Identifying this rare Idaho fish is tough. And it’s costly when you get it wrong

Brook trout
Brook trout Special to the Idaho Statesman

Quick, can you name how many protected fish species we have in Idaho?

For all you trivia buffs, the answer is four: white sturgeon, bull trout, burbot and sockeye salmon.

For the most part, it’s easy to identify protected fish. Sturgeon, with their prehistoric looks and huge size, are impossible to mistake. Anadromous sockeye and eel-like burbot (also known as ling) are exceedingly rare in Idaho — you could fish 10,000 hours and never encounter one.

So that leaves us with the bull trout. And this is where things can get tricky.

Until recently, I had never seen a bull trout in the wild. They can be common in some waters — Arrowrock Reservoir, the Salmon River and mountain streams and lakes near Stanley, to name a few — but I do a lot of fishing, and it took me nearly 20 years of angling in Idaho to come face-to-face with a bull trout.

My encounter came through the ice at Warm Lake near Cascade. Our group had already iced a few rainbow trout and kokanee when I hooked up with something that felt much bigger.

To my surprise, my catch wasn’t all that big — maybe 14 inches, and slenderly built. But when I pulled it through the ice, there was no mistaking my first career bull trout.

I’ll give Idaho Fish & Game credit for the signs posted near bull trout habitat. The illustrations are accurate, depicting orangish, halo-free spots against a dark blue/gray background. I admired the fish for a moment, snapped a quick photo and sent it back home through the ice.

A short while later, one of my rods started wiggling again. I set the hook and reeled in another feisty trout. But this time, getting a positive ID was tougher.

The fish looked very similar to the bull trout I’d just released, but it had a whiter belly and a slightly different spotting pattern. My gut said brook trout, but I wasn’t sure, so I took a quick picture and released it unharmed.

Back at North Shore Lodge, I took a close look at the two photos side-by-side. Upon inspection, I was reasonably confident the second fish was a brook trout and not a bull. But in the moment, I definitely wouldn’t have risked a potential $150 fine for it.

Adding to the intrigue: Bull trout, brook trout and Mackinaw trout are actually not trout, but char. Warm Lake is one of the few places in Idaho that contains all three, and bull-brook hybrids are common when the two species overlap. The fish I caught looked different from any brook trout I’ve landed, so it’s possible it was actually a crossbreed.

The bottom line: Bull trout are beautiful and relatively rare members of our ecosystem, and rules are in place to ensure they’ll be around for future generations. I really enjoyed seeing a bull trout up close, but even an experienced angler like me had a hard time differentiating it from its cousin char. So, play it safe out there — and if you don’t know, let it go!

Tight lines!