Story & Photos: Bull Trout, Conservation, and the Value of Discretion

It took a long time and a lot of research to catch the first bull trout.
All photos by Daniel Ritz

By Daniel A. Ritz 

Editor’s note: Orvis has joined Trout Unlimited in sponsoring Daniel Ritz’s attempt to complete the Western Native Trout Challenge in a single year. He’ll be checking in regularly from his travels. Watch this space for more.

During the course of our #WesternTroutChallenge series, I’ve spent a lot of time in great fly shops across the West. While I do my best to make it a genuine give-and-take, I have to admit I generally walk away with a lot more than I can offer (generally only a few stickers, cold beer, and good stories). 

Only once during this four-month long project have I been met with genuine resistance. It happened in a renowned fly shop in central Oregon. After introducing myself, I explained I was interested in pursuing and highlighting the famed bull trout population of the nearby Metolius River. 

“The last thing we need is more a**holes here,” the gruff shop manager said. “I’ve been guiding here for twenty-five-plus years, and we’re seeing more people here than ever. People poaching bulls, using treble hooks and all sorts of other bulls***. I was taught to fish here by older generations that have trusted me to take care of this place. When people like you write stuff, it just draws the wrong crowd. I like to let things happen naturally.” 

The Metolius is gorgeous, but didn’t produce the desired results.

I listened quietly to this rant, as the man continued to unravel, talking about anglers not burying their poop and driving trucks into the river. His surprise was obvious when I reacted with empathy instead of defensiveness. 

“I hear you. I appreciate your passion and your sense of stewardship for something that is very obviously important to you,” I said. “Not paying attention to regulations and abusing something is inexcusable.” 

The problem is that people are coming. According to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2021 Special Report on Fishing, a shocking 54.7 million Americans fished at least once during 2020, the highest number recorded since participation tracking began in 2007. The fishing participation rate rose to 18% of the U.S. population, the highest rate in over a decade and a nearly 9% gain versus 2019. Complaining about the onslaught isn’t going to help, but we can make things slightly better if we offer these new anglers some insight and education. 

As it turns out, I didn’t even write about my experience with bull trout on the Metolius. That’s because there weren’t any. Similarly, there wasn’t a bull-trout experience to share on the Salmon River or the South Fork of the Boise River on my return trip home. 

Exasperated, I went into my local fly shop, Anglers Fly Shop in Boise, where I shared the successes of the Western Trout Challenge, as well as a few of my recent failures. Taking pity on me, one of the employees was kind enough to mention, in hushed tones, the bull trout population of what he called “the East Fork of the South Fork near Yellow Pine.” 

The legacy of mining has had a profound effect on bull trout habitat.

Instead of continuing to mine for more information, I decided to thank him, buy my flies, and immediately head home to begin my research. I’ve become fond of calling this level of sharing “just enough to be dangerous.” 

I learned that the East Fork of the South Fork near Yellow Pine is not at all an unknown fork of the South Fork of the Boise River near Pine, Idaho, as I had naively suspected. Instead, I discovered a complex and intensely interesting fishery that had played a role in stories of devastating legacy resource extraction, international corporations, multi-agency management and multiple life cycles of bull trout. 

One video I found particularly impactful featured a man walking around the rim of the now abandoned Yellow Pine mining pit, affectionately referred to by anglers as “The Glory Hole.” It’s now the end of the road for bull trout on the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River because mining has disrupted fish passage upstream past that point. 

“Normally, I don’t like spot-dropping, but, when it comes to naming a spot to bring awareness of the need to save this population, or having it disappear forever, I think it’s the right thing to do,” the man explained at the end of video. “A few more anglers to know what’s going might be exactly what we need.” 

The East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon is a stream more anglers should know about, so it can be restored.

A few short days after hearing of the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River for the first time, I was standing at the outlet stream of the abandoned pit holding my very first bull trout. Weeks after that, I share that experience in hope anglers from Idaho and beyond familiarize themselves with a very much at-risk river and with a species more precious than the gold in the hills of their native homeland.

I’ve settled into a philosophy that just enough information to be dangerous is a healthy and happy medium. Discretion is key. Hint intentionally. Educate carefully. Maybe giving people just enough to be dangerous is the key to making the future just a little less so. 

That, and a cold case of beer for fly shop employees. They have a lot more responsibility than we give them credit for. 

Daniel Ritz is a writer, angler, and Communications Manager at Ted Trueblood Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

For more information on the Western Native Trout Challenge, CLICK HERE.

15 thoughts on “Story & Photos: Bull Trout, Conservation, and the Value of Discretion”

  1. Please take this down… I can see how you may think that the awareness you’re bringing to the river by saying its name is a good thing, but I have seen several times how it actually hurts many off our bull trout populations here in Idaho. Biologists are well aware of these populations and will continue to protect them. Many others will not. Especially people trying to cross an “exotic” species off their list.

  2. Ignore these comments, Orvis and Daniel. They were sent here by the Purist On The Fly digital army who apparently didn’t have any cairns to kick over and film…aka slow day in POTF Instagram stories. His energy is usually misdirected and unfortunately I think he is just a very sad angry guy who figured out how to repurpose memes for the fly fishing world and now feels a bold sense of power. Somewhere out there is a keyboard-warrior-Mom’s-basement meme with Purist On The Fly in the caption.

  3. I think we all agree that the end goal is to better educate the angling population as a long term solution, but we also have to worry about the here and now. Orvis’ influence is not exclusive to educated and ethical anglers, and though your efforts to promote proper practice are commendable, not everything will be received as intended.
    In other words, selfish and unethical (or perhaps just ignorant) people will read right past the call to better themselves—thus the angling community—and go straight to the spot that was perhaps needlessly revealed here.
    Law of probability states that when more of something occurs (take for instance, anglers visiting a spot), with a portion of these being bad or undesirable (selfish, unethical etc. anglers), then the negative occurrences will also increase. I think you are beating around the correct bush, but your methods are a little flawed. Perhaps some more attention could be paid as to assure that we are not putting the cart before the horse and publicizing sensitive areas before people are ready to responsibly share and maintain the resource.
    I’m sorry to say that I found this article to be counterintuitive at best to it’s intended purpose, and at worst ironically irresponsible and sorely lacking in foresight.

  4. This is ridiculous….This little article will bring nothing to what’s happening but more anglers going there in late season throwing eggs at spawning fish. Shame on you for thinking this is ok.

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