Bull Trout

Prior to its reclassification in 1980, the bull trout was known as the Dolly Varden. But what else should you know about this fascinating species? Let’s find out.

What is a Bull Trout?

The bull trout, officially known as the Salvelinus Confluentus, is a char of the Salmonidae. While it has only been referred to as its current name for a little over 40 years, the history of the species dates back to at least the late 19th century. It is predominantly native to the northwestern parts of North America, including Alberta and Washington, with its main habitats being cold water rivers, streams, and pools.

Bull trout are usually 24″ to 41″ in length and weigh anywhere between 15 and 32 pounds. Their distinguishable visual features include their olive/grey body with yellow or crimson sports, as well as flash white on the edge of their fins. Perhaps most tellingly, the bull trout has a much larger head than most Salmonidae species while the upper jaw extends beyond the eye.

They are considered a vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List. On average, the cycle from egg incubation to fry emergence is 210 days while bull trout mature after 4 to 7 years and have a lifespan of 12 years.

Some bull trout will stay in the same body of water for their entire lives while others may travel between larger bodies in the winter and smaller streams to reproduce. While born as freshwater fish, some bull trout will also migrate to the seas once they reach maturity. Even then, they can return to freshwater streams to reproduce. The fish that remain in one habitat for life will grow much smaller, though, often staying under 5lbs. 

When spawning, the male bull trout’s belly may turn reddish, although its face will retain the olive color. Bull trout is also a name that was previously given to a type of Salmo trutta in Europe, although the species should not be confused with the North American fish.

Where to Fish for Bull Trout 

Whether in rivers, pools, or streams, bull trout tend to prefer deep waters and often stay on the bed. They are most commonly found in mountainous areas and close to glaciers. They are relatively demanding and commonly gravitate to areas that boast the “four Cs” of Cold, Clean, Complex, and Connected habitats. The temperature should be under 12 degrees C for adult fish and below 18 degrees C for juvenile fish.

Fishermen and fisherwomen in the U.S. and Canada should pay attention to seasons in relation to the aforementioned migration behaviors during the winter and spawning seasons. They are found in Alberta, British Columbia, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Western Montana, and Yukon. Historically, bull trout were also found in California, but they have since become 

The most notable bodies of water to contain resident and migrating bull trout are the Columbia River Basin, Jarbidge River in northern Nevada, and the Klamath Basin in Oregon. In many cases, they are found in the upper tributaries. 

Any fishermen or fisherwomen who wish to fish bull trout in their native habitats throughout the Pacific Northwest will find that they are an aggressive predatory species. Consequently, once located in a body of water, the bull trout is not hard to coax out of hiding. They will chase lures cast after cast, giving anglers a relatively easy time of getting their catch of the day. Given the beauty of the fish, it’ll be worthwhile too.

Even when fishing the creeks, the bull trout is known to choose the largest areas available while staying deep and in colder waters. The winter fishing period lasts from late November to early March with bull trout sticking to slow-moving streams. In the warmer months, they are more likely to swim faster waters too.

Bull Trout Fun Facts

The huge 32lb bull trout was caught at Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho in 1949. Several have come close in weight while the length has been beaten several times with bull trout measuring up to 41”. This still makes them smaller than lake trout, which can reach 50” and 40lbs. Bull trout are fascinating fish, however, and are noted for the fact that they cover some of the longest seasonal migrations of any trout. They often migrate over 100 miles!

Bull appearances can change drastically during maturity. While juveniles of the species are often confused with Brook trout, adults are more akin to Lake trout. The markings on the body and fins can alter significantly during the course of their life while the appearance of a migrating bulls will differ from a resident one, not least due to the contrasts in size. The bull trout has no black markings on the dorsal fin, which is another distinguishing feature.

The eating habits of a bull trout will change with age too, which is particularly noteworthy for anglers. Juveniles eat a diet consisting primarily of insects and plankton but will prey on smaller species of fish as they grow larger. Whitefish, sculpins, and smaller trout species are among the most common food sources. 

Due to vulnerabilities caused by hybridization, as well as the negative impacts on their habitats caused by road building, the bull trout has been a subject of ongoing legal battles regarding conservation in Oregon and other territories for nearly 20 years. With the 2018 lawsuit dismissal being one of the biggest stories.

Bull trout have stunned fishermen and fisherwomen in the past. Back in the 19th century, long before the reclassification, Livingston Stone wrote in detail about the majestic beauty of the fish and its colored spots.

Top Bull Trout Fishing Lures & Tips 

Due to their low numbers (they are safe in just 2% of the waters they inhabit), bull trout are often hard to locate in terms of finding the right body of water. Once you do, though, they are relatively easy to attract as the predatory fish will attack just about every lure imaginable regardless of size and color.

Some examples of popular flies include streamers, egg flies, and fry pattern flies. When fishing for bull trout it is important to use barbless hooks. When landing a bull trout, you should use a net to avoid damage caused by hitting the rocks or bank. When handling the fish, you must avoid touching the gills or squeezing the fish. Cold temperatures will feel extra cold for the fish, which is why you should aim to keep it in the water for as long as possible.

When fishing for bulls, you will want to present the lure in a broadside first technique. Meanwhile, the fact that they are an aggressive fish will means that fast stripping is almost always the right approach. Even as you get closer to your boat or bank, you want to keep the lure moving as to simulate a real fish or insect while simultaneously attracting the trout to the point of engagement,

It should also be noted that their behavior traits will see bulls strike from unsuspecting positions. Therefore, using branches and banks to your full advantage can significantly improve your haul. Using a 7-8wt fly rod and reel setup with fast siling lines should give you the best shot at success. Fishing at a depth of at least 4’6ft will be necessary, even when you are not fishing at the river bed.

Their unique behavior, particularly for large trout, makes them a particularly popular target for experienced anglers and first-time recreational fly fishing fans alike. Crucially, once you find a spot and technique that’s working for the day, stay consistent for long-term success.

Can you eat Bull Trout? 

Bull trout is a game fish that is safe for human consumption. However, it is commonly accepted that the bull trout isn’t the best fish for cooking. While it’s certainly not the worst species you could eat, the Salvelinus Confluentus is considered below average. When combined with the endangered status, many anglers will find that they are best suited to fishing activities for sport.

There are several reasons why this species of trout is commonly deemed worse than average. Their anatomy, particularly the large head and jaw, can lead to small fish and other items being caught stuck in the gullet. Meanwhile, the bull trout’s biology means that there is often a lot of fat that will need to be cut away. This can be stressful and time-consuming while it also means that the amount of edible meat is significantly less than the weight of the caught fish. Likewise, the small non-migrating fish 

Furthermore, bull trout are a very oily fish, which can pose some difficulties when cooking. This is particularly noteworthy when baking or cooking on a grill. Smoking the bull trout can help unlock its rich, game flavors. We find that a honey glaze can complement those natural tastes to perfection.

While bull trout may pose some challenges due to their oil content, they are noticeably less bony than a variety of other trout species. The bull trout has lighter-colored meat than the Dolly Varden. 

With the right preparations, you can eat the bull trout and it partners well with potatoes and various vegetables. Whether you plan to eat the bull trout or not, however, fishing the Pacific Northwest for this aggressive predator can be great fun – especially for anglers seeking a sizeable catch that can put up a fight.