Pt I: About Bull Trout

Pt I: About Bull Trout

Bull Trout (Salvelinus Confluentus)

Photo Courtesy Tyler Moffatt (IG: themofflehaus)

Did you know that the Bull Trout (above) is the provincial fish of Alberta, and that they are strictly catch and release throughout the province of Alberta? Could you identify it in real life? Did you know that despite C & R regulations, Bull Trout populations are still critically endangered, and just a mere shade of what they once were?

A beautiful Trophy sized Bull. Photo courtesy Thomas (IG: @tbennett.ff)

Unfortunately, there are too many people in this province that answer no to some or all the above questions. Case and point: In a 2004 census, only 50 % of licensed fisherman in Alberta could properly identify the Bull Trout. Yes, that was 14 years ago. And yes, it may have risen; but it is still a problem. I have had several personal experiences of people mistaking the Bull trout for Brooks, using bait, and seen people keeping them. For a long time, Bull Trout were regarded with indifference in Alberta, the species of least concern, off the public radar, until quite recently. Beginning with the implementation of C & R regulations on all Bull Trout 25 years ago, people slowly started to realize what a great sport fish the Bull Trout was, and what amazing opportunities we had here in Alberta. And now, with the fish media overload that is our social media pages, the word of Trophy Bull Trout fishing in our corner of the world is definitely out, and the fishing pressure on our Bulls is greater than ever. But do all these hopeful fisherman going out for Monster Bull Trout Glory know that they are still highly endangered? Very susceptible to human and environmental impacts? Already facing local extinction in many places across the province? And just because so many large trout are being caught, and the fish seem numerous upon first impression, does not necessarily mean these populations are healthy, or destined for longevity. But the reality is there is not enough resources being deployed to properly monitor Bull Trout populations, and the data we are using to inform decisions is based off of outdated data.

That is how the ideas of this series are structured. The legit numerical data of the past vs. the uncertainty of what we presently dealing with; and what that might mean for Bull Trout Conservation going forward.

In compiling this series, three primary sources were used. Most of the statistics and info contained are from the Alberta Sustainable Resource Development ‘2012-2018 Bull Trout Conservation management plan‘ (here-on referred to as SRD report). That report bases most of its inferences on population estimates and numerical data from 2005. There is more recent data available for the Upper Oldman system, taken from Bull Trout Population Assessment in the Upper Oldman River Drainage, 2009 (Upper Oldman Report), as well as quotes and figures taken from Lorne Fitch’s aforementioned Two Fish, One Fish, No fish , which uses many of the same outdated sources. Data from 2005 was only 10 years removed from the implementation of C & R regulations in Alberta. 14 years of C & R fishing have elapsed since then, which means things have likely changed significantly in that time; but is that change for the better, or for the worse?

Photo coutesy Joseph Morgan Casat (IG: @mcatcasat)

My simple answer to that question is both. I believe there is likely many populations that have made significant improvements in range and size, and may not be as threatened as they were 14 years ago. There are many rivers that show many signs of improvement, and likely have benefited greatly from a larger sample size of C & R regulations. On the contrary, there is likely a handful of populations that were just barely hanging on 14 years ago, that are now all but gone, or locally extinct (extirpated). The populations that live in Small creeks (Resident) fall primarily into this category. In 2005, there were dozens of Resident populations with less than 50 mature fish left (50 is considered the minimum viable population size). They were tetering on the edge; where any negative external factor had the potential to knock them out.   Where they have hung on, and where they have perished I don’t know. All I know is that many of these streams our among my personal favorites, and some of the finest trout water around. So lets not miss our chance to preserve these excellent Bull Trout fisheries with resident populations.

I do not intend for this to be a doomsday report, where I scare you with scary statistics and threaten the imminent extinction of Bull Trout. But the fact is, Bull Trout are threatened across the continent, and the populations in Alberta/ BC are some healthiest populations remaining. We have a little slice of Bull Trout heaven here that is all but gone almost everywhere else in the world. And we must be cognizant as a community about protecting this resource, and doing our part, and together ensure Alberta offers anglers from around the world a chance at trophy Bull Trout for generations to come.

Southwest Alberta and Southeast BC taken together make up one of the most intact Bull Trout ecosystems left in North America. Here is a nice BC Bull courtesy of Kimberley Fly Fish (IG: @kimberleyflyfishing)

So keep reading. I believe there is  takeaways to be had from this post for all types of anglers, and the more you know the better.

We will begin by learning about the Bull Trout, their life cycle, and different types of populations.

Bull Trout

Bull Trout are a native species to all of Alberta’s freshwater streams, and used to be the most widespread of all fish in Alberta, historically occupying every freshwater system from the Castle all the way north to the Athabasca, and as far East as cities like Edmonton, Red Deer and Calgary. Bull Trout live in cold, mountain streams, usually in the most inviting, deep pools. Bull Trout grow very large, often in excess of 30”. And Bull Trout are voracious eaters, devouring any meal they can clamp their jaws around. This made them easy to catch in the days of old, when catch and release was not a thing. 

Bull Trout are often referred to as the ‘Sharks’ of the freshwater environment. Here, Ryan Fairfield shows us why. (IG: @ryan_fairfield_)
  • Bull Trout Spawn in the Fall, usually late August – Early October, dependent on weather and stream temperatures. Bull Trout use small tributary streams to spawn and rear as juveniles.
  • Bull Trout usually reach spawning maturity around 4-7 years old. They can live for a very long time, sometimes upwards of 20 years.
  • Bull Trout can be identified by the lack of black markings on their fins, their pale greyish/green color, and the white slash on their fins.

The SRD report indicates there are 3 types of Bull Trout Populations in Alberta: Stream Resident, Fluvial, and Adfluvial (live in lakes). We are going to focus on the first 2, Stream Resident, and Fluvial.

Stream Resident Bulls are Bull Trout that permanently reside in small tributary streams and creeks. They spawn and rear as juveniles in the same stream and typically do not grow as large. Typically, these fish are not nearly as migratory and can be found in the same section of the stream for an entire season. Those long and skinny 16″-22″ Bulls found in smaller creeks are often Stream Resident (particularly if caught early in the season, before spawning fish have entered tributary).

Fluvial Bull Trout are populations that occupy larger tributaries of major rivers or major rivers (think Highwood River, Sheep River, Oldman), and migrate to smaller tributaries as the summer progresses to spawn and rear as juveniles (which means the young fish will live in the trib. until they are larger/reached spawning maturity, at which point they will head to larger river). These populations can be highly migratory, sometimes having a home range of over 250 km. Fluvial Bull Trout grow much larger than Stream Resident Bull Trout. Almost all river systems in Alberta contain Fluvial Bull Trout Populations.

Adfluvial Bull Trout are those that live in lakes. They will not be discussed throughout this report. Lake dwelling Bulls can grow to monstrous porportions. They are typically found in the Lake itself, however, they do move into river channels and feeder streams to spawn in the Fall. They face similar challenges and are still C & R only.

Understanding the different types of populations can help us catch fish, by knowing where there might be a Resident Bull population or whether it is just juveniles, or to understand whether Fluvial populations might be likely to be in the main stem of the river or in the tributaries, based on the time of the year. Knowing Fluvial Bull Trout only move into tributary streams to spawn means most small creeks will not have many Big Bull Trout outside of spawning season.

A juvenile Bull Trout from small trib. While not as impessive as a mature Bull, these little guys are eager and easy to catch, and can be a great way to learn to fly fish. JUST PINCH YOUR BARBS, as their small mouths and tough jaws can make getting the hook out very tricky!

Say you were fishing a small stream at a time (June-July) that was not during the Bull Trout spawn, and you catch a significant Bull Trout, 20″ or upwards that appears to be of spawning age (size of the head and jaw are good indicators of age, so often a trout whose head looks to big for it’s body) . You would likely be looking at a Stream Resident Bull Trout. If you found yourself catching plenty of small bulls (less than 14″-16″), but nothing big, then you could infer that that this particular stream is probably a spawning ground, and what your are catching is juvenile fish less than 4-5 years old spending their youth in the more accommodating tributary stream (these fish probably have a more pale white color, with less depth and brilliance, and a small head/jaw that makes them look, and feel smaller, than their length). In reality, you would (or rather, should) encounter both- the smaller pools and unassuming lies providing smaller Juveniles, and the deep, obvious honey holes granting the odd Big Bull, that just looks, acts and feels different then the ones caught before. However, in Alberta, there are cases of local extinction of Fluvial populations (Bow River), which puts any Stream resident populations at a much higher risk, and stream resident populations are in trouble pretty much across the board, which puts the Fluvial poulation at risk. Why?

Ideally, these populations are co-existing in the same streams, while still having a small amount of genetic interaction between them. This slight interaction helps both types of populations avoid local extiction (by disease, natural disaster, weather). If something happens that affects one population, it will be able to recover by drawing from the other, and vice versa. Essentially, extinction of one population means bad news for any other populations in that river system, and in 2005 Alberta had 11 populations of bull trout considered to be extirpated, or locally extinct, and that number has likely risen.

Hopefully that differentiates and makes clear what is meant by a ‘Resident’ Bull Trout, and a ‘Fluvial’ Bull Trout, as these terms will be widely used throughout the rest of the series.

This Bull was caught from a small stream in July… But look at the size of that head! This is clearly a mature stream resident Bull. The population charts later in this post confirm a resident population in this particular creek, but it was thought to have less than 50 mature Bulls remaining in 2005.

These different populations each face different threats. My own personal inference is that Stream Resident Populations right now are especially vulnerable to the threats posed by anglers, and it is in these  populations that, if more widely practiced, C & R and good fish handling will have a pronounced effect on populations recovering . If there are not improvements, many Resident populations could or may have already disappeared.

Fluvial Populations are perhaps at slightly less risk then resident populations when it comes to the immediacy of the threat, but much more complex and difficult to solve when it comes to long term solutions. These populations are more susceptible to large scale land usage and environmental degradation, as opposed to angling pressure, and these are threats that will surely carry into the future. All of the threats are discussed in part 2 of the series, Threats Facing Bull Trout.

That concludes part 1, head to part 2 to continue reading about the Threats facing Bull Trout in Alberta….


2012-2018 Bull Trout Conservation Management Plan

Bull Trout Population Assessment in the Upper Oldman River Drainage, 2009

Two Fish, One Fish, No Fish: Alberta’s Fish CrisisLorne Fitch