There's always a sense of urgency during the summer. Maybe it's the "pack it in while you can" mentality of our mountain town, or it could stem from the fact that some of our favorite alpine lakes get less than a handful of fishable months per year. Regardless, it's that sense of urgency that takes us to those lakes and gets us on those frigid waters.
I was chatting with my buddy Jordan the other week, discussing how the wild weather of the West has seriously cut into our alpine time. I've had some fortunate mornings in the subalpine this summer, but I also live 15 minutes from dozens of trailheads and am not one to complain. Jordan is down on the front range and has to commute to fish, so I sympathize and try to make our outings as memorable as possible.
After having a backpacking trip defeated by soaking wet weather the weekend before, we settled upon a car camping adventure the coming weekend. Up a super bumpy road that lands at a reservoir, nestled under the shadow of massive mountains, are three alpine lakes that are rumored to have some great fish. We formulated a weekend warrior plan and packed our cars under the premise of a sunny weekend. I still packed my rain jacket; this summer has surprised me more than once.
The sun crept through a smoky sky as Jordan pulled up to our place. Winds blowing in from further west were shading the sky, but the stoke was high. We set off to the road we had to rumble up until we found a campsite. After an hour on the road, we pulled into a fantastically remote spot shaded by aspens and conifers. We dropped off some bags and a truck, piled in mine, and continued up the road to the reservoir. Another 30 minutes of driving got us to the reservoir, but we weren't done yet.
We grabbed our gear from the truck and set off around the lake to an overgrown, unmarked trailhead. The trail climbs quickly in the first mile, but mellows out to a subalpine meadow covered in wildflowers with a crystal clear creek slicing through the middle.
I've fished this creek once before and landed some deeecent cutts on dries. They're insanly hard to catch though; this creek's widest point is maybe 3 feet. Most of it is covered in willow, and the holes are always hard to cast to. We still weren't done with our trek, though.
We continued up the meadow to the west side and started our final ascent to our destination. The trail follows the creek and runs alongside a beautiful waterfall before apexing a ridge and opening up to one of the three lakes in the area. We finally arrived, and relished in the moment of seeing an alpine lake for the first time. As Jordan said, "You'll never see an alpine lake for the first time, twice."
We worked our way around the lake and settled on a good spot to dump our packs. We were admittedly apprehensive - we saw no rises, no fish, no sign of life below the surface. Our rods came out of the packs first and we rigged up hopper dropper flies and went to work.
I worked as much water as possible with no sign of a fish. Jordan did the same, and even resorted to blowing up his packraft to work the other banks and middle of the lake. We fished a solid 3 hours up there with nothing but a chilly gust and some rum sips for entertainment. I heard that the lake was freeze-killed a couple years ago. Guess they were right.
Jordan and I packed up once the wind became defeating and bombed our way down the trail. We got back to the main reservoir and decided to chuck some bugs at the inlet fed by the creek we just passed by. Our luck quickly turned and we set into some nice rainbows as the sun worked its way closer to the mountain peaks.
Jordan's pup gave his rainbow an irish frenchie before the release on his first fish. We caught a couple more at that spot on dries and streamers, which felt redeeming. But, the thought of the other alpine lakes lingered in our minds.
The next day, we decided to work the entirety of the reservoir's shoreline to pick on some more bows. My wife joined up with us, and set off for an afternoon foray as the thick smoke blown in from the fires choked the sun.
It took next to no time to set into our first fish of the day. Jordan set into a dry fly muncher not far from our success spots of the day before. They may be stockers, but they're fun to fish.
As I snapped some photos of Jordan's catch, Sky echoed excitement as she too hooked into her first fish.
Sky has this devilish way of making fishing look easy. She does an excellent job at it, especially when I launch a double fly rig into a tree behind me. Gotta love a badass woman who seriously rips.
We stopped here and there along our journey to tie on new flies, munch some snacks, and crack some cannies to cheers the day away. I personally love this style of fishing; get some friends together, fish hard, and just kind of cruise along enjoying the day. My favorite spot from the day was atop some cliffs on the far side. We gathered here for a bit chatting away, when Jordan saw a cruiser motoring through the "flats". Naturally, he grabbed his rod and lobbed some truly insane casts to get some bugs in front of the fish.
Of course, he hooked up within a second of touching the water from our precipice.
We cheered him on from above, and even caught a few more from up high. True sight fishing at its dirt-baggiest.
We meandered along after a while, but the steam was running out after hours of shenaniganry and angling. We ended our day shortly after that and headed back to camp. We capped off the day with whiskey sours and tacos, and slumbered away with dreams of big fish for the following day. The plan was to head to another lake up high, and I was pretty sure my truck would make it to the trailhead.
The morning cracked at camp as we drank coffee in our warmest clothes since winter. Breakfast was a quick endeavor before we arranged for our final drive up to the reservoir and beyond. With rods and packs loaded, we bounced around as rocks buckled under my truck's weight chugging up the road. 45 minutes after leaving camp, we skidded into a pulloff with a cloud of dust following us. There was a "trail" disappearing off into the distance -- I pulled out my phone and checked the map. We're here.
We eyeballed the hills before us and tried to identify the surroundings and our destination. There was a bit of a crest off to the left side that we identified as our cardinal direction, grabbed our gear, and hit the trail. A quick descent led to some decently steep inclines until we were a quarter-mile away from the car. As we reached the crest, Jordan turned around and gasped.
Down on the trail we just came up, in the valley near the beaver ponds, stood a quite large bull moose. His eyes met ours and he started moving a bit in our direction. Welp, cya. We sped off in the direction of the lake and made LOUD conversation as we moved. Seeing a moose isn't really threatening, but walking through willow and pine in the summer is something to be wary of. Just be sure you are prepared to see a moose if you choose to cruise in the alpine.
The trail carried us higher and higher until we heard the sounds of an outlet creek approach us. The crest appeared rather quickly; Jordan's saying popped into my mind as we saw this new lake for the first time.
We were shocked to arrive to only a slight breeze and not the wrath of the big W. Eager to get casting, we found another crash pad for our big bags and assembled our rods in Olympic time.
The west side of the lake was showing some good promise, so we slowly began to crawl across rocks to get to some castable platforms. It didn't take long for the cutthroat to start trickling in.
Jordan took on the first ponies of the day, and I wasn't too far behind him.
The cutts kept coming, and their quality never diminished. Every fish that came to shore was at least 10", and their girth showed some healthy eating habits -- even at over 12,000'. We used a similar tactic from the day before and worked our way along the rocks, taking time to re-tie and cast at some sighters. We netted plenty of fish, and determined that this was one of our new favorite spots.
We settled down back at the packs for a quick lunch when ol' Wendy decided to show up for the afternoon. She blew in quick and derailed our plans for staying much longer. After a crusher of a morning, we jumped back on trail and started talking LOUDLY about our day. We made it back to the car, jumped in, and rambled back to camp to pack up. After a cheers and a goodbye hug, we parted ways with Jordan and headed home, exhausted but filled with contentment.
Trips like this are valuable to me. I enjoy fishing hard, camping, and getting out there. Those are times of rest for me, even if I'm hiking directly up a hill while sweating like hell. It's the connection to the water, the dedication of the group, and the feeling of a well-earned beer after working the wake. I aim for at least a couple of trips like this throughout the year to remind me of the connection. Not only to myself, but the world around me, the sounds, the steps, everything. My cup runneth over with satisfaction from that weekend. I can't wait to go back.
Fish on, my friends.