I’ve never seen a bull trout. I don’t think. Maybe once, in a headwater tributary on Montana’s western slope, I caught a little gray eight incher. But it could’ve just been a washed-out brookie. Or a hybrid.
If trout are synonymous with the west, bull trout are synonymous with western wilderness. More than rainbows or cutthroat, certainly more than brookies and browns or tailwaters or center pivots or dude ranches or five star resorts, bull trout require the most ecologically intact landscapes we have left. Like wolves, like grizzlies, they’re apex predators that need space to survive. The coldest, cleanest water. The biggest, oldest, most intact forests we have left.
Unlike wolves or grizzlies, bull trout don’t have much of a constituency. Actively purged through most of the 20th century and largely ignored from the rest, no one much knew or cared about their range-wide population declines until federal listing in the late 90’s. Even still, bull trout are viewed as an impediment to timber, mining, grazing, and other extractive industries.
Anglers contributed to their decline, tossing them on banks or turning tails in for bounty in attempts to reduce predation on more desirable trout species. Things are changing, and the #zerotohero subculture that lauds swinging meat for big, predatory fish has adopted the bull trout as a poster child. Driven by likes and clicks, there’s a whole cottage industry of social media influencers targeting bull trout, a species which through most of its US range isn’t managed as a sport fish.
For most populations, we don’t know how many fish are in the system. We don’t know what the population structure is, how many adult spawning fish there are, or how many spawning fish are needed to create the next generation. We don’t know how far they’re moving, we don’t know what survival looks like, and we don’t know what impact recreational fishing- even C&R- has. Especially big, adult fish are moving from large rivers and lakes to spawning streams, where they’re most vulnerable. Especially when most angling pressure (as determined by social media activity) appears to be August through November. Spawning season. Any assumption recreational angling is having no impact is just that. A guess.
I’m worried about bull trout. I’m not the only one. A couple groups recently sued the US Fish and Wildlife Service over their draft Bull Trout Recovery Plan. The document apparently doesn’t include measurable benchmarks, permits losing 25% of populations to climate change, and is designed to fast-track delisting instead of thoughtfully ensure the species’ persistence.
Bull trout need more advocates. The right kind of advocates.