As fly anglers, we find ourselves constantly pushing the limits of innovative techniques.
One such method, two-handed casting (better known as spey casting), has exploded in popularity in the last five years, though some would say ten years or so. For those who don’t know, spey casting is generally done to target anadromous fish with a much less-tiring casting stroke, capable of handling larger flies and sinking tips with relative ease.
However, in the past few years, anglers and manufacturers alike have been downsizing equipment in to chase smaller-sized quarry, with the ease of spey casting. This downsizing has created lighter two-handed rods and lines, capable of handling lighter tips and flies in small-medium sizes.
Bull trout in its prime. Photo: Xena King.
Bull trout have gained a significant amount of popularity in the last decade due to their ability to grow to immense sizes for what people typically consider to be “trout." These fish don’t necessarily require downsized rods, like other trout.
In Western Canada where I live, we are blessed with various locations and good populations of bull trout (though some remain sensitive). While the common understanding is, that bull trout fishing is only “good” during the summer months, because of their spawn (Generally Late August-September), many anglers miss out a very good time to target bull trout with two-handed rods in middle to late October and through winters where legal. In October, bull trout are returning to form after the late summer spawn and will drop back down into larger rivers to feed voraciously before cold winters slow down their metabolism and they settle into their wintering holes.
Broad runs associated with late fall/winter fishing. Photo: Dean Taylor.
In the fall, bull trout sit in similar water to steelhead, and many anglers overlook the seams, big boulder runs, and tailouts that bull trout frequently sit in to ambush prey like kokanee, whitefish, suckers, sculpins, and flesh. This is perfect water to fish with a spey rod, unlike their summer waters which are frequently in high walled canyons, deep tank pools, and slots that are not conducive to spey casting or swinging flies and are typically better fished with single-hand rods.
Typical bull trout summer water. Photo: Xena King.
Bull trout are not typically known to be wild fighters, although some will test you. Most anglers use very large flies to target the largest bulls, 5-10” in length on 3-8wt fly rods depending on your personal taste. In order to spey cast flies of these proportions, anglers need to be fishing flies with large profiles but little bulk so their spey lines can bring these flies out of the water on the forward casting stroke with relative ease.
Bull trout from the swinging run. Photo: Dean Taylor.
Enter the original two-handed rod, perfect for fall holding areas. While everyone has their tweaks to their own setup, I’d like to share mine with you.
I’ve found that bull trout, much like other predators high on the food chain, prefer a slower-moving meal. These fish don’t chase little trout around all day long to get their necessary intake. They love eating dead drifting, injured, twitching prey. This is where I’ve found the spey setup with intermediate heads to be so effective. The intermediate head cuts the surface tension and allows everything from head to tip to swing much slower. A perfect representation of a rolling kokanee carcass, salmon flesh or injured whitefish.
The issue I’ve had in the past was to find a short-ish rod that is fun to fish and a large, 30-32” bull trout can cork, but can also handle the grain window required for heavier tips, heads, and large flies with profile. The problem is not many two-handed rods fit this bill. I have opted for the smaller two-handed rods most companies call switch rods for the tighter-banked streams and the ease of transporting from run to run.
So first, I’ll start with lines because this will give you an idea on what size rod you might be looking at, I have tried multitudes of lines and I’ve settled on...
Your choice of running line (25-50lbs)
Line setup with a Fish-Skull Baitfish Head streamer.
- RIO Products 550-600 grain Skagit iFlight
- Airflo Skagit Compact Intermediate 540-630 Grain
- Vision Ace Skagit 550-650 (For longer rods)
- Scientific Anglers Freightliner Skagit Intermediate 560-640
I myself I find the 575 is the sweet spot for my rod, tips, and flies. This might seem heavy to the average person, but if you want to fish lighter heads, you can do so, although the timing of your casting will have to be more precise and could require more effort.
You can use any skagit head in that range from various companies like Airflo, Vision, or Scientific Anglers, but this is the line I’ve settled on. I prefer the intermediate heads because, as those of you who have fished intermediate heads know, intermediate heads do a great job of not only slowing down your swings, but also cutting the surface tension. Your lines are less likely to get pushed around by surface currents and are more importantly getting deep. This does a great job getting your flies down to the fish’s wheelhouse in colder temperatures where fish may be less inclined to chase flies that can be associated with spring and fall fishing before bull trout have begun their ascent in spawning tributaries.
Tips and leader
The Baitfish Head streamer choice paid off.
- 10’ of t-14, or heavy iMow Tips and 3-4’ 15lb test fluorocarbon
Heavy tips, coupled with the heavy intermediate skagit head help get that fly up and out of the water on the forward cast and keeps your big flies down deep in the pay zone.
Chrome on the swing. Photo: Xena King.
Rods are generally the trickiest part. This is because the lines and tips are not well-suited to a lighter rod that you would want for fish that don’t scream line or cork rods like their anadromous cousins.
Four rods I’ve found that do a great job at this are (but don’t limit yourself to my suggestions, there are other rods very capable):
Sage Z-Axis 11’ 8wt
By far my favorite rod, (skagit grain window 475-525 for skagits, but handles a 575 nicely)
Temple Fork Outfitters Deer Creek Switch 11’ 8wt
A more budget-friendly/commonly available option (skagit grain window 400-600). More fun to fight fish with, but does not handle the 575 grain head as nicely as the Z-Axis.
Orvis Clearwater Switch 11' or 12’ 8wt
I have yet to fish this rod, but have heard good things and grain window is most appropriate of the four according to manufacturer (skagit grain window 525-575).
St. Croix Imperial 11’ 8wt
Another budget-friendly option that fits the bill. Great warranty.
The rods above are good choices to handle/feel larger char and will allow you to cast (with practice) large flies, tips, heads with ease.
As mentioned above, even the largest bull trout might not take you into your backing and your standard reel suited to your rod will suit your needs. Your reel typically needs to be big enough to balance your rods and house the thick skagit lines and running line.
Streamers finished off with Fish-Skull Fish-Masks are great for targeting bull trout.
Variations of Bunny Leeches, M.O.A.L. leeches, and intruder-style flies all are great flies for targeting bull trout. I typically use 5" to 6.5” flies with profile, or as big as you can tie them and cast them (though smaller flies have their place on pressured fish).
One extremely innovative material that has helped me build flies with little bulk is Fish-Skull Chocklett’s Body Tubing. This wicked material allows you to build profile in flies with little materials, and instead of collapsing during the swim, your flies breathe and come to life.
I'm a big fan of the Fish-Skull Fish-Mask to add dimensions to the fly without increasing weight. I prefer to fish neutrally buoyant flies, with heavier tips to allow your fly to hover in or just above the strike zone. My flies are generally white, but are tied in colors like tan, red, hot pink, chartreuse, black to match kokanee, whitefish, suckers, sculpins, or whatever you might be bringing to life.
Flies tied with Fish-Skull Chocklett’s Body Tubing to imitate Kokanee, Whitefish, Suckers, and Flesh.
I won’t give too much away, but in general, you can trace bull trout back down to the mainstem rivers that they travel to and from to spawn. These rivers are generally wider, and offer perfect swinging water, and while there may not be steelhead sitting in that tailout, you may hook into something only slightly less pretty.
General Locations in Western Canada
- Kootenay River
- Pitt River
- Fraser River
- Skeena River and tribs (if you’re not preoccupied with shiny things)
- Squamish River (again not preoccupied with shiny things)
- Athabasca River
- Upper Bow River
- And many more
Get after it!
Strategically placed stinger hooks will increase your hook up rates Photo: Xena King.
If you find yourself in search of something different after salmon season, or are looking to change things up this fall, give two-handed fishing for a bull trout a try. It’s a lot of fun! Generally, you're not competing with crowds much like you would during salmon/steelhead season, and the biggest bull trout of the year are eating what they can to sustain themselves for our cold winters.
The setup I outlined is not cut and dry, and you might think the setup sounds like something you’d use for fresh chinooks. You can experiment with different rods and lines if you’d like to find what suits you best.
Be warned, the tight line swing/tug is a highly addictive thing and may change the way you plan your fishing trips for the year. If all goes as planned, you might find yourself hooked up to something like this.
Lake trout can be found occasionally if you hunt in the right places. Photo: Dean Taylor.
Here’s hoping this article might inspire you to fish that two-hander you have collecting dust for one of the most fun species of char.
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About Jeremie Roy:
Jeremie grew up in Alberta, fishing away his teenage year and early adulthood in the Rocky Mountains. He and his cousin, Sam Irving, started a fly fishing media outlet called Adipose Fly Fishing, and produce quality fly fishing photography and videography. Right now, Jeremie is in his third year studying Natural Resource Management at the University of Northern British Columbia, in Prince George, BC. In just 3 hours from the central hub of British Columbia, Jeremie can fish for steelhead in Skeena drainage, or head in other directions to chase anything from Rainbows, Grayling, Lakers, Bulls or any of the five species of salmon. Since moving to BC, Jeremie has been reaching for his two-handed rod more than his single hand and chasing large Bull trout and Char more often then not. You can follow Adipose Fly Fishing's Instagram account @adiposeflyfishing as well as Jeremie's personal Instagram account @jer.roy.