Jul 1, 2005

Da bulls

     The summer of 2005 was the summer of the North Fork Clearwater for me. There was a period when I went camping up there four weekends within six weeks. Beautiful scenery, gin clear water, and tons of spunky little westslope cutthroat are always common denominators there, but every once in a while a creature with a bad attitude comes out to play. This is the story of my first encounter with that creature.

     I had been anticipating this particular trip for weeks. The weather was right, the spring runoff was done running off, and Justin and I had two full days of fishing ahead. We arrived late Thursday night, set up camp and quickly went to bed.
     I was the first one up and I didn't waste any time wetting my line. We had camped at the mouth of Skull Creek, so that's where I started. There are some nice holes down low on Scull Creek, and it didn't take long until I had caught a couple feisty little cutthroat - who weren't all that much bigger than my castmaster. Hoping for something a little bigger, I worked my way out of the mouth of the creek and into the North Fork proper. The results were as expected; the fish got bigger. After landing three or four trout up to about 15 inches and working my way a hundred yards up the bank from the creek, I noticed Justin make his way down the bank and join the fun.
      I like to try to figure out new ways to present baits and lures more naturally so I began to experiment with different speeds and angles of retrieve for my lure. I felt pretty confident about one trick I figured out: I cast out about 45 degrees across the river downstream, and without reeling, let the current work the action of the lure. This also sent the lure down deeper into the hole. I later found out that swinging a lure or fly like that is a very common technique, but I didn't know that at the time.
     I could feel every little flap of the lure as it worked it's way through the bottom of the hole. About halfway through my third cast while doing this, my lure stopped and instantly got heavy. At first I thought I hooked a rock but I set the hook anyway just in case. Sure enough I felt the head shakes of a fish, but not like the quick short shakes of the small trout I had been catching, these were the long, slow, and dangerous head shakes of a big fish!
     You'd probably think that this is when I would have gotten excited, but it's not. I had hooked what felt like a really big fish there before and reeled it in gingerly, hollering for everybody within earshot to come see the huge trout I was about to catch, only to discover that what I had hooked was a big monster sucker fish.
     So not being one to be duped twice, I of course assumed that I had again tied into another sucker. I tightened my drag and promptly began to horse the fish in. Before long the front end of the fish came into view. I had expected to see a brown puckered sucker mouth, but instead I saw a big gaping white mouth pointed at me and two big wings for pectoral fins with gleaming white leading edges.
     It took me a couple of seconds to process this new information as I hadn't seen anything like it on my line before. When it finally dawned on me what I was looking at, I immediately let up on the drag and yelled at Justin, "HEY I GOT A BULL TOUT"!
      He scrambled across rocks and logs and finally got to me and I handed him my net which now looked comically small. He waded up to his knees, shoes and all, and made valiant efforts to net it but the fish was at least a foot longer than the net. Every time the net touched him he freaked out and shot back out into the river. Finally on about the 8th try everything came together and his head went straight to the bottom of the net and Justin grabbed the tail to keep the monster fish from falling out. We got him!
     We snapped one quick picture and immediately put it back in the water to revive it. I took a moment to admire its vivid emerald green skin, and the surprisingly bold pink spotting on it's flanks before letting it kick out of my hand.
No, I'm not missing a tooth, the picture just smudged that way when I scanned it... really, I'm telling the truth.
I think this was my favorite part; watching the biggest trout of my life swim away to fight another day.
     I could have gone home a happy dude after that but we still had a lot more fishing to do. I made a mental note to buy a bigger net and we fished on.
     We fished near our campsite for most of the morning, then packed up and headed upstream. We caught fish at pretty much every hole we stopped at; cutthroats, a few hybrids, and Justin even landed a beauty of a smallmouth.
     One hole we stopped at had a huge rapid at its head. Of course, being boys we had to go check out the big waves and throw rocks in them and all that fun stuff. Right next to the biggest part of the rapids, we were surprised to find a perfectly cylindrical hollowed out section of rock that looked like the perfect holding spot for a fish. We could see the bottom about 6 or 7 feet down through the calm water in the cylinder even though the white water was just feet away. We both dropped our lures down and began jigging them to see if there was anyone home. I think we both about jumped out of our skins when a shadow, which was at least as big as my bull trout, shot out from the wall of the cliff and grabbed Justin's lure! He set the hook and tried his best to keep the fish in the sliver of slack water. I got down on my belly and tried to stretch down with my tiny net and land his fish. This went on for a very long 5 or 6 seconds, then the big bull made a break for freedom, reached the white water, and broke the line.
     I left Justin for some much needed grieving time and made my way downstream again to fish in the hole some more. Along my way I found myself creeping along a narrow, slanted piece of rock with a thin coating of damp moss on it. This was the last tricky spot before reaching the hole again. I was hemmed in on one side by white water, and on the other by a sheer rock wall, there was no way around it. I crept along, and I had almost made it to the safety of the dry flat rock just past it when I found out just how slick wet moss can be. Time slowed down and my feet were no longer underneath me. I remember thinking, in what must have only been a fraction of a second, that I didn't want to loose my fishing pole if I was going to go swimming. So in a quick maneuver that would have made Keanu Reeves proud, I twisted around and gently tossed my rod up onto the safety of the rock ledge just before I was swallowed up in the white water.
     Don't worry, I managed to haul myself out of the rapid about 30 yards downstream. I retrieved my rod and kept on fishing.

     Though they don't happen often, every encounter I've ever had with bull trout attitude has been memorable. And all but one of these encounters has been on some part of the North Fork. I think that's one reason it's one of my all time favorite rivers.
     Here are some more recent pictures of the North Fork that show a little more of why I like it:
Pretty eh?
I had to shoo away an Italian plumber riding a funny little dinosaur to take this picture....

Brooke embracing her inner hippie and hugging a huge tree on the upper North Fork

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