I saw a massive average size increase of the bulls I caught this year versus years past in the same water. Like from an 18-20" average to a 22-24" average, some fish going 25-27". Anyone experience the same?
Years ago, we'd fish the northern Whidbey Island beaches about this time of year for SRCs, and occasionally would get into a few bull trout, some of which exceeded 20" and were pretty stocky. Used Dan Lemaich's Puget Sound Minnow...rolled duck flank feather tail, olive chenille body wound with silver tinsel, and a palmered duck flank collar. I wonder if they still patrol those beaches.
I agree it is go thing you are seeing more native char on you local waters. The whole Dolly Varden/bull trout question is interesting with the conventional think up to the late 1980s/early 1990s was that the char of the Puget Sound region were Dolly Varden. However as more information was developed on those two char species it was thought the two could be separated by their appearance (and as Bruce stated physical measurement) however those methods produced confusing results. It was not until genetic tools were developed the native char of the North Puget Sound anadromous rivers were identified as bull trout. This was a significant expansion of the knowledge of the Dolly Varden/bull trout complex where it was commonly accepted that only the Dolly Varden adopted an anadromous life histories. However genetic sampling of north Sound char that were also tagged revealed that the fish were both bull trout and used the anadromous life history.
It is pretty interesting that the bull trout of the PS anadromous rivers adopt a variety of life histories with some fish remaining head water resident fish their entire lives rarely exceeding 10 or 12 inches, others adopt a fluvial life history and other becoming anadromous and some with lakes/reservoirs becoming adfuvial. In keeping with the confusing aspects of these interesting fish it is fairly common to see anadromous fish spawning with fluvial fish or resident fish spawning with either of the other two life histories. In the same way those seems to be significant plastically in those life histories with a surprising number changing life histories during their life times. Of interest is that following a regulation changes on some of the north PS rivers in 1990 and the more than 20 fold increase in the spawning escapements the number of anadromous fish accounted for much of the population increases.
If the growth patterns of your char are similar to what has been seen with the north Puget sound anadromous bull trout those 15 inch fish are between what I would expect for sub-adult fish and adult fish. Those PS fish are typically 5 inch smolts and after the first year of feeding in the salt they return to freshwater in the fall as 10 to 14 inch immature fish (sub-adult), those this return to the salt in the late winter/early spring and a few months later begin their spawning migrations as maturing first time spawners of 16 to 19 inches. As mentioned by Preston these bull trout can be fairly long lived and can achieve significant size.
Pretty common to see varying year class strength with bull trout which can result in short term shifts in length distributions. What you describe can be typically when there is a weak year class of first time spawners. Following the massive droughts the juveniles of many of the salmonid species had very low survivals. That included the bull trout so it should be expected that the number of first time spawners (mostly 4 year old fish) this past year to be depressed.
BTW - Even though I know these char are bull trout when I have my fly rod in hand I still tend to think of them as "Dollies"; old habitats die hard!
I have an old book(pub.1999)from the North American Fishing Club that describes the difference between the two as the length and shape of the head,the bulls having a longer and flatter one and the dollies shorter and more round.Hard to tell from the pictures,but squamishpoacher's appears to be a dolly and preston's looks to be a bull.Compare the two pictures and see what you think.The book also claims that bulls are not anadromous except for some small populations on the very southern tip of Alaska,but that's some pretty old information and the science has probably advanced since then.
When I fished Black Cod and Halibut in S.E. AK we would see schools of "Dolly Varden" cruising the beaches. They seemed to be cookie cutter 12-16". The kids in town would catch them, but we were always too busy getting ready to go so I never took the opportunity to fish for them. I always assumed they were bull trout but I don't know for sure.
It has been very well documented that the large, anadromous char of Puget Sound are all bull trout. Dolly Varden in our region only occur, as small residents, in a few high-elevation streams, usually above permanent barriers to anadromous species, in the Cascades and Olympics.
The name Dolly Varden is certainly derived from the character in Charles Dickens' novel Barnaby Rudge; in that more-literate age, an appealing and somewhat coquettish female after whom a wide variety of commercial products were named, including a colorful line of dress fabrics. In the late nineteenth century large and colorful "trout" were being caught at Soda Springs Lodge on northern California's McCloud River. These char, because of their striking coloration, were compared to and came to be called "Dolly Varden". They were actually bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus), the southernmost historical population. They became extinct soon after closure of Shasta Dam in the 1940s. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the name caught on and was soon applied to native char all up the coast, including Alaska. In 1978, Ted Cavender of Ohio State University carried out an extensive study of historical char specimens and in 1980 the American Fisheries Society recognized the bull trout (S. confluentus) and Dolly Varden (S. malma) as separate and distinct species. It is ironic that the name Dolly Varden was originally applied to what was actually a bull trout.
Absolutely love fly fishing for sea run dollies with my best coming from the Thorne River estuary on Prince of Wales Island as well as Haida Gwaii aka The Queen Charlottes.... very interested in the sea run dollies of Vancouver Island as I go there yearly to fish maybe they start to show in my favorite waters this fall man.... interesting thread many thanks.... ST