An Unexpected Winter Quarry
Created on Friday, 29 March 2013 11:05
By Wes from Missoula
- It can be a little cold fishing in winter. Cold hands, cold feet, cold ears. But there I was in January, standing on an ice shelf on one of my favorite western Montana streams. I was looking to fish for the nice-sized browns that lie in the cold waters of major tributary streams after the fall spawn. After several unsuccessful casts in a prime location with small nymphs, I tied on a small streamer intended to imitate a small brown trout fry. Brown trout are known to be cannibalistic, embracing the opportunity to feed on an injured juvenile of its own species should it present itself. With this in mind, I cast across the creek from my ice shelf and began retrieval, stripping in fits and starts. After five strips something slammed the fly, torqueing its body in a slow and deliberate manner. After fighting the fish for about 5 seconds and seeing his several flashes of golden brown- indicating a big brown- he dropped the streamer. Pumping with adrenaline, I cast back to the same spot where I had gotten that take. As the streamer swung toward the bank I was standing on, I felt a tug, then it dropped. Then a TUG! I set the hook and instantly I felt the slow and deliberate pulse of good sized fish in cold winter waters. Then it ran. With the drag already at a low setting, the fish pulled into the current and ran for the opposite bank, stripping the line from my reel and hearing the coveted ‘ZZZIIINNNNGGGG” sound of line getting pulled out that I had only heard on the silver screen. Through a cloud of excitement, it dawned on me that I was poorly outfitted for such a fish. Sure, I had a 5 weight rod, but I only had 5x tippet. I knew this fish had the power to snap my line, but I also know that fish in winter generally have slower metabolism, a strategy to save calories during a food-slim season. My rod tip bent over strongly, I braced the base of my rod on the backside of my forearm and kept the drag setting on low. As I brought the fish closer, I began to piece together information through flashes and twists - well-built head, pink dots, white fin edges and a powerful tail. I had not hooked a big brown - I had a mature bull trout on my line. After a gentle fight, I coaxed it to the icy river’s edge. Everytime I got close the fish ran, stripping line from my reel. After several of these efforts, I was able to pull the fish into a calm recess along he edge of the ice.. There it sat, a 22-inch bull trout. He sat calmly fanning his gills as I gripped his body and prepared to retrieve the streamer. Breaching the water's surface, I cued my hemostats and retrieved the fly. After snapping a brief photo, I slipped the fish back into his home waters and motioned it back and forth to ease the transition and allow oxygen uptake. After several “breaths”, I felt his body pulse and he made his way from the icy shallows into the liquid deep. I stood there, my jaw dropped, marveling after meeting this aquatic creature for the first time. My lesson here? Use caution with fishing streamers in western Montana waters that you know hold bull trout. Mature bull trout feed primarily on juvenile fish, making them an easy target for lures and streamers alike. While it is quite a thrill to hook up with one of these unique and predatory fish, we must resist the temptation to “target” bull trout specifically. Fishing for bull trout remains a somewhat legal grey area in Montana. Catching a bull trout is not necessarily illegal, because it can happen by accident, as was the case on this January day. However, “targeting” bull trout is only legal on one stream and two lakes in the state. Still, however, it’s not uncommon to witness guides trying to get clients hooked into trophy bull trout and roadside anglers scouting deep holes for the elusive fish. But beyond the legal concerns are the deep moral questions: Is risking mortality of a threatened fish worth the thrill of hooking one?