Time: 7:30AM – 12:30PM
Location: Dream Lake and Lake Haiyaha
Sometimes it is not all about the numbers. That is the lesson I learned today, July 31, 2018. I exchanged text messages last week with my friend, Trevor, and we arranged to make a summer foray into Rocky Mountain National Park in a quest for greenback cutthroat trout. Trevor is an avid fan of high mountain lakes within the popular Colorado national park, and I planned to tag along in an effort to improve my stillwater fly fishing knowledge.
During the last five years Trevor invested many hours on treks to high country lakes, and he suggested that we start very early on Tuesday. Rocky Mountain National Park is the third most visited national park in the United States, and Trevor knew that the only way to procure a parking space at the trailhead was to be there very early. Our preferred plan had us parking at the Glacier Gorge parking lot, and that positioned us for a three mile one way hike to The Loch. As a backup Trevor proposed parking at Bear Lake, and this alternative put us in line for a .75 mile hike to Dream Lake followed by another 1 mile trek to Lake Haiyaha.
We arrived at Glacier Gorge at 6:30AM, and I was shocked to learn that the small parking area was full. Who were these tourists that woke up before dark to snag parking spaces in Rocky Mountain National Park? Plan B immediately advanced from backup to our main destination. A short drive from Glacier Gorge delivered us to the Bear Lake parking lot, where we easily found an angled space, since only 25% of the capacity was used at our arrival time.
We quickly grabbed our gear and departed on the trail to Dream Lake. Again I was amazed to learn that we did not have the trail to ourselves, as avid hikers and backpackers joined us. By 7AM we arrived at Dream Lake, and Trevor led me to a spot on the eastern side of the lake that contained several very large rocks. Trevor was rigged and ready to cast, so he began his day, while I pulled my gear from my backpack and rigged my fly rod. After ten minutes I was outfitted and anxious to join Trevor in pursuit of wild greenback cutthroat trout.
Trevor advised that the strategy for hooking high country trout was to pause and observe. Spotting fish was essential to achieve any level of success. Once a fish was sighted, the next challenge was to anticipate the direction of fish. According to Trevor most of the cutthroats tended to cruise in a circle, but the size and direction of the circle varied from trout to trout.
I applied my lesson to the task at hand and spotted two fish, as they cruised along the edge of the rocky shelf fifty feet from my perch on top of the large boulder. I was about to launch a cast ahead of one of the traveling trout, when Trevor announced that he had one, so I made a quick detour and snapped a few photos of his first catch of the day. When I returned to my previous position, I carefully slid down the steep rocky contour and began casting to the vicinity of observed fish. Trevor informed me that he was using a size 22 comparadun with a tan body, but I elected to begin with a size 24 griffiths gnat.
It took me awhile to improve my ability to anticipate the direction of the moving fish, but eventually I placed some casts several feet in front of some cruisers, but they ignored my tiny midge imitation. During the course of our time on the lakes I learned that dwelling at one spot was counterproductive, as the cutthroats gradually became aware of our presence. This knowledge dictated our pattern for the remainder of the day, as we stayed at one place for no more than ten minutes and then moved on to another spotting location. We moved counterclockwise and crossed the small inlet stream at the north end of the lake and then circled along the less populated eastern edge. We had the side away from the trail to Emerald Lake to ourselves, but the offset to this advantage was the abundance of fallen logs and the close proximity of large evergreen trees that impeded our backcasts.
Trevor demonstrated his advanced experience at this game, as he landed seven or eight nice cutties. Before we crossed the inlet stream, I determined that the griffiths gnat was not in high demand, and following Trevor’s lead I knotted a size 22 CDC blue winged olive to my line. Finally as we neared the junction with the path that would lead us to Lake Haiyaha, we located several cruisers within reasonable casting distance, and under Trevor’s direction I placed a cast ahead of one of the targets. The scene that unfolded was surreal, as a greenback patiently elevated until its nose was against my CDC olive, and then it subtly sucked in the fake fly. I held my breath for a split second and then set and found myself attached to a brightly colored wild twelve inch greenback cutthroat. I scooped it in my net and snapped a few photos and then carefully removed the tiny mayfly imitation. I achieved my goal of landing a high country greenback from a lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, and I was very excited.
We continued a short distance, and then we met the intersection with the trail to Lake Haiyaha. I stashed my frontpack and fishing backpack in my large backpack, and we engaged in the one mile climb to the next high country lake. Fewer hikers joined us on this extended hike, but I was once again surprised by the number of adventurous tourists that preceded us to Lake Haiyaha. Trevor made one prior trip to the larger and higher lake, and thus his familiarity with the conditions and approach was minimal.
The most obvious characteristic of Lake Haiyaha was the abundance of huge jagged boulders that bordered the shoreline in the first area that we encountered. Hikers were perched on many of the hard rocky retreats; and they sipped water, ate snacks and basked in the sun before undertaking their return hike. Trevor and I meanwhile went into scramble mode in order to reach the edge of the water away from the non-fishing spectators. This endeavor was quite a challenge, as many rocks were too high to climb, and in some cases the steep edges prevented an easy dismount. Furthermore some areas contained water of varying depths between the boulders, and we avoided wading deep in the uncharted waters.
Eventually we arrived at the edge of a deep inlet that circled a huge exposed rock, and Trevor spotted a couple cruising fish. According to his research Lake Haiyaha contained Yellowstone cutthroats, so we were very excited to observe a species that is quite rare in Colorado. He managed a couple casts to the sighted cruiser with no success, and then the moving trout migrated in my direction. My heart pounded, as it came into view, and I managed three decent casts that landed two feet ahead of the cruising fish, but in each case it swam underneath and paid my offering no attention. I judged from the speed of the trout, that it was not primarily in feeding mode.
We continued our mad scramble in a clockwise direction until we attained a high vantage point where we could scan the lake for cruisers or rises. Quite a few rings appeared on a regular basis, but of course they were in the center of the lake much beyond our casting skills. The water close to us was quite deep and murky. The cloudiness hindered our ability to sight fish, as we could only peer into the water for four feet at most.
Finally we reversed our direction and cut on a diagonal to an area near our arrival point, but the task of negotiating the large randomly spaced jagged rocks was even more daunting than our first bouldering experience. We managed to arrive at a point where a web of canals and moats enveloped a rock garden of boulders, and we observed a bit for rises, but seeing none we decided to cut our losses and return to Dream Lake. Landing a Yellowstone cutthroat from Lake Haiyaha remains a future goal for both of us.
We quickly tramped back down the trail, and when the path traversed a high steep hill above the area of Dream Lake just above the outlet, Trevor spotted several nice cutthroats. We carefully slid down the pine needle embankment, and Trevor expertly landed a pair of very nice greenbacks. I positioned myself twenty yards above him, but I never spotted trout within casting distance. If you cannot see them, you cannot catch them.
Once again we resumed our descent to the parking lot, but one more opportunity remained for me to add to my fish count. A large pool appeared next to the trail fifty yards below the outlet from the lake, and this small annex of Dream Lake contained an abundance of cutthroats. Four or five were hanging in the current, where the small stream entered the pool, and I generated several looks from these fish, but they refused to close the deal. Next I tossed my CDC tuft to a spot, where the current slowed and fanned out, and after the speck rested for thirty seconds, a cutty slowly finned under the fly and inhaled it. Much to my astonishment I landed my second jewel on the day. Another round of photos ensued, and then I released the gem back to its natural environment.
Playing the hooked cutthroat scattered the other nearby fish, so I shifted my focus to some visible fish in the center of the pool. These circling targets nosed my fly a few times, but they were too educated to entice. I turned my attention back to the area at the end of the current, and I noticed a nice trout that slowly moved next to some tall grass four feet away from my position. I paused and watched, as the feeding cruiser changed direction and swam to a small indentation just beyond the tall grass. My fly rod was longer than the distance to the trout, so I reached it out beyond the grass clump and slowly lowered the fly to the surface of the pond two feet beyond the grass. I held my breath, and the target trout very confidently drifted under my fly and sipped it in. I could not believe my eyes and good fortune. I executed a solid controlled hook set, and after a brief battle I had my third greenback cutthroat in my net.
Trevor landed a pair of beauties in the same area, and he announced we needed to be on our way. I hooked my fly in the rod guide and reeled up my line, and twenty minutes later we found ourselves in the congested Bear Lake parking lot. People were everywhere, and I was certain that I had been transported to Disney World.
Wow! What a day. I landed three greenback cutthroats from Dream Lake, but more importantly Trevor taught me the basics of stillwater fly fishing at high elevation. Catching trout at Dream Lake is a game of stalking, observing, anticipating and casting. We discussed future trips, and tentatively scheduled a return to The Loch in September, when the crowds thin and parking at Glacier Gorge becomes a possibility.
Fish Landed: 3