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The Bull Trout of the Athabasca

 

I know the area well. Snow-capped mountains with a ribbon of crystal clear water that carves around a rocky bend and settles into deep emerald green pool. A pool so deep I have never seen the bottom, but I know what lives there. There are always bull trout in this pool. It’s the glory hole, and comes as close as you can get to the guarantee of fish. I’ve made my annual pilgrimage to this one piece of water going on 10 years now, and never, not even once, has it disappointed. I have always caught bull trout here. This pool being on the Athabasca River in Jasper National Park.

On a warm winter day there are few places I would rather be than in the mountains

On a warm winter day there are few places I would rather be than in the mountains

Within Jasper National Park boundaries, parts of the Athabasca River are open year round, and other parts are open through much of the winter, but close seasonally at the end of March. All of the river is home to bull trout and Rocky Mountain whitefish, but it is the bull trout I come for. On a warm day in January, February, or March, I will typically have one of the largest rivers in Alberta all to myself. I walk the river banks and toss lures into the deep spots and prospect for trout. While bull trout are found throughout the river’s length inside the park, come winter they prefer to call the largest deepest pools home.

Sometimes good pools can be a mile or more apart, so there is a lot of walking involved, and because I have learned where a lot of the better pools are, I will car fish them. That is, I’ll park at one spot where I know a few pools are and I’ll fish those. If the fishing is decent, I could be at these pools all day, but if the fishing blanks, then I’ll hike out to my vehicle, travel a few kilometers down or up the road to where I know other pools are and try there.

One of my favourite spoons, the clown pattern, is very effective on bulls.

One of my favourite spoons, the clown pattern, is very effective on bulls.

While bull trout are the top predator in the Athabasca, save for the very rare pike, bull trout are not all out feeding machines come winter. Sometimes it takes changing the hook once or twice to find something they like, and I’ve found that the slower and deeper I can present something, the more bull trout I end up catching. My favourite hook has been the spoon with a single hook on the end and about 3 to 4 inches long. My favourite pattern is the clown pattern, which is white with the some hints of yellow, pink, blue, and purple mixed in. I suspect it kind of resembles the colour pattern of a whitefish, so it gets a little more attention.

That said, a plug is also fantastic at generating bites, but the problem I have with plugs are the number of hooks on them. Bull trout must be released and the typical plug has at minimum two treble hooks, which can cause more damage to fish when they bite. This is why I shy away from plugs even though they are effective. In the last few years I’ve been trying out a new method for me and that’s to roll a whopping big salmon sized streamer fly near bottom. Some people call them bucktails and many of the largest flies are made of polar bear hair. These big fish imitating flies are outstanding at looking like a whitefish and with the aid of some weight, I can slow roll the big streamers right on the bottom and the bullies are quite eager to pick them up. These flies typically have a tandem hook set up, but I find the 2nd hook not necessary, so I remove the trailing hook. I feel I don’t lose anything on my ability to hook up and it makes handling and release of the fish much easier.

While bull trout grow quite large, I’ve rarely hit the big guys in the middle of winter. Whether it’s because I fish the wrong spots, or use the wrong lures, I rarely tag a bull trout bigger than 24 inches. 16 to 24 inchers though, are the norm, so the average size is quite good.

A prime, and typical bullie

A prime, and typical bullie

However, if you are my good friend Leonie, in the last few years she’s managed to tag at least one chunker a season. The last two big fish were both around 30 inches each and about 10 pounds. A number of seasons ago, in the fall I had an absolute beast follow my extra-large size spoon in. I had already caught a couple of 7 to 10 pound fish that day, but this fish was head and shoulders a full size class bigger. He came in and tracked my spoon right to my feet, where he turned and glided back out to the safety of deeper water. He was bigger than 3 feet, easy, and probably pushing 15 pounds. I didn’t get him to bite, but just seeing such an impressive fish keeps me motivated to continue casting, if for nothing more than the chance to hold such a magnificent fish in my hands.

See you again sometime.

See you again sometime.

I go to the mountains each winter because there is solitude. I go the mountains because of its sheer beauty, and I go to the mountains for the chance to breath in the fresh air and cast a line for trout. Trout that are native to the river, and grow to sizes that can inspire the imagination. It’s a pretty special place, which is why on a warm day this February or March, I suspect if you looked hard enough, you will find me there, rod in hand, casting for the jewel that swims beneath.

Just a spectacular place to cast a line!

Just a spectacular place to cast a line!



Previous Fishing Articles

(1) The Observational Trout Fisherman

(2) Un-matching the Hatch

(3) Alberta Super Bugs

(4) Glass is Back

(5) The Bull Trout of the Athabasca

(6) Speed Kills

(7) Entering the Twilight Zone

(8) Old Man River

(9) The Pink Salmon of the Squamish River

(10) Small stream BT fishing

(11) Fly fishing beyond Trout: getting started

(12) In The Walleye Zone

(13) Zoo Trout

(14) Fly Selection for Beginners

(15) Fly Fisher's Christmas

(16) New Waters

(17) Big Bad Burbot

(18) Looking Back

(19) Out of Africa

(20) Finding Success on Crowded Trout Streams

(21) Mountain Peaks, Fast Streams, Fall Colours And Rocky Mountain Whitefish

(22) The Browns of Autumn

(23) Fly-Fishing Pike Through The Seasons

(24) Walleye Town

(25) River Fun - One Bite At A Time

(26) Fly Fishing Larger Rivers

(27) Going With The Flow

(28) Becoming A Better Fly Fisherman

(29) Swinging The Fences

(30) A View From The Aerie

(31) Dixieland Delight

(32) Atlantic Salmon - The Fish of 1000 Casts

(33) Do It Yourself Pink Salmon

(34) Montana's Cool Missouri

(35) Pretty Is As Pretty Does

(36) Toothy Critters

(37) Hard Water Lakers at Cold Lake

(38) Top Ten Flies

(39) Northern Exposure

(40) Home Water Lessons

(41) Chicken Of The Sea

(42) Sealing the Deal – How to Ensure You Land More Fish

(43) Deep In The Heart Of Texas

(44) Keep It Up!

(45) River Fishing for Fall Walleye

(46) After the Flood - A look at Southern Alberta rivers and streams one year after the flood

(47) Reindeer Lake - A Diversity of Opportunity

(48) Hawg Holes

(49) Saltwater Salmon

(50) Early Season Dry Fly Fishing

(51) Down a Lazy River –
A Fly-rodding Adventure on the Lower North Saskatchewan

(52) The Fly Fishing Season Ahead

(53) IN SEARCH OF SPECKLED FOOTBALLS

(54) FISHING CANADA'S PRAIRIE CITIES

(55) Bright Fish from the Land of Silver

(56) Canada's "Other" Salmon

(57) Fall Walleye

(58) Wet Flies

(59) Versatility the Key to Success

(60) Grayling of the Boreal

(61) Teaching Kids To Fly Fish

(62) Size Matters

(63) Fly Fishing Small Streams

(64) Chasing Winter Whites One Lake At A Time

(65) Manitoba's Fishing Jewel

(66) The Twelve Gifts Of Christmas

(67) The Point Of It All

(68) Fishing With Friends-Big Weather Seizing The Day

(69) Fall Fly Fishing

(70) Personal Pontoon Boats 101

(71) Big River, Big Fish

(72) Bottom Bonanza

(73) Fishing Small Flies

(74) So Many Choices, So Little Time

(75) Four Seasons of the Bow

(76) Favourite Lakes - Some Like it Hot

(77) GEARING UP FOR SMALL STREAM TROUT

(78) Trout Hunting - New Zealand-style

(79) Don’t Leave Home Without Them –
10 Lures That Should Be In Everyone’s Tackle Box

(80) Edge Walleye

(81) FLY FISHING STRATEGIES FOR HIGH WATER

(82) Smallmouth Bass – An Oft Overlooked Challenge

(83) Four Corners – Four Waters

(84) Chasing Pothole Trout

(85) Springtime Stoneflies

(86) The Torrents of Spring

(87) Drift Boat Fly Fishing

(88) Bust Them With Bait

(89) Cure the Winter Blues with a Good Book

(90) Hot Strategies for the Cold Months

(91) Cutthroat: The Angler's Trout

(92) Terrestrials

(93) Fly In For Fishing Fun

(94) Rocky Mountain High

(95) Reading the clues

(96) Where the Trout Are
The art of locating feeding trout
in rivers and streams.

(97) K.I.S.S. and Tell Fly-fishin

(98) Fly Fishing 101

(99) To Catch a Big Halibut, or Ling Cod

(100) The Bountiful Bones of Ascension Bay

(101) Grayling in the Eye of the Beholder

(102) Fly Fishing for South Fork Clearwater Steelhead

(103) Manitoba's Red River - North America's Catfish Capital

(104) Eliminating the Spook Factor

(105) Trust Your Electronics

(106) The Most Important Hatch of the Year

(107) Early Season Nymph Fishing for Trout

(108) Finding Success for Ice Trout

(109) Walleye can be Humbling

(110) The Secret to Landing the Big One Finally Revealed

(111) Winter Flyfishing

(112) North Saskatchewan River - An Underutilized Gem

(113) Hot Fall Pike Action

(114) Tips and Tricks to Save the Summer Slow Down

(115) Reading Trout Stream Waters

(116) Frequently Asked Questions

(117) Streamer Fishing for Larger Trout

(118) The Lure of Big Walleye at Last Ice

(119) Deep Water Perch

(120) Post Spawn Brookies

(121) A Fisher's Life

(122) The River's Last Stand

(123) The Big Ones Come out at Night

(124) Coho on the Coast

(125) Chasing and Catching Halibut

(126) Summer in the Mountains

(127) Peak Walleye Season

(128) Slow and Steady Wins the Race

(129) Last Ice Rainbows

(130) The Burbot Event

(131) Tackle Matching

(132) Ice Fishing Strategy #2 - Going Light

(133) Ice Fishing Strategy #1 - Location

(134) The Lure of Brook Trout

(135) The Shallow Water Hunt is On

(136) Hot Backswimmer Action Happening Right Now

(137) Fishing Among Giants-Pursuing Lake Sturgeon on the Prairies

(138) Adventure at Davin Lake Lodge, Northern Saskatchewan

(139) The Vesatile Plug

(140) Bead Head Flies, Plugs and Shot and other Spring Favorites for Pothole Trout

(141) Planning your Upcoming Angling Adventures

(142) Good Fishing at Last Ice

(143) Maximize the Odds - Use Multiple Presentations

(144) Daily Fish Migrations

(145) Fish Migrations - Following the Spawn

(146) Lake Whitefish - An Ice Fishing All Star

(147) Pick Your Favorite Brook Trout Lake...and Go Fishing

(148) A Look Ahead to Great Trout Fishing

(149) Wrestling White Sturgeon on the Fraser

(150) The Fun in Ultra Light

(151) Flyfishing and Leadcore Lines

(152) Embrace the Spirit of Adventure

(153) Never Stop Learning

(154) Ice Fishing is Getting Hot

(155) Jigging through the Ice

(156) An Ice Fishing Unsung Hero – The Setline

(157) Rainbows on Ice

(158) The Season of Ice Begins

(159) Red Hot Fall Pike Action

(160) Hitting it Right with Water Boatman

(161) Facts On Cats

(162) West Coast Adventure

(163) June Walleye Frenzy

(164) Aerated Lakes are Big Trout Factories

(165) "First Fish of the Year - Pothole Rainbows and Browns"

(166) "Northern Exposure"

(167) Sometimes There is More to Fishing Than Catching Fish

(168) Early Season Pike On The Fly

(169) Man Overboard