On April 8, an Oregon angler landed what might have been a record-breaking bull trout. According to the Oregon Department of Fish & Widlife (ODFW), Ryan Mejaski caught the trout while fishing on the Deschutes arm of Lake Billy Chinook. He measured it, weighed it, took a few photos, and then let it go.
Mejaski and his friend Joe Wilhite were fishing for land-locked kokanee on the reservoir with little success. After changing spots, they noticed a group of small kokanee rising. Mejaski cast to the surfacing salmon and let his secret lure sink about five feet when his medium-lightweight rod doubled over and nearly snapped.
His reel screamed, and he adjusted the drag to let the monster run. Meanwhile, Wilhite pursued the fish with the boat, afraid that the monster would strip out all of Mejaski’s line or snap the 6-pound test he was using.
Within ten minutes, Mejaski guided the massive bull trout into the net. The anglers measured it at 33.5 inches long with a 26-inch girth. They tried to weigh it on Whilhite’s net scale, which maxed out at 25 pounds, but the fish sent the scale over its limit.
After releasing the once-in-a-lifetime bull trout, the excited fishing partners conjectured about its massive size. They thought it might have been a state record, maybe even a world record. Mejaski later told the ODFW officials that he thought the fish could have weighed up to 30 pounds.
“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,” Mejaski said. “People were happy about us letting it go, but it would be really cool to have a record fish.”
The Fish Lived to Spawn Another Day
If Wilhite’s scale was accurate, the fish easily topped the current state record, a bull trout caught from Lake Billy Chinook in 1989 that weighed 23 pounds, 2 ounces. The world record bull trout weighed 32 pounds. It was caught in Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille in 1949 by an angler named Nelson Higgins. Clearly, Mejaski was at least flirting with that venerable benchmark.
For a record to be official, a third party must weigh the fish using certified scales. In Mejarski’s case, that would have meant killing his catch. He opted to release the fish with hopes that it would spawn and perhaps grow even bigger. “During our bull trout spawning ground surveys, we’ve seen an uptick in numbers in recent years,” said Deschutes District Fish Biologist Jerry George. “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.”
Bull trout populations have declined precipitously over the years as a result of habitat degradation, interruptions in migration routes, and competition from non-native species like brown and rainbow trout. In 1999, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listed the species as threatened throughout the conterminous United States under the Endangered Species List.
“Lake Billy Chinook is a special fishery where we can allow anglers to not only target, but harvest, a smaller number of bull trout,” George said. “The fact that Ryan released the fish to spawn again, to be caught again is awesome.”