I've done this high country trip before and it involves a lot of work. I always have a moment of hesitation when planning such a trip. I wonder whether it will be worth all the effort or if I'm even still capable of dragging my bones into the high country. At some point during the planning stage, the trip gets a momentum all its own and all the little chores from packing food to loading the ATV in the pickup somehow get done.
To do this trip well, you need three days... one to get in, one to fish and one to get out. I packed as lightly as I could. I took only what I needed to survive: sleeping bag, one-man tent, some Power Bars, some trail mix, a dehydrated soup mix, a small stove, coffee, ibuprofen and of course, a pack rod, a light reel and six zillion flies. It all weighed in at approximately 30 pounds.
Although the high mountain lake I was trying to reach is really no more than 30 miles from my house as the crow flies, it involves driving the pickup from 4000 feet to 8000 feet up a 4-wheel drive road, then it's 10 miles of shoulder-jamming, wrist-twisting histrionics on an ATV to the Wilderness Area Boundary. From this trailhead, it is a gain of another 2000 feet spread out over 5 hours of hiking to reach the lake. This lake is entirely above timberline and is surrounded by 13000' peaks, ridges, minarets and snowfields. It is a fantastic place, but to say I hadn't questioned my sanity on the way up, would be a lie.
I reached the lake at 3:00 PM on Saturday afternoon. I was beat. Although I rigged my rod immediately, I really felt like I just wanted to sit and rest for a while. My thighs were sore, I had a bit of a headache and I was questioning whether I had the enthusiasm to do this committing of a trip again in the future. I thought that maybe I am getting just a bit too old for all of this.
After this momentary self-indulgence, I dutifully marched the 200 yards from camp to the lake's edge. I tied on a Turk's tarantula and stripped off some line. It was a calm and beautiful afternoon... perfect really. It was perhaps a bit cool when the sun went behind a cloud, but certainly warm enough when sunny. I made a cast and jumped up on a tall boulder. Feeling suddenly energetic, I then hopped onto an even taller boulder to get a better vantage point. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my fly disappear and as I struggled for balance on the boulder, I set the hook. It was immediately clear that this was no 16" fish. Line melted off my little reel and I immediately cranked down on the drag.
Suddenly nothing hurt, I jumped from one boulder, halving the distance to the ground, then off another big rock to a grassy patch next to the lake's shore. I ran to the lake's edge and struggled to control this fish on the 6X tippet. Every time I got the fish near to shore, he would make another run often raking the light tippet against the many stones that lined the shore. I was sure I would lose this fish, but the fish gods rewarded my efforts and eventually allowed me to tail the beast. He was a fat 23" cutthroat... really thick... a slab of muscle that probably weighed in at 6 or 7 pounds.
Over the next few hours I caught a least a dozen fish over 18 inches, probably six of which were over 20 inches. I did not catch any more as big as my first fish, but that would be asking a great deal. I caught fish on streamers stripped slowly and on a prince nymph that I dropped in front of a 20" cutthroat that was feeding in 12" of water where the cold effluence from the barren upper lake drained into my fish-filled lake. I caught fish on a variety of terrestrials from ants to hoppers and I even managed to catch some big bruisers on a size 20 blood midge dropped off one of the big hopper patterns. It had been a GREAT afternoon and was all that I could have asked for. And yes, it had been worth the effort! In fact, I now wondered why I had ever doubted myself.
I quit fishing about an hour before dark hoping to cook some soup and get a good meal in me before I retired. By the time I got back to camp, the weariness I had felt earlier rolled over me like a drug. It was all I could do to cook something and wolf down a couple Power Bars before I crawled in my little tent. It was 8:30 PM and I'm sure by 8:35, I was fast asleep.
I slept well and after an amazing eleven hours of recuperative sleep, I was up and ready to go fishing again. It was a beautiful morning. No wind, clear skies and spread out in front of me like a banquet table, sat a glossy alpine lake now dimpled with rising fish. I spent the morning "bonefishing". I fished the shallow flats at the north end of the lake and only cast when I saw a big fish coming at me. It was just like flats fishing, by that I mean hunting more than fishing. The hardest part was waiting for a fish to decide whether your fly offering looked sufficiently real to eat. Often, these big fish would rush at my fly when it hit the water then slow way down as they suspended under it to examine apparently my fly tying abilities. More often than not, these big cutthroats would eat. Then the challenge was to let the patented cutthroat take develop fully before striking. To strike before the cutthroat's mouth closed sufficiently would invite a miss. This whole drama from a fish rising to the fly, to the take, to the eventual hookup seemed as if it all happened in slow motion. This agonizingly slow process was delicious, but carried with it a fidgetiness generated as I struggled with my impatience. It may take patience and create anxiety, but the quality of this sightfishing has to be experienced to be understood.
After fully sating my fishing addiction, I packed up my camp in the early afternoon and hiked 2 hours to a lake I had passed on the way in. This would make my day tomorrow much easier. I spent the afternoon exploring this area, catching 13" brookies and eating a bag of peanuts I had fortuitously thrown in at the last minute.
When I got home the next day, I was a foot sore, sweaty, sunscreen encrusted ball of Jell-O. My mom called shortly after I got home and asked me what I had done over the weekend. I told her I had gone up in the mountains and had a great time. She said, "That's nice honey"
If she only knew the half of it!
Written by Scott Heywood