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British Columbia’s Elk River Bull Trout


The Elk River originates close to the Continental Divide in southern B.C. and flows west, the place it will definitely joins with the Columbia. Close to the cities of Fernie and Sparwood, this cutthroat trout stream is called a dry-fly paradise, however there are additionally monster bull trout lurking in its clear, inexperienced waters. (Jeremy Koreski picture)


To get a better underwater take a look at these higher echelon predators, click on right here to see the 6-minute companion movie Bull Trout Bastion. The movie, with writer Hilary Hutcheson and information Paul Samycia, exhibits what it’s prefer to spend a couple of days in a watershed the place Western native species are holding sturdy.


This text was initially titled “Bull Trout Bastion” within the June-July 2020 concern of Fly Fisherman journal.

Driving dwelling from a Canadian bull trout journey final fall, I ended at a roadside flea market, the place I noticed (and practically bought) a fridge magnet that mentioned, “Mirror, Mirror On The Wall, I Am My Mom After All.”  The joke, meant to power middle-aged youngsters to concede existence as nature and/or nurture reflections of their mother and father, struck near dwelling. Solely lately have I ended combating the belief that my hooting giggle and stubbornness are my mom’s.

The magnet jogged my memory of Elk River Guiding Firm head information Darcy Richardson’s declaration simply the day before today that if a bull trout seemed within the mirror, it might see Mom Nature peering again.

“Bull trout are an actual reflection of their surroundings,” Darcy had instructed me over beers on the fly store’s again porch. “Like the attractive locations the place they stay, they’re extraordinarily sturdy and resilient, however susceptible and delicate on the identical time.”



Fly Fishing British Columbia's Elk River for Bull Trout
Whereas bull trout will take dry flies within the spring when the hatches are heavy, their favored meals objects are juvenile whitefish, cutthroat, and (seasonally) kokanee salmon. Search for bull trout in deep holes and close to logjams and different construction the place they’ll ambush their prey. (Jeremy Koreski picture)

Eric Taylor, Ph.D., professor of zoology on the College of British Columbia, agrees, saying, “I can by no means separate them from the place they happen. They mirror the magnificence of Western watersheds.”

Whereas their distribution is traditionally broad in North America, immediately 80 % of the world’s bull trout are present in western Canada. This, scientists say, is the place they discover the 4Cs: Chilly, Clear water, with Related and Complicated underwater habitat.

A major instance of that is the mountainous, lush, dramatic Elk River watershed within the southeastern Kootenay district of British Columbia. The Elk and its tributaries originate close to the Continental Divide and drain a closely forested area till its waters in the end be part of the Columbia River headed towards the Pacific Ocean.

Whereas the watershed is arguably greatest recognized for its world-class native westslope cutthroat trout fishing, it’s additionally a magnet for streamer-huckers seeking to hook into the big-headed beast of B.C., a salmonid and tip-of-the-spear predator discovered on the tops of angler bucket lists worldwide.



Bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) are technically not trout in any respect, however char. The frequent title is a nod to its large head and jaws. Distinct from the Dolly Varden, a separate however related char species, bull trout have been thriving of their once-glaciated surroundings for hundreds of years. They’ve been recognized to stay for as much as 20 years, and migratory populations typically journey greater than 100 miles within the fall to spawn in small, chilly streams. They’re recognized by a light-weight dorsal fin freed from markings, fins with white edges, and yellow, orange, or salmon-colored spots on their backs.

“There are various distinct populations of bull trout,” says Taylor. “And sure populations face threats that others don’t. We have now the Species at Danger Act, much like the Endangered Species Act that protects the bull trout in america. Varied Canadian populations are given protections based mostly on our research of their developments in inhabitants sizes and threats to their inhabitants.”

The bull trout of the Elk River system are a part of the Pacific assemblage of populations, presently listed as “not in danger.”

For anglers, this implies it’s authorized to fish for them in accordance with provincial laws, together with the usage of single-hook barbless flies.

Working of the Bulls

Whereas the Pacific inhabitants of bull trout close to Fernie, British Columbia will chase stripped streamers all 12 months, they provide a deal with within the spring after they eat floor dry flies. In late fall, after spawning, migratory bull trout in sure zones of the system get their power again earlier than heading to their wintering areas by protein-loading on dying kokanee salmon which have reached the top of their life cycle.

The Elk’s resident bull trout are there all 12 months, however migratory bull trout that winter in Lake Koocanusa make their method up into legally protected streams just like the Wigwam, Michel Creek, and Skookumchuck Creek. In an effort to guard these fisheries, the federal government regulates these labeled waters by requiring permits for each guided and nonguided fly fishing.

Elk River Guiding Firm proprietor Paul Samycia says, “We’ve discovered that many anglers don’t need to mess with having to remain up till midnight when permits go up on the market on the federal government web site on March 1, in order that they e book with us. Every clothing store will get a restricted variety of rod days. We aren’t allotted very many, so we normally promote out by the top of January.”

Fly Fishing British Columbia's Elk River for Bull Trout
Throughout a lot of the Decrease 48 bull trout have been extirpated or are at historic lows. In southern B.C., nevertheless, the Pacific inhabitants of bull trout is wholesome, and visiting fly fishers have a possibility to hook “lifetime fish” every day. (Jeremy Koreski picture)

B.C.-bound fly fishers ought to get organized effectively earlier than the season, since understanding the place and the way to fish the assorted, dynamic waters could be daunting. For instance, in the event you hope to e book a walk-wade journey in June with the objective of catching your bucket-list bull within the Wigwam, you’re out of luck. “The river opens June 15, however the fish received’t be up there till July as a result of they’re migratory,” says Samycia. Understanding the terrain can also be key to success right here. Because the rugged, catch-and-release-only Wigwam is restricted to wade anglers solely, a hearty hike is so as.

On earlier Elk River outings, I skilled one thing guides verify is a pure prevalence on the Elk system—species tunnel imaginative and prescient. I turned so enthralled with catching a private greatest bull trout that I all however forgot that I used to be drifting my fly previous my all-time favourite fish species, the native westslope cutthroat trout.

“However I perceive how that occurs,” says Samycia. “In the event you actually need to do effectively with bull trout, you’re going to must focus and put your time in. It’s a must to work for it. In the event you get tempted to place that streamer rod down and fish dry flies for cutthroat, you might be closing the window in your alternative for a once-in-a-lifetime beast.”

This time round, Samycia had a scope-broadening resolution. He deliberate a day of walk-wade, precision dry-fly fishing for rising cutthroat close to Fernie, adopted by a full-day float targeted on bull trout.

On the primary afternoon, the late day solar performed Midas with the mellow waves and flushed its wealthy gentle via the Tiffany wings of mayflies touchdown on our hat payments. Native westslope cutthroat bellied as much as the gravel bar’s delicate drop-off, 3 ft from the water’s edge. As we labored slowly alongside the rocky financial institution upriver, some fish confronted the identical path sipping ants, whereas others turned aggressively downstream to chase minnows, and nonetheless others went tail-up to lip nymphs from practically each stage of the water column. True to the autumn season, we discovered probably the most success with terrestrials, and had enjoyable experimenting with tiny, green-colored flying ants. It was good to reaffirm why cutthroat are my favourite fish.

Fly Fishing British Columbia's Elk River for Bull Trout
British Columbia’s Elk River drainage is well-known for its world-class native westslope cutthroat trout fishing, however can also be a preferred bull trout fishery. (Jeremy Koreski picture)

The following day we set out early, rafts outfitted with 8-weight rods, floating traces with lengthy, 15-pound-test leaders, and white Dolly Llama streamers with single, debarbed, dimension 2 hooks. We additionally anticipated discovering a zone laden with tapped-out kokanee salmon, so we had a rod rigged with a 5-inch-long orange and yellow kokanee sample.

Samycia began with the kokanee sample, and it paid off shortly. Earlier than lunchtime, he had our fish of the day bullying him via a midriver trough. The 30-inch monster didn’t run into the backing or bounce, however challenged Samycia with a beast-to-beast tug-of-war. “This man might bust a gap to China with that head,” mentioned Samycia, letting the fish take a couple of inches of line earlier than reeling in a couple of ft, a retrieval dance he repeated till information Dylan Forster, who had waded as much as his wader rim, scooped it into the too-small web.

“I wanted to maintain gaining on that bull as a result of if he obtained an excessive amount of management it might have taken longer to get him in and I don’t need him to make use of a lot power since this man is getting fats for winter and has a date with the kokanee buffet.” Whereas nobody might deny the bull trout’s colossal head and kype, the tail stole the present. Simply the most important paddle I’ve seen on a char, the practically clear tail was dotted with silvery-white spots and peach-colored alongside the sting. It spanned wider than my splayed hand. It took simply two highly effective tail slaps to propel the creature again towards its place on the desk.

Fly Fishing British Columbia's Elk River for Bull Trout
“Bull trout are an actual reflection of their surroundings,” information Darcy Richardsonhad instructed me . “Like the attractive locations the place they stay, they’re extraordinarily sturdy and resilient, however susceptible and delicate on the identical time.” (Jeremy Koreski picture)

Within the afternoon, we labored smaller streamers alongside the rugged outer banks alongside a heavy forest, liberal with shelter for predatory fish. Even at depth, the gleaming white Dolly Llama sample stood out within the clear water, sliding (not darting) via trenches and alongside submerged logs and rocks the place our focused species lay. Every time that the ploy labored, I might see the bull’s big head lead its physique in a gradual, lateral shift earlier than propelling right into a come-at-me-bro assault on the streamer.

Throughout one retrieve, nevertheless, I had the streamer so low in a trench that I couldn’t see the white rabbit. When the sample obtained smacked by a Mack truck, the truck didn’t cease. It pulled, steadily and exhausting. The fish didn’t appear to care that it had been hooked, however, to me, he appeared fairly conscious of his predicament, since he turned on his tail and bull-lined it 75 ft towards a logjam downstream. The logjam screamed sure distress, and I wouldn’t let my thoughts think about the fish and all my fly line making a dreamcatcher within the submerged strainer of limbs and forest particles that had gathered within the late spring throughout runoff.

Superguide Forster expertly moved the oars to backrow up an eddy so we wouldn’t float nearer to the logjam. We each obtained out of the raft, and as I waded to regulate the combating angle, Forster ran towards the logjam and used his web to spook the fish away from wooden. Because the bull trout modified its course, it got here at me like a blitzing defensive finish, and I needed to change from the reel to a hand strip to get the road in quick sufficient to maintain up with the strain. With the fish now only a few ft from me, it went head down once more, beginning a traditional tug competitors. However Forster was prepared with a scoop as quickly as I used to be in a position to coax the fish’s head up. Afterward, one other large paddle strike despatched the bull trout again to the depths.

Indicator Species

Scientists say bull trout are an indicator species for common ecosystem well being, and are significantly susceptible to human-induced habitat modifications.

“That’s why individuals who fish are so fearful in regards to the will increase in selenium and nitrate contamination within the watershed,” says Richardson.

Anglers who float the Elk close to the city of Sparwood will see a riverside coal mine, certainly one of Teck Coal’s 4 coal mines working within the area. Whereas the view could be jarring, coal mining has been integral to native livelihoods because the Nineties. Artifacts recognizing the world’s prospecting historical past are scattered round Sparwood and Fernie. As we speak, the operations make use of roughly 4,000 individuals and ship greater than 26 million tonnes of coal, largely to metal crops in Asia.

However lately, disquiet is rising on behalf of fly fishers in addition to scientists, lawmakers, and environmental teams in Canada and america, as rainwater washes via massive piles of mining waste, sending poisonous ranges of selenium and nitrate into the watershed.

“We don’t need to be all doom and gloom,” says Richardson, “And we all know how necessary extraction has been right here. However despite the fact that we could really feel just like the ecosystem is wholesome, we see sure modifications like elevated algal blooms. Then we hear that the contaminants within the river and in Lake Koocanusa are going up, and so they had been already method larger than they need to be.”

River air pollution might proceed for hundreds of years if present developments proceed, says Lars Sander-Inexperienced, science and communications analyst for Wildsight, an environmental group in southeastern British Columbia. “Selenium poisoning may cause reproductive failures for fish,” says Sander-Inexperienced. “And there’s no long-term plan to cease it. British Columbia doesn’t have a strong program to ensure mines pay for correct cleanup. Robust federal laws might make a serious distinction, and strain from individuals who care about this place might be the important thing.”

Teck Sources in March 2020 reported dramatic declines in cutthroat populations within the Fording River—an Elk River tributary that passes via a mine web site—however says it’s attempting to stabilize and reverse the pattern of poisonous substances within the the watershed.

Teck spokesman Doug Brown says the corporate plans to spend greater than $1 billion by 2024 to scrub up its effluent, and has already repaired and recommissioned a remedy plant now operational at their West Line Creek mine web site. Two new crops will probably be working by the top of the 12 months, he mentioned.

Sander-Inexperienced isn’t satisfied. “Even with the short-term remedy crops, what occurs when Teck decides it’s executed mining? There’s sufficient waste to affect the river for a thousand years or longer, and the corporate received’t be operating remedy amenities that lengthy. Fishermen want to talk up in favor of an actual long-term plan.”

With threats to the river in thoughts, if bull trout are certainly a mirrored image of their surroundings, the picture inside the mirror turns into much less clear, just like the topsy-turvy Lewis Carroll novel Via the Wanting-Glass wherein nothing is appropriately.  The menace has the potential to encourage anglers to look past the information of their 8-weights and take into account the complete weight of human affect on a fishery that’s thrived all through historical past.

Most days, Darcy Richardson’s ardour for the Elk River Valley is mirrored in his shoppers’ expertise on the water. “It’s simply enjoyable to look at individuals catch fish,” says Richardson. “After they hook right into a fish and I see their response, it’s like trying in a mirror as a result of I do know I’m simply as excited.”

Bullish Sort out

For bull trout, Elk River Guiding Firm recommends 9-foot, 8-weight rods with floating traces and 12-foot leaders. The trick is to get the fly down low, in entrance of the upstream-facing fish. Heavy sinking traces are counterproductive as a result of you must strip them too shortly to keep away from getting snagged, which doesn’t give the fly sufficient time in entrance of the fish’s face. The best flies are white streamers like dimension 2 Dolly Llamas. All flies should have a single, barbless hook, so in the event you’d prefer to fish an articulated streamer, you should first clip off the ahead or rear hook and clamp down the barb. Utilizing two flies at one time shouldn’t be permitted in B.C.



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