On April 8, Ryan Mejaski and Joe Wilhite were fishing for kokanee on the Deschutes arm of Lake Billy Chinook without much luck when they decided to move spots. After casting into a group of small kokanee that were jumping to the surface, his secret lure sank to about 5 feet and he got a big strike that took off screaming.
He quickly adjusted his drag to let the fish run, but they had to move the boat to follow it. His medium-lightweight rod was bent in half and nearly snapped. He spent 10 minutes working the fish on 6-pound-test line, brought it to the surface and netted it into the boat to take measurements.
The bull trout was 33.5 inches in length with a 26-inch girth, and it maxed out Wihite’s fishing net scale at 25 pounds. “The scale was maxed out and didn’t go any higher than 25 pounds, but that’s what it said,” said Majeski.
He told Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) that the fish was probably bigger, maybe 30 pounds. After taking some photos with the fish, they quickly released it and watched it swim away. That’s when the thought sank in—that bull trout could have been a state record, maybe close to a world record.
“I’m a little bummed out we didn’t keep it so we could get the official record, but it was the right thing to do at the time. We really didn’t think about keeping it, we were so excited,” said Mejaski.
The current Oregon record bull trout was caught in 1989 from Lake Billy Chinook and weighed 23 pounds, 2 ounces. The world record from Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho in 1949 tipped the scales at 32 lbs.
Mejaski said they continued fishing that day and caught a second massive bull trout only slightly smaller than the one they had released. “We thought we’d keep catching them but didn’t. We even came back the next day,” added Mejaski.
“Every fisherman that we saw and showed photos of the fish said that they have never seen a bull trout that big,” he said. “People were happy about us letting it go, but it would be really cool to have a record fish.”
Mejaski stopped by the ODFW Bend office and talked with Deschutes District Fish Biologist Jerry George about the catch. They both agreed that the trout may have been a record but it’s still out there to spawn and grow bigger.
“During our bull trout spawning ground surveys, we’ve seen an uptick in numbers in recent years. That has to do with an abundance of kokanee as a food source and lots of clean, cold water from the Metolius River and its tributaries that provide for excellent spawning and rearing habitat,” said George.
Bull trout live a long life. Mejaski’s fish could have been 15 years or older, added George. If the anglers had kept the fish, ODFW could use fish scales near the dorsal fin, or an inner ear bone called an otolith to determine age, as well. Out of fairness, the fish would have to have been weighed by a third party to be considered for the state record. That would have meant keeping and of course killing the fish.
“This goes to show that Lake Billy Chinook is a special fishery where we can allow anglers to not only target, but harvest, a smaller number of bull trout, a federally protected species. And the fact that Ryan released the fish to spawn again, to be caught again is awesome,” said George.
Mejaski said he really wishes he’d kept the fish and hopes that he can share his story with anglers out there looking for a big bull trout. He did say that he’ll probably end up paying for a replication of the fish.
“But looking at it on my wall every day might be too painful,” he added.
See more Oregon fishing at www.dfw.state.or.us.