I still can't believe this actually happened, but I now have photographic evidence.
I was camping on a river that a friend told me to fish. It was my first day there. I pulled in to the boat launch/foot access site/campground around noon. I setup shop, ate, geared up and went fishing. I waded upstream for about 5 hours with no luck. I tossed caddis and general mayfly patterns, thinking I wouldn't need to be too sophisticated for mountain cutties. I walked by scratching my head, but wasn't too concerned. When I got back, I met a nice older gentleman named Tom. We shot the shit for a bit, then he went fishing.
About the time Tom came back, I saw consistent rising on the opposite bank. I offered the spot to Tom, who declined, so I decided to give it a go. I suited up, tied on a #18 elk hair caddis (they were everywhere) and went to work. Tom sat in his waders and watched as I edged out from the boat launch into the deeper faster current. I got out far enough so my casts weren't in the trees, but I could still hit the opposite bank. My 5th cast was straight across the river, tight to the bank. I kicked a big mend upstream and let it drift. As it drifted, I saw the fly disappear and set the hook.
Once I felt the fish, I started back stepping. The water I was in was waist deep and pretty quick. I figured it would be easier to land a fish in shallower, calmer water. The fish was putting up a pretty damn good fight. At first I thought it was a nice cuttie, 16-18", that just wanted to fight hard in the fast current. Tom started asking me if the fish was nice, or it was just the current. Right as I finished reeling up all my slack, and telling Tom it was decent, but just the current, the fish got pissed off and ran. I had my drag set for big Missouri River fish and 5X tippet luckily, so I just let the fish run. I was damn near into my backing when I felt the fish ease up ever so slightly. I knew if I was going to win this battle in the current, I needed to take any inch I could. The fish started coming back toward me really slowly. I took it easy, not wanting to lose the fish. At this point, I had no clue what I was tied into, but was thinking 20"+ for sure.
On the downstream side of the boat launch was an overhanging tree. The bank was severely undercut. Since I was standing in the little cove at the boat launch, I had no option but to bring the fish directly upstream right next to the undercut. Doing what big fish do, he decided to thrash in the undercut. I kept him on the reel, kept steady pressure, and eventually got him to come out. Crisis averted. At the point that the fish dove for the undercut, I had an idea of what I was tied into, but had yet to see the fish. I inched the fish in until it was right near my feet. I had my net in hand, but couldn't lift the fish off the bottom for the life of me. As I dipped my net in the water, the fish got pissed again and ran. That was the first time I actually saw the fish.
Whenever I fish a brown/brook trout stream, I always look for white on the leading edge of the fin to identify the fish in the water. When I saw this fish, all I saw was a white leading edge on the fin. I knew this was no brookie though, I had miraculously hooked into a bull trout. I almost flipped. My first guess was that this fish was in the 24" range. A big fish, but not huge for a bullie. Either way, I knew I had to get that fish in. I pitched my net on shore and asked Tom, still donning waders, if he would net the fish for me. He agreed and got in the water. Three times I got the fish close to Tom, but it just wouldn't come up high enough for him to net. After the last attempt, Tom look at me and said, "I don't think this fish will fit in the net".
Not sure what to do, I got on shore and just kept back stepping. The fish didn't like people, but was tired and wanted the fight to end. After what felt like eternity, but was likely 5-10 minutes, I beached the fish. Tom went over, scooped it in the net, and the fight was finally over.
I took the net, unhooked the fish and admired it. Not wanting to lose the fish, or kill it keeping it out of the water, I asked Tom to take pictures. He was more than happy to oblige. After a few quick shots, I turned around to release the fish. I was nervous because the fish was reviving slow, but I just kept it in the water until I could feel it get it's strength back. Finally I let go and it slowly swam back to where it came from.
While Tom was grabbing the camera I measured the fish against my net. My net is 26" in total length. The whole tail was laying past the net. I measured against my hand how much of the tail was off the net then measured my hand later. Obviously the measurement isn't exact, but I put this fish right at 30". I feel so lucky to have tangled with a fish of that stature. Even more so to have it be as rare as a bull trout. I have told many people this already, but I will likely never catch a fish that big on a dry fly again. This was a true fish of a lifetime.