Jackson, You don’t understand - this is dry fly fishing that will haunt you!!
It’s the middle of a long work week, Stampede is on in Calgary and I’m tired. I’ve been informed by the wife that we’re going to be camping in the mountains this weekend; all I can think of is a long drive and that I’d rather sit on the deck, have a beer(or more), play some poker, and sleep. The above quotation is from my friend Sam (whom we’ll be camping with) while he tries to explain how salvageable this weekend will really be. We’ve already had some great fishing this season so I’m somewhat skeptical about this being that much better. Sam paints a picture for me: Fishing to hungry Alpine Lake Cutthroat in emerald green water where you can watch the fish steadily work their way from the depths to the surface after your fly. Hmmm…
Fast forward to early Saturday morning. Still tired from the stampede yesterday I groggily go through the checklist: Hiking poles? check.
Hiking Boots? check. Hydration pack? check. Forget this - what do I really need? 3wt? check. Caddis? check. Camera gear? check. Good enough.
Shortly after lunch we’ve made it to the camp, we’ve got our packs set and Sam and I are on our way to the trailhead for lake #1. The hiking guidebook lets us know we’ve got a 7.5km hike in with the first 5km slowly gaining altitude and the last 2.5km quickly ascending with numerous switchbacks pulling you up. Along the way we ran into a few other hikers; they were kind enough to warn us of a “brown” bear near the top of the trail. “Do you mean a grizzly bear or a brown black bear?” “Ummm, it’s brown”. OK, we’ll keep that in mind… I hope it’s a grizzly - they seem more predictable. Sam hopes it’s gone.
The approach was easy but long. The switchbacks were more challenging but not all that bad either. There were more than a few spots on the ascent that provided excellent views of the valley and surrounding peaks. The closer we got to the saddle the more anxious I became - I was itching to catch a fish!
Sam surveys the surroundings on the way up.
As we crest the saddle we increase our chatter; the warnings of a bear in the area encourage us to talk about things to talk about. I’m happy to report that we did not spot a bear or any signs that one was around; ideal.
The lake came into view shortly. As soon as we emerged onto the edge of the lake we could see riseforms all around. The section that is first visible is a shallow bay (2′-4′ in most areas) where the cutties come in and cruise around. There were a LOT of fish snacking. I snuck up beside a tree and caught a sequence of this fish chomping down on a black ant - you can just make it out in frame 3:
Today if we hooked a fish approaching 12″ that would be considered a trophy. There were a lot of fish in the 7″-9″ range cruising around.
Occasionally, you could spot a larger guy moving in and about.
I unpacked my gear and got set up. I packed in my wading boots so I’d be able to get into the water and get to some fish that may have been out of range from shore. Cloudveil came out with a new line of wading gear this year; the wading boots are lightweight but sturdy - perfect for packing in. They come with a sole insert that allows you to wear the boots for wet-wading. That is a great feature on hot summer days or when you can’t afford the space/weight of bringing your waders.
Not sure what to tie on at first I decided that for the first time in my life I’d try out a royal coachman. It’s one of those flies that has been in my box from day 1 but has never seen the water. Since no specific hatch was readily apparent this seemed as good as the next. I cast it out and waited a bit. Within a short amount of time I got the first hit. I don’t think that fish could fit the fly in it’s mouth. Another hit, same story. I wouldn’t describe the interest in the fly was as hot as that which the naturals were starting to receive. On the water a few caddis were skating around, a number of smaller yellow sallies were taking flight, some small mayflies were emerging and the occasional ant could be seen. I tossed on a small parachute and quickly pulled a fish to hand. Watching the drop-off area I could see a larger cutt moving along. I cast out giving the fish a bit of a lead; it sees the fly and starts to move up to the surface. A smaller fish also sees and races up (crap). I pull the fly out of the way of the little guy and fish #1 resumes his quest to nail the fly. After a quick little battle I brought one of my nicer fish of the day to my hand.
At one point, while fishing, this marmot snuck up on a rock behind me:
Sam and I spent our afternoon working opposite directions around the lake. Eventually we met up and exchanged stories - seems like we both arrived at the same solution for tempting these fish. The surefire method was to cast out a caddis dry, give it a twitch a yard or two out from a cruising fish and leave it. 9 times out of 10 that would get us action.
Sam casting to an Alpine lake Cutthroat
In the mountains when the sun starts setting it goes down fast. Having been wet-wading that also means it gets cold fast. Sam and I pack up and headed out.
Sam making his way down the switchbacks - the remaining hike is out the valley bellow.
Getting back to camp around 9pm left us enough time to eat, prep the tents and then promptly crash.
The next morning we broke camp and prepped our gear for the hike into lake #2. This hike was described as moderate to difficult with a distance of 18km roundtrip and a decent amount of vertical. With only a limited time to fish the lake we made a rush getting there. Any trail section that was flat or downhill (not common) we jogged, anything uphill we pushed hard. It was a pace I wasn’t expecting to maintain but it yielded a very fast ascent. I took only a moment or two to catch some shots on the way up.
The basin above the waterfall is the area we’re heading to.
This shot was from the way back in the same location - you can see the trail on the right leading back down.
As we neared the lake our exhaustion seemed a distant second to our anticipation. Sam told me that the lake held cutthroat to 20″ or more and, while not easy fish, these cutties would take the proper dry. We moved along the shoreline and soon spotted some fish cruising the shallows. I strung up while Sam pushed ahead looking for more fish. The cutthroat trout that were visible were vivid in colour.
Looking around the lake only the occasional fish would hit the surface. I decided to fish a hotspot pheasant tail nymph having seen a few mayflies leave the surface. Casting the fly into the path of a few cruising fish I watched as they finned by without blinking. I made a small twitch of the line and the trailing trout turned quick and picked up the fly. In any new situation the first fish is always a good thing - the skunk is off.
A nice male Cutthroat from an Alberta alpine lake
Seems like worrying about getting skunked shouldn’t have been an issue. The action was steady. I changed my rig to a caddis dry with the hotspot dropper - the dry would keep the nymph neutral in the column. As before, a small twitch would entice a strike from nearby fish. As the afternoon progressed the fish started to come up for the dry. With the dropper the fish would abandon the caddis and grab the hotspot so I removed it.
I moved my way into deeper water. It was at this point when I experienced what Sam had explained earlier in the week. With the wind down at the moment I watched as a cutthroat swam up 20′ or so to pull down the caddis off the glassy surface. Very very fun!
This was one of the fatter trout that day - the colours would range from almost all red to cream to a silverish colour.
It would have been nice to fish well into the evening but we had a long hike back down to meet up with the wives. We packed up our gear and hustled back down the trail.
The hikes alone were amazing; to catch these beautiful fish was a welcome reward. If you ever get the chance to make your way up to any alpine cutty lakes it’ll likely be worth your effort!