but harvest was not.”
Fish and Game fishery manager Rob Ryan said bull trout — a native species that belongs to the char family — do a lot of different things in different places.
They are found in many deep, cold North Idaho lakes and tributaries including the St. Joe and Clearwater river valleys, north to the Pend Oreille and Priest Lake basins.
Although they may be found in the Coeur d’Alene River system, finding bull trout there is a rarity because water temperatures are prohibitive.
“A lot of that is low elevation type stuff,” Ryan said. “Obviously there are some kicking around there.”
Bull trout need water that’s 60 degrees or cooler, and water that’s around 54 degrees is ideal.
One of the reasons anglers get hooked on chasing bulls is the fish’s hard-hitting action, and hearty resistance to the net.
“They’re big. They’re hard fighting,” Phillips said.
On his latest outing to one of his favorite bull trout streams that rolls, spindly and smooth-stoned from high elevations, eventually to the Columbia River — that is often as specific as anglers get when talking of their favorite bull trout haunts — he caught a lot of fish around 20 inches, he said, and two over 25 inches.
His tools of choice: fly rod and streamers.
“Purple ones are good,” he said. “White ones work really well too.”
Casting the streamers across the current and stripping the line — pulling it using quick retrieves — enticed the smaller char he brought to the net.
Casting the streamers — often an ungraceful task — and letting the bar-bell headed lures covered in rabbit fur and feathers tumble in the current seemed to attract the bigger fish.
“A lot of times they are in the deeper holes,” Darst said. “But you find them in odd spots.”
He’s watched anglers drag a streamer across a shallow run, “a few inches deep, that you would think would barely hold a cutthroat, and (they hook) a dolly,” he said.
A bull trout’s strike, he said, is reminiscent of another sought-after freshwater gamefish.
“They hit it really hard, kind of like a pike,” he said.
While they’re not as abundant as other types of trout, according to Fish and Game, Idaho’s bull trout populations are generally in good shape.
The fish are widespread in North Idaho’s rivers, streams and lakes.
Fish and Game urges anglers who hook bull trout to release them shortly after they are netted. Darst abides by the rule.
“As long as you take them off (the hook) as quickly as you can, and keep them in the water,” he said.
The state-record bull trout, a 32-pounder, was caught in 1949 from Lake Pend Oreille when harvest was legal. The current state record for catch-and-release is 23.5 inches, but as Darst can attest, bigger bulls are often caught and not recorded.
Many of them from streams anglers keep close to the vest.