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On the sixth and last stop of our Best Wild Places tour, Tom Reed, of Trout Unlimited, spent a few days fishing and hunting in the Yaak, situated in Northwest Montana. Here is Reed’s report from day two.

Rain. Again. Tim Linehan started out the morning by telling us that the Yaak was Montana’s rain forest–80 inches of precipitation, mostly snow, every year. It seemed like most of it was falling as rain on this early September day, or at least that was what Kevin Cooley and his wife, Bridget, and I were thinking. It rained all night and this morning we sipped coffee and watched it rain. Still.

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Sometimes close, dark skies mean good streamer fishing I told my new friends, and Linehan agreed. We’d try our hand on the Kootenai River and maybe a few of her tributaries in hopes of catching a big brown or rainbow. We might even hook a rare bull trout.

The bull trout–a fish that is actually a char–is a threatened species in Montana. Past logging practices, particularly road-building and the sediment-bleeding that comes with it, has hammered this big beautiful fish, which are native to these waters. I had been enamored of the old black-and-white photos of pioneers with bull trout as big as salmon and thick as a man’s thigh. Today, anglers in the Yaak-Kootenai country can’t specifically fish for bull trout. It is too rare. But it is legal to catch one incidentally. If they are caught, they must be quickly and safely released. I hoped for just such an incident.

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We hopped into Linehan’s vehicle and drove to Libby to meet up with one of Tim’s guides, Sean McAfee, a young man who grew up in the Yaak and only left long enough to attend Montana State University in Bozeman before coming back home. Fishing and hunting keep him here and guiding for Linehan in the summer and fall make it possible for him to live that life.

The Kootenai is one of the most beautiful rivers I’ve seen, a brawling big river by Western standards, deep and clear and cold. Many tributaries, including the Yaak River, feed the Kootenai as it winds between the United States and Canada. We stood on the banks of one of them, a stream that we could wade easily across. It too was clear and cold, perfect habitat for trout and we could see one of them, a big rainbow perched midstream, its gill plates apple-red in crystal water.

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I fished a streamer, a big piece of meat designed to catch big fish-eating fish and I pulled out enough line to make one false cast and placed it well upstream of the big rainbow, making one downstream mend, and stripping in two-foot jerks. I did this several times.

“Cast a little higher, right up in the blue water,” coached Sean. “That’s it, perfect.” I made the cast and took two strips, and then there was a hard tug and I pulled back strong, expecting the rainbow to bolt into the air, jumping wildly, tail-walking. Instead, there was a flash low, and a strong headshake in deep water and Sean shouted: “That’s a bull!”

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I lifted the rod tip and just that quickly, it was gone.

Rattled, heart-hammering.

The first bull had stunned me, shouldering slate-tan and strong out of the blue and slamming the streamer on the first downstream mend. He ‘gator-rolled’ me and was gone. Gone like a dream. But I was ready the next time, or thought I was. I held the rod tip high, got him on the reel, and felt the butt of the rod levered against my stomach. He fought for a while in the little stream, tearing for deep water, then for the tail of the pool. But I had him. Eventually, it was over and I knelt to cool water and cradled him for a bit and estimated the length. Twenty-seven. He finned off tired, but free. Minutes later, I still trembled.

Hours later, I still grinned. This, I thought, is something very, very special and very real. And so my first bull trout finned off safely into clear water and I sat for a time, grinning mostly, and thinking about the trout. The Yaak is home to several species of trout.

The rarest, perhaps, is the redband, which swims in tiny tributaries high in the mountains that would be protected as wilderness if Tester’s bill passes. The bill will also help the equally rare bull trout by reconnecting spawning habitat, and fixing damaged historic waters. Catching a bull trout is something that every fisherman should experience, even if it is just one.

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