Getting bull trout to cooperate for a photo shoot in a remote spawning stream is no easy thing, but a Flathead Valley fisheries biologist and a National Geographic photographer pulled it off, and the results are now online.
“Some of these things look like paintings,” said Wade Fredenberg, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is now displaying about 40 bull trout images taken by acclaimed photographer Joel Sartore on its National Digital Media Library.
Again, making it happen wasn’t easy.
“About two years ago I got a phone call from a guy who said he worked for National Geographic,” Fredenberg said.
The caller turned out to be Sartore, a photographer from Kansas who is known for shooting wildlife around the world. His most recent book is “Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species.”
“He and I went back and forth (on the phone) for about six months,” Fredenberg said. “I told him, we can’t just go out and take bull trout pictures. You have to go to the right place at the right time.”
The right place was a tributary to British Columbia’s Wigwam River, a spawning stream that is used by bull trout from Montana’s Lake Koocanusa. The right time was during the bull trout spawning run in September 2009.
“He and I went up there for two days. It turned out our timing was impeccable,” Fredenberg said. “There was a couple hundred fish in a half mile of stream. They were laying right there under the bridge, some of them.”
Finding the fish was not a surprise to Fredenberg, since the Wigwam probably has a busier bull trout spawning run than any river in North America. In 2006, Canadian wildlife officials conducted an aerial survey, counting 2,300 bull trout redds, or spawning beds, in the Wigwam drainage.
“Ten thousand bull trout probably went up the Wigwam that year,” Fredenberg said.
Adult bull trout start their journey from Lake Koocanusa, a transboundary reservoir created by Libby Dam, working their way roughly 50 miles up the Elk River in British Columbia to the Wigwam and its spawning tributaries.
Fredenberg attributes the abundant spawning run to a couple of thing: First, Lake Koocanusa’s kokanee salmon has provided a huge forage base for bull trout and second, the quality of Wigwam’s spawning habitat.
“It’s basically got lots of very clean, very cold water because the groundwater supply that comes into that drainage,” he said.
Getting images became the next task for Fredenberg and Sartore.
“Some of it was experimental on his part,” Fredenberg said. “Initially, he did a fair amount of creeping around in a dry suit with a camera in his hand.”
Bull trout that were hovering in areas with woody debris and other cover were somewhat approachable.
“Bull trout are very cover oriented,” Fredenberg said. “As long as they feel they have cover, it’s kind of like they don’t think you can see them.”
But the approach method wasn’t good enough for Sartore. Prior to going in the field, Fredenberg had gotten permission from Canadian officials to handle some bull trout.
He used a dip net to catch a couple that were placed in a flat-paneled aquarium that Sartore used to photograph the fish without any backdrop.
“They are either on just a black or white background,” Fredenberg said, explaining that the photography goal is to focus a viewer on the features of the fish.
After that, Sartore focused on a stretch of stream that was loaded with bull trout.
“There were about 30 to 40 fish that were just holding in this pool,” Fredenberg said.
Sartore entered the pool and positioned and weighted a camera on the streambed that was connected to a monitor and remote shutter trigger.
“He told me that when I saw something I liked, to push the red button,” Fredenberg said. “So I shot about 500 shots in about two hours.”
Sartore frequently adjusted the position of the camera on the streambed to get different perspectives, also experimenting with flash, shutter speeds and apertures.
“The fish didn’t even react to the flash,” Fredenberg said. “The flashes are so quick they don’t even notice it.”
The remote, underwater photography yielded impressive, revealing images, which Fredenberg has studied extensively.
“There are some fascinating behavioral things that you see in those photos,” he said, citing a series of images that show bull trout in close groups. “I think basically they are just using each other for cover. They just seem to line up ... They’re kind of stacking on each other.”
Some images show red bellied male bull trout gaping their mouths in what Fredenberg describes as “agonistic display behavior.” Basically, they are showing off during the mating season.
“I believe we took in the neighborhood of 2,000 images,” Fredenberg said.
Originally, the intent was to include the images as part of a story on great wildlife migrations.
But the article, featured in the current issue of National Geographic magazine, ended up not including fish.
But Fredenberg and others U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials were impressed enough with the photos to purchase some for public use on the Digital Image Library.
“One of the reasons I agreed to do this and I was so excited about it is that a lot of people, even anglers, don’t get to see this kind of thing,” said Fredenberg, who several years ago put together a comprehensive photo display about bull trout and their history in the Flathead Basin.
“This was one of the highlights of my whole career,” he said of his experience with Sartore. “This is going to allow us to put the message out about how special these fish are to a lot of folks.”
The images can be seen online by searching for “bull trout” on the Digital Image Library at: http://www.fws.gov/digitalmedia