As we were preparing plans for our first fishing DVD, we got word from the producers of the “American Outdoorsman” television program that they were interested in doing an episode with us on bull trout at Lake Billy Chinook. Mark, my partner, had contacted them earlier and they finally decided that they wanted to do it. What a sweet gig, filming a T.V. program for three days and then filming our own DVD project for the remainder of the week.
The scenario was as good as it gets. Jim Cyr from Cove Palisades Marina would put up one of their 60-foot houseboats as our base camp at the east end of Chinook Island. These $350K houseboats are pure decadence with every known amenity you could think of.
We just happened to be anchored within 200 yards of the premier trolling alley for bull trout on the lake. It was the first week of April and things were just starting to heat up on the bull trout bite. As luck would have it, we had located some good schools of kokanee and bulls. The stars were lining up!
It turned out to be a week of fishing that I will never forget! Not only did we get into some big bulls and enough good footage for the T. V. program, but our DVD exceeded our expectations.
The bite this year was a little different from years past. The heavier concentrations of bulls seemed to be from Box Canyon up the Metolius Arm toward Perry South Campground to the west. We were working the bulls at depths of 50-70 feet in water from 120-170 feet with downriggers and pulling herring, which was a first for me. Herring have been deadly bait for bulls at the lake and locals have relied on them for years. I had always been able to do extremely well with lures since I first started fishing LBC back in 1995. This year proved to be an exception, at least during March and early April. We had tried several tactics with lures and plugs with limited success. I had one of my “fish head” flashes and decided to try pulling a Shasta Tackle 9” Slingblade trailing a Pro-Troll Roto-Chip harness with a herring in the saddle. This turned out to be the ticket. Not only did we catch bulls when they were ignoring the plugs that usually worked, but we also caught some nice ones. If my memory serves me right, we caught and released at least six bull trout over 10 LB. up to the 13.5 LB. big fish of the week. Those are good numbers of big trout, wherever you are fishing.
That brings me to another point. Bull trout, or Salvelinus Confluentus, using their scientific name, are actually char and only cousins to the trout. They were originally called Dolly Vardens until 1979 when their genetic difference was discovered and the bull trout became a different species. The char family includes several fish that we erroneously call trout, but are not. These include brook trout, lake trout and the bull trout.
During the early part of our shoot, we filmed a segment with Don Ratliff, the PGE Biologist. Mark, Don and I had just completed a run along the shore just north of Chinook Island. As we were getting ready to make a move, Steve Kelly, good friend and co-star of the DVD, came charging up in his Smokercraft. As he slowed to approach us, I told Don and Mark that the smile on his face could only mean one thing; he had stuck a big fish. Sure enough, when he lifted the lid of his live well, Don and I both thought the massive female was bigger than she actually weighed. At 12.5 LB. and probably short of 30 in., she was a beautiful, fat specimen.
Mark, my partner and producer of the project was dying to fish and get a break from filming all day. Good Ol’ Steve was more than willing to oblige him. On the first few evenings, after we got in from shooting, Steve and Mark would head back out to make a couple of runs through prime bull trout waters right before dark. They were flat lining plugs like Lyman and A/C’s. It really paid off! Since I was too tired from a full day of filming and fishing, I thought I would let those two bond over some big bull trout.
Mark came in one evening beaming from ear to ear. He had caught his first big bull over 10 LB. and in fact, they stuck several 6 to 10 LB bulls. These fish are fun to catch while dragging plugs on light tackle. Often the rods will go over hard from the strike, followed by a screaming drag, the sound that delights every angler’s ear. They will usually put up a dogged fight right at the boat and are difficult to land even when you think you have them whipped.
These bull trout are girthy fish and will often weigh more than you think. These fish are so voracious, that their headshakes will sometimes release kokanee fillets out through their gill covers before you get them in the net. Another interesting sight we have witnessed numerous times are kokanee tails sticking out of the bull trout gullets as we are getting ready to release them. You can literally take your pliers and pull a whole kokanee right out of their stomach. We have seen this amazing sight many times over the years! During the filming of the T.V. program, we filmed a 10 in. kokanee we retrieved from a 20 in. fish. I wondered where he was going to put that 7 in. herring he bit, with the kokanee tail sticking out of his mouth.
If you would be interested in purchasing our DVD titled “Monster Bull Trout”, we welcome you to visit our website at Trophytroutguide.com. This is our first in the Monster Trout series. It features over 40 minutes of non-stop action on big bull trout. I guarantee you will enjoy it! If you would rather sample some of this action first hand, please contact me for a guided trip on Lake Billy Chinook. The website has all the information you need to know. On the other hand, if you like, feel free to contact me by phone at (541) 480-1570.
Big Bull Trout
As I was preparing for this article, I got a wild hair and decided to contact the two previous State record holders to get their stories. Actually, Todd Reid had contacted me about buying one of our TTG (Trophy Trout Guide) hats after seeing our DVD. I invited him to the house and as we conversed, he asked if I knew that, his Dad, Bill Reid, had caught the first recognized State record bull back in 1988.
Unfortunately, we could not come up with any good photos of the fish for the article, though I did see a photo of the mount. It is quite a story that I think you will enjoy. Bill caught the 20 LB. 7 oz. hen on March 19, 1988. At 32 in. long with a 23 in. girth, she was a pig!
He and Todd were working the shoreline casting and retrieving, as they usually did, when the big hen hit. They were using deep diving plugs that ran at the 20-foot range in a black/silver pattern that represents kokanee, their main forage. Bill was using a 6-foot spinning rod loaded with 10 LB. line. Because of the lighter line and the weight of the fish, it took at least 30 minutes for the father/ son team to get the fish up to the net. Todd said, “As soon as she hit the deck, the lure popped out.” Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good! The Reids had been fishing for bulls at LBC for 6-7 years before the record bull hit that day. Bill does not fish much anymore but Todd still likes to chase big lakers and bulls when he has the time.
Ironically, Don Yow was also fishing with his son, when they ran into the current State record bull back in 1989. It was a cold and blustery day back on March 25, 1989. Don and his boy also liked employing the casting drill as they worked along the shorelines looking for bulls pushing the kokanee into the air ahead of their gaping jaws. Don would only use the Rapala Fat Rap and did so well, that he would not think of using anything else.
As Don tells the story, they were working one of their favorite areas when his son had a hit but did not hook-up. Don followed up with his cast right about in the same spot. Wham! He had a good take but the fish missed it again. Don believes that his next cast, that stuck the big bull this time, was the same fish they missed the previous two casts. As they drifted away from shore toward deeper water, they knew this fish was a monster. After 40 minutes, the hen was finally tired enough to net. She weighed a whopping 23 LB. 2 oz. on a certified scale and taped out at over 32 in. long. Don later applied for and still holds the 12 LB. line class I.G.F.A. World Record for bull trout. This is truly a “fish of a lifetime,” that neither of them will ever forget!
Big Changes Ahead
Most of the public are not aware of the new Selective Water Withdrawal Facility that will replace the old one by 2009. This state of the art, $70 million tower that will sit in the fore bay a few hundred yards from the dam, will have two main functions.
First, it will allow the withdrawal of surface water for power generation. The screening of this water will capture and safely segregate downstream migrant resident fish including bull trout, anadromous steelhead, Chinook and sockeye smolts.
Computer modeling studies have shown that surface water withdrawal sets up a current pattern in the lower part of the reservoir that downstream-migrant salmonids can key on, and this should help solve the main downstream-passage problem encountered with the first passage attempt in the 1960’s. The captured smolts will be sorted, marked, and trucked to the lower Deschutes River to continue their migration to the Pacific Ocean. Returning adult salmon and steelhead bearing the mark they received on the way out will be trucked from the Pelton Fish trap to Lake Billy Chinook where the released fish will migrate upstream into the Metolius, middle Deschutes, and Crooked Rivers.
The second function of the new facility will be to manage water temperatures in the lower Deschutes River to a more optimal temperature range like the river had before the dams. With the present situation (large reservoir, deep intake), the temperature cycle of the lower Deschutes River is delayed about two months with cooler spring and warmer fall temperatures, than before construction in the 1960’s. With the new facility start-up sometime in 2009, surface water is going to be withdrawn from fall through June. Through the summer, an increasing percentage of deep cooler water will be metered out to keep the summer and fall temperatures in the lower Deschutes River cool. After the reservoir cools off in October, withdrawal will go back to 100% surface water. As a bonus, the surface water will contain a higher amount of ready food in the form of zooplankton that will be immediately available to support insect and juvenile fish production in the lower Deschutes River.
Current State of the Fisheries
I had a chance to sit down with some of the agencies involved in the management of the fisheries at Lake Billy Chinook. They all seem to be in consensus that there are some problems, but they do not agree about how to handle them.
When I was interviewing Don Ratliff, senior PGE Biologist at the lake, he made the statement that in his opinion, the total annual mortality of kokanee in the lake was simply too high. The recent hydro-acoustic survey placed the current adult stocks of kokanee at approximately 178,000 for the reservoir. Don went on to say, “If the present trend continues, both kokanee and bull trout populations may collapse.”
There are three main causes for the mortality. First, some kokanee leave the reservoir through the present deep, un-screened intake at Round Butte Dam, especially during high flow periods. As an interim measure to protect kokanee, PGE and the Warm Springs Power Enterprises have installed strobe light deterrents to reduce this loss. These lights have been effective in reducing kokanee losses at Dworshak Dam in Idaho. The new withdrawal facility will include total screening to alleviate this problem. The passage program calls for the licensees to capture and transport yearling kokanee to the Lower Deschutes starting in 2009 to attempt to initiate an anadromous sockeye salmon run up the Deschutes River (kokanee and sockeye are different life histories of the same species.) However, if implemented on schedule, the fish passage program could add to the loss of kokanee from the reservoir. The licensee proposed a 2-year delay in the downstream passage of kokanee to allow their numbers to recover. However, to date, the State, Tribal, and Federal fisheries agencies have declined this proposal.
The second main cause of kokanee mortality is the sport fishery. State and Tribal fish managers have maintained a bonus bag limit of 25 kokanee daily in the reservoir. Historically, angler harvest has been irrelevant. However, at the current depressed population levels, any additional mortality of large kokanee further depresses the population.
The third main source of mortality is predation by the large bull trout population. Their being listed as a threatened species, but with no approved recovery plan, hampers management of bull trout. Numbers are now several times higher than the numerical recovery goal for this population in the draft recovery plan. In a way, we are being penalized for starting early (1980’s) in the bull trout recovery efforts, more than a decade before they were listed as threatened.
Don went on to explain, that in his view, the impact of predation on kokanee could be reduced by changing the harvest from the present allowed take of one trophy fish (larger than 24 inches) to several fish within the targeted slot. If harvest occurred within a size range from 12 -24 inches (2 to 5 year-old bull trout), large numbers of small kokanee could be saved. At the same time, because bull trout live so long, released trophy bull trout larger than 24 inches would tend to accumulate, and utilize the larger 2+ kokanee as forage to grow even larger. If this theory works, more of the smaller kokanee would have a chance to reach spawning size.
One of the hurdles I see is the challenge of educating anglers who primarily fish for bull trout. Will they harvest these slot limit bulls? Most of us bull trout anglers do not harvest bull trout at all. If we are heading into a “Perfect Storm” scenario about the possible collapse of the kokanee and bull trout populations, perhaps we should consider these regulation changes. What do we have to lose? I see two difficulties we would have to overcome for the implementation of these changes. First, there could be some resistance to the kokanee closure or harvest reduction by kokanee anglers and even some of the other managing agencies. Second, would be the hurdles encountered trying to make regulation changes in light of the bull trout’s threatened species status. This upcoming spring fishing season on the lake should tell us a lot. In addition, the kokanee spawning estimates this fall will be a good indication of where the kokanee population stands.