For the first open-water action of the year, look to bull trout for serious April angling fun.
Winter can seem long, especially in the frigid northern states and provinces. By the end of March, most of us have had our fill of probing the hardwater and we’re more than eager for some open-water action.
The problem is, in a lot of jurisdictions, April lands smack dab in the middle of no man’s land. Depending on where you live or where you travel to fish, many mainstem rivers may not even open until April or later. Such is the case in my home province of Alberta. The April 1 opener is as early as it gets in our northern Canadian climate. As the sun’s radiation hits the snow and ambient temperatures begin to rise, many streams and rivers are just beginning to open up. Indeed, this is one of the most romantic aspects of fishing early spring bulls that I find so appealing.
If you’re an Alberta resident or a visitor to this biodiverse province, be sure to consult the Alberta Guide to Sportfishing Regulations to confirm open seasons, special rules and closures. Dig deep enough, and you’re sure to discover some unique, and surprisingly untapped angling opportunities for this very special trout. To shake the shack nasties and experience a truly inimitable fishing adventure, try your hand at April bulls.
If you want to fish flowing waters for early bulls, options are limited but distinct. While the famed Athabasca River outside Jasper National Park remains closed at that time, inside the national park is a different story. A favorite with many early spring anglers, this portion of the Athabasca remains open to sportfishing year-round. Some truly exceptional bulls have been caught while snow and thick ice shelves adorn the river. If you choose to try your hand at catching bulls here, remember that to fish in the national park, you need to buy a federal license for fishing waters inside the park.
For bull trout waters under provincial jurisdiction, several other mainstem rivers open April 1 and they can offer some great angling for early bulls as well. Rivers like the Clearwater, select reaches of the mighty North Saskatchewan, along with the Berland downstream of Highway 40, and the McLeod River, for instance, can be decent options for early spring. Again, consult the provincial regulations to ensure that whatever mainstem river you plan to fish is open at that time.
What to Expect
First, if you fish April bulls, especially in northern climates, expect to get cold. Hand-numbing crisp mornings and periodic spring squalls can make you question your sanity. Early spring trout fishing in Alberta is simply an unparalleled experience. Frigid temperatures are one thing, but spring winds can cut right through to the bone.
Second, and most importantly, take much of what you know about summer and fall bull trout, and temporarily set it aside. (At the very least, temper it). Yes, you may be treated to a magical day when the bite is on, but that’s often more the exception than the rule. While bull trout have a reputation for violently attacking an easy meal or defending their territory, they can often be more lethargic than aggressive after a long winter. It’s tough to beat the explosive attack of a hard-hitting bull on a warm summer day but don’t be surprised if early bulls in frigid conditions act very differently. Because they are more dormant during the extreme cold winter months under the ice, they will be winter skinny at this time of year. I’ve seen them attack, but often the bite is downright soft in April. In fact, after several months of relative dormancy, they’ll often ignore a lure as though it doesn’t even exist. This is where attention to detail is most important.
Fish the Pools
In my experience, mid-size and larger pools can be great places to find April bulls. In late fall and early winter, bull trout follow the mountain whitefish back downstream to overwinter in these pools, which are predominantly in the lower reaches of mainstem rivers. Settling in deeper basins when those flowing waters are typically iced over, the bull’s metabolism slows. They feed less and they move very little. Consequently, they lose some of their body mass as well.
In early spring as the ice thaws and breaks up and the sun begins to rejuvenate and warm the water, those trout become more active. As spring moves into early summer, and with each progressive week, those same trout will again follow the whitefish—one of their primary food sources—to the upper reaches of those mainstem rivers and into tributaries.
I rarely ignore traditional fish-holding lies like seams along backwaters and plunge pools behind rocks or below shelves. But what I really look for in April are log jams, deeper runs and deeper pools. I’ve also learned to probe riffles and runs with a distinct change in depth. If you drift or rip a suitable streamer, spinner or crankbait through these potential hotspots, you should hook up in short order.
When it is windy, it is tempting to push the limits in getting too close. It is easy to want to get as close as possible to the water’s edge so as not to strip out too much fly line. Add gin-clear water to the equation and extra care should be taken to avoid detection. Fish are always watching. They can shy away from something resembling an intruder if they sense they’re at risk. Remember, if you can see them, they can probably see you. Like every other trout, bulls can be shy and turn negative if they see you. The urge to move in too close to the water’s edge in an effort to see the fish first can outright cancel your opportunity for a take. Every angler has done it at some point, and we’ve all lost the opportunity to catch simply because we were overzealous and got too close.
If you plan to use a conventional spinning rod and reel, a dedicated medium-action trout rig is in order. Depending on the area I’m fishing in, I like to bring a couple of different rods. One of my favorites is a 6’6” medium-light action Berkley Lightning Rod. If I anticipate bigger bulls, I’ll switch up to a 7’2” or 7’6” medium fast-action rod like a Shimano Sedona. Both are suitable choices for early river bull trout. Marry either one with a smaller reel like a Shimano Ultegra 2500 HG spinning reel, or something comparable, and you’ll be well-armed.
Equally (if not more) important is your line choice. Some of today’s ultra-thin braided lines can work, and mono is still the most common, but I’m a firm believer in keeping trout line as invisible as possible. Trout have good eyesight and a soft mouth, so you need a careful balance between using lighter line but something that’s still strong enough and that has some stretch to it. For bull trout fishing, I’ll generally go with a 10-pound test fluorocarbon line like Berkley Vanish.
For terminal tackle, lots of flashy lures can entice a bull trout to attack, but you can simplify by choosing a few basic spinnerbaits and crankbaits. Rapala Countdown and X-Rap lures are simply awesome bull-catchers. Choose color schemes like Olive Green, Rainbow Trout and Glass Ghost to resemble whitefish and other trout species. Similarly, any small spinner with silver flash can do the trick as well.
Fly Fishing Setups
For April bulls, ripping bigger streamers is usually in order. Bugs are dormant and nymph patterns are arguably less productive at this time of year. But ripping streamers is a different story. Generally, big streamers in whites, greys, pinks and even yellows can work great. A handful of proven patterns for our bull trout include the venerable Dali Lama in white or pink/white, Double Bunnies, Sex Dungeons, Bunny Leech, and the Kreelex Minnow. Many others resembling these types of patterns work as well.
As far as a fly rod and reel combo goes, a nine-foot 7/8 weight can be a good choice for throwing and ripping these bigger, heavier streamers. I know anglers who use lighter rods. They work well, but a heavier setup provides the backbone necessary to better control your cast and drop the streamers where you want them. I know many purists who believe in using a commercial leader and either a 2x or 3x tippet. I’ve had great success simply tying nine feet of 10-pound fluorocarbon line as my leader, then tying my streamer directly to it. In other words, I will often forego the tippet altogether for bulls.
Because these early bull trout can be a bit deeper in the pools, a weight-forward semi-sink line is most ideal. Similarly, streamers with a weighted head are necessary to help get them down deep quickly. Essentially, your goal is to cast ahead, allow your streamer to sink and then rip it in short strokes in front of the fish. With a little luck, it will entice a strike.
Sensitive Time and Sensitive Species
Remember, “No black, put it back.” If you plan to hunt in Alberta in particular, this province’s bull trout regulations are clear. Angling opportunity for bulls is catch-and-release only. Even more importantly, if you choose to fish for early-season bulls, recognize that this is a particularly sensitive time when the trout are even more vulnerable. Following months of limited feeding, they’re thinner and weaker, so it’s critical to handle them with care. Land them quickly, unhook them and release them right away. If you need to lift the fish for a photo, minimize stress and remember that gentle is the name of the game. Your priority should always be the health and well-being of the fish.
Bull trout thrive in the gin-clear waters of many of Alberta’s rivers and tributaries.