“If I fished only to capture fish, my fishing trips would have ended long ago.”
Since I started fly fishing over twenty years ago, I always wanted to catch a bull trout. I remember hearing stories of big bullies on rivers like the North Fork of the Clearwater, Kelly Creek, or the St. Joe, but never had any strike my dry flies or nymphs when I fished those rivers during law school. I wasn’t much of a streamer fisherman back then so I didn’t use the most effective techniques.
Right after law school, my dad and I drew deer tags in a unit near the Middle Fork of the Boise River. The early season hunt occurred in August and it was sweltering hot. In the afternoon, Dad and I took a break from the heat to fish the beautiful Middle Fork. I caught some nice rainbows on nymphs and saw some huge trout sulking in the depths of the clear river, which I assume were bull trout, but couldn’t get them to chase my flies.
During the summer of 2003, I moved to Idaho Falls. There aren’t any bull trout in the rivers and streams around home, so my goal would have to wait.
My friend, Chris Hunt, has written three books on fly fishing, which I really enjoyed. In two of his books, he tells about a small, remote river in central Idaho that holds bull trout that you can catch on dry flies (if you want to know the name of that river, you’ll have to buy Chris’ books). In one of his books, Chris mentions that his son, Cameron, caught a 17 inch bully on a grasshopper pattern. I don’t always remember everything that I read, but Chris’ descriptions of this river stuck with me over the years and I always wanted to experience this intriguing place. I have followed Chris’s hints and suggestions many times and have never been disappointed.
In the past, I fished the lower reaches of this particular river in Idaho a few times, but never touched a bull trout in the desert valley. A friend and I tried to make it up to the headwaters over Memorial Day Weekend in 2015, but were turned back by black clouds and a pounding rainstorm. On this failed trip, we realized that it’s a dang long drive to get to the stream’s remote headwaters.
On Saturday, July 16th, 2016, the day before my birthday, I told my wife, “All I want for my birthday is to catch a bull trout on tenkara.” Fortunately, my wife conceded and I set out early Saturday morning with my Brittany, Misty. As I remembered, it was a long drive up the remote desert valley before I made it to the mouth of the canyon from whence the river flowed.
As soon as the car turned up the canyon, the scenery instantly changed for the better. In fact, the surrounding mountains took on a red tint like the Sangre De Cristos of Colorado, but not so high in elevation. One of my favorite cutthroat streams flows from the rugged peaks of the Sangre De Cristos, so the resemblance instantly endeared the area to me.
About fifteen miles up the river, we came to a campground situated at the confluence of two creeks, each with roads following their courses. I stayed to the right and followed the road up the main fork. I had no idea where to go, so I parked at the next turnoff, pulled out my Tenkara USA Rhodo, tied on a Renegade, and let out Misty of her kennel. Her company would be appreciated in this primitive landscape. I planned to wet wade in sandals, but the air temperature felt cold for July.
I hiked through the thick old growth pine forest to the river and tentatively stepped inside. The frigid water numbed my skin to the touch. I gritted my teeth and waded forward looking for a likely place to present my fly. I soon found a decent run spotlighted by the sunlight piercing though the forest canopy overhead and cast the fly. Sure enough a decent sized fish slurped in the Renegade. I set the hook and quickly brought the thirteen inch trout to hand. To my delight, a beautiful bull trout lay before me looking much like a brook trout, but more aqua green with pink spots. With little fanfare, I had finally achieved a lifetime goal.
I caught a few more bulls along this shady stretch choked with deadfall, but soon grew too cold. So I decided to try to find a stretch of river with more sunlight. Surprisingly, along the creek, grew a gorgeous wild flower that I have only personally seen along Can’t Tell Ya Creek in the Sangre De Cristos named the “Purple Monkey Flower (Mimulus Lewissi).” The allure of this creek for me grew by the second.
After Misty and I made it back to the car, I drove up the road to where it ended. While there were still pine trees around, they were not so thick to block the sunlight from the creek. In fact, the sun shined so brightly, it irradiated the golden-orange stream bottom surrounded by striking green riparian foliage. I thought to myself: This looks like the photos in Chris’ book. This has to be the right place!
Misty and I hiked upstream and fished every likely looking spot. I assumed that the higher I went, the better the fishing would be. However, the further upstream I ventured, the narrower and more choked the creek became and the tougher going. As I tried to maneuver through one tight spot, sharp deadfall shredded my bare shins, which bled profusely. After a few more similar impassible spots, Misty and I retreated downstream and I fished a few holes along the way.
As I fished, I sensed that something was watching me, and looked up to see a coyote about fifteen feet away. Worried that he was not alone, I commanded Misty, “Heel!” When the coyote heard my voice, he beat feet out of there. The coyote had either smelled Misty or the blood from my bleeding shins and curiosity got the best of him. I was so glad it was not a wolf or a mountain lion, but still felt a little unnerved that a wild animal was stalking me.
Ironically, I later found the best fishing near where I parked. In this area, the creek is wider and more open and I found plenty of trout in every likely place. The creeks flows are so clear that you can see most every fish before you cast to them. In his books, my friend Chris mentioned that the river holds rainbows too, but I only caught bull trout that day. I found that—like cutthroat—these bullies loved the skittered Renegade and chased whenever the fly moved contrary to the current’s flow. Tenkara was perfect for this technique. No, we didn’t catch any monsters, but that’s beside the point. This outing was all about the adventure.
When it came time to go, I hated to leave. I totally fell in love with this remote creek and its bull trout. In fact, I loved it so much, that I went back the following Saturday for another chance at those beautiful bullies and had a wonderful afternoon. Someday, I would like to explore rivers in Idaho where bulls grow large and primarily eat other fish, but for my first encounter with them on this little river, I’m already an admirer of bull trout.