After a quick stop for a delicious sandwich at a small town brewery, we found our intended base camp pretty quickly and uneventfully. It was already evening, but we were full of anticipation and excitement. After setting up camp we did some recon/scouting on the surrounding water. We started to get a little worried. Not only did we not spot any bullies, we didn't see any signs of any fish! Remaining optimistic, we got a fire going and talked about our game plan for the following day.
After a quick breakfast, we dropped down onto the stream below where we were camped. The stream was a tributary on the upper end of the system. It was July, and from what we had read, the migratory fish should have been nearing spawning areas in the higher portions of the drainage. For July, the morning was still super cool and hopping into a cold mountain stream in Chacos was painful. We began wading upstream, onward and onward. It was pretty small water, and fish would be pretty easy to spot. Again we saw nothing. A ways upstream was an even smaller tributary that was supposedly the final destination for a good population of spawning adults, so we decided to forge on thinking that maybe they had already made it to the area. We made it to the trib, and began bushwhacking our way up, looking for any signs of fish. After more than enough miserable scrambling through thick vegetation and freezing cold water it became clear, the fish were not there.
We turned around, making the long trek back through the stream to our starting point. We discussed what to do next and decided to try lower down in the system on the higher end of the mainstem river. Maybe the fish just hadn't started working their way into these upper end tribs yet.... Some more cold wading, and a quick car ride later, we were at spot number two for the day. Instead of a small stream it was a small river, but still didn't seem to have much of the deep holes that Bull Trout prefer to hang out in. Still curious, we rigged up again and began wading this reach of the river. And we waded, and waded, and didn't see anything. Spirits were suffering, but were bolstered with a quick dose of excitement. We came around a bend in the river and spotted fish. They weren't bull trout, but it was still exciting. It was a pair of massive Chinook digging up a redd at the tailout of a shallow hole. Slightly reinvigorated we pressed on upstream just to be sure we wouldn't see anything else. And we didn't. Again, we had to walk, in river, back downstream the distance we had just come.
On to spot number three we went. We decided to keep going downriver, covering the next logical stretch of water. This stretch was in one of the roadless areas, so we pulled up to the trailhead and began hiking into a deep, narrow canyon. The water looked more promising. In this more confined terrain there were a lot of large, deep holes, with lots of huge boulders for cover. We figured we would hike down as far as we wanted and then fish our way back upstream. Eventually, after passing a lot of suitable looking water, we dropped down to the river and began working our way back up. It was fairly easy to spot fish in the crystal clear water, but there was a lot of hiding places so we fished hard making sure to cover as much water as possible. We were finally seeing fish; lots of whitefish and an occasional trout, but no confirmed Bull Trout still. We even spotted a few more big Chinook resting in some of the deeper pools. We caught a handful of small fish. But still no Bullies.
Our last option was the lower end of the river. It didn't seem logical that Bull Trout would still be that low in the system, but it was our only option left on this river, so we opted to move camp and try the lower end. Because of the large roadless area, even though it was just 12 or 15 miles downstream from where we had been previously fishing, it took a long, convoluted drive through steep and gnarly terrain to get to our next camping spot on the lower river.
We immediately began fishing our way up the lower reach of the river. It was bigger water now, with trickier wading. A few times we got excited watching fish quickly appear, attempting to ambush our streamer, but again, it appeared that none of these fish were Bull Trout. We hiked up the river, but we were all silently doubting our chances of finding Bull Trout by this point. Finally, we stopped and agreed that it was probably pointless to keep going, and our best bet would be to take a drive and try a new river.
As we worked our way up our new river, things began to look promising again. It was bigger water, with nice, deep holes. We fished our way up it, but never stayed in one place too long. Our time was running short, and if we wanted to find these fish we knew we'd have to keep moving until we did. They were there somewhere, we just had to find them!
Finally, after we had driven and hiked several more miles of stream, I heard Josh yell to me from upstream. I jogged up and asked him what was up. Unmistakably, a Bull Trout had swung on his streamer two casts in a row! We had found them! Now we just had to catch a few. I excitedly hopped into the river again and started chucking my streamer. I was pulling through the whitewater in a plunge pool and just as I was pulling out to cast again, my line went tight. A fish erupted out of the pool and began racing downstream. I caught up and corralled it into a side pool where we snapped a few shots of it.
The fish we found were still fairly spread out, and it took a lot more walking to keep catching them, but we spent the next few hours wading our way up stream and consistently getting into fish. It was gratifying. Bull Trout are such amazing fish, and it felt so good to finally achieve what we had come to do. You learn a lot chasing migratory fish.
That trip and those fish taught me a lot about simply working to find fish. By the time we finally found and started catching them, my feet were destroyed. The miles of hiking and wading in Chacos had taken its toll. I had blisters all around each foot, and my toes were bleeding where the straps rubbed them. But the discomfort was easy to ignore when we were catching, big, powerful, aggressive fish deep in a beautiful mountain range.
Unfortunately we didn't have any more time to fish where we had the previous day. It had been quite a journey just to get there, and we had to be back to Utah by that night. We instead took our time as we left, stopping and exploring various other spots. We didn't find any other Bull Trout, but we did see a lot of cool things. Several eagles, A sow bear with two cubs, and a pool with 30 to 40 huge Chinook chilling in it. One thing we didn't see a lot of on that trip was people.
Before leaving, we had done everything we could to prepare ourselves. I read a LOT. I was confident I would be able to find fish. But in the end, success came down to our willingness to put in legwork; to walk, and walk, and walk. When we got home, after tracing our trip on Google Earth I was astonished at how little ground we actually covered relative to the size of the area. We barely scratched the surface. I was immediately excited to go back and do it all again next summer.