Time: 11:00AM – 1:30PM
Location: West side of Upper Waterdog Lake
I find it interesting that the human brain selectively forgets negative experiences and retains the positive. At least that seems to be my experience. In early July 2016 Jane and I hiked to the Waterdog Lakes near Monarch Pass, and favorable memories of that trek prompted us to plan a second hike on July 11, 2017. Jane prepared a tasty breakfast at campsite number 13 at Angel of Shavano, and we departed early in case the weather report of afternoon thunderstorms was accurate.
We made the short drive to within three miles of the summit of Monarch Pass and parked along the southwest side of the highway. My watch showed 9:40, as we crossed the wide roadway and embarked on the trail among some dense trees. Three other groups of hikers left the parking area ahead of us. The trail to Lower Waterdog Lake was quite arduous, and this was the experience that our brains discounted over a one year period of time. We climbed immediately and steadily with very little flat or downhill respite along the way. Fortunately our conditioning paid off, and we arrived at the lower lake by 10:40. The vista before us after we cleared the final ridge was gratifying, and this was what we remembered from our 2016 visit. We passed nearly all the folks that started just before us, and we were surprised by the absence of campers or fishermen on the spectacular lower lake.
Unlike our 2016 trip I carried my frontpack, backpack, fly rod and reel, and fishing net on the July 11 outing. On the prior venture I observed quite a few trout concentrated on the western end of Upper Waterdog Lake, and I vowed to pack fishing gear should I return. The moment was near, and I eagerly anticipated shots at the lake dwelling cold water fish, as we turned to the left and followed a worn trail to the southwest corner of the lower lake. A maze of trails branched off at this point, but I strategically remembered that the key to accessing the most direct and easiest route to the upper lake was to always veer to the left. Fortunately my memory remains relatively keen, and we arrived at Upper Waterdog Lake by 11:15. I immediately began to assemble my Sage four weight rod, and Jane explored a trail that circled the lake.
Several snowfields remained on the steep northern border of the lake, but the more interesting observation to me was the abundance of rings on the lake surface, as fish rose everywhere. Occasionally tiny fish leaped entirely out of the water in their efforts to procure nourishment at 11,400 feet. High elevation trout have three months to eat and fatten up, and the harsh environment does not provide the rich menu of insects that sustain trout populations at lower altitude.
The feeding seemed to follow a pattern that coincided with changes in the weather. When the sun was out, and the lake surface was smooth, very few fish fed on the surface. As soon as a cloud blocked the sun, the fish responded with a flurry of rises. Eventually the cloud cover generated wind and subsequently riffles on the surface of the lake, and this in turn terminated the feeding.
I began fishing with a size 18 deer hair caddis adult, but the fish ignored this usually reliable stillwater fish magnet. I swapped the caddis for a size 14 gray stimulator, and then I added a salad spinner (midge emerger) as a dropper fly. A couple refusals to the stimulator prompted me to go small, and I removed the salad spinner and replaced it with a griffiths gnat. I eagerly anticipated that the double dry approach would bring success, and on the first cast a fish bumped the griffiths gnat, but a swift hook set failed to connect.
Finally after a half hour of refusals a skinny ten inch brook trout inhaled the stimulator, and I notched my first Waterdog Lake trout. I continued with the stimulator/griffiths gnat combination, and eventually I netted my best fish of the day; a silvery ten inch brook trout. This fish also crushed the stimulator. Lake fishing is a strange ballgame. It requires infinite patience, as oftentimes the best approach is to simply toss the fly or flies to a place in the vicinity of recent rises and then wait for a fish to find the flies. In moving water the trout typically hold in a stationary position, and the food flows to the fish. In most stillwater scenarios the flies remain stationary, and the trout cruise about and find the food. I have a very difficult time simply waiting for an unseen trout to find my fly. Sight fishing would be more interesting, but for the most part on Tuesday July 11 I was unable to see the fish beneath the surface, and therefore I was unable to ascertain their cruising path.
By 1:00PM Jane and I paused to eat our lunches, but our munching was cut short when we heard some loud thunderclaps toward the southwest, where some dark clouds formed. We finished our sandwiches and hastily packed our gear and began our return hike, but as we approached the outlet area, it was clear that the storm passed to the east, and our urgency to escape the high country was reduced. We moved to a rocky shoreline on the opposite side of the lake from the outlet, and we finished our lunches, while I observed the continuing trout feeding cycle described earlier. Stage one was bright sunshine and smooth water, and the pleasant setting caused me to resume fishing.
I refused to believe that a size 18 caddis was ineffective on Upper Waterdog Lake, so I tested it again, but a trend was established, when it was soundly ignored for a second time. Next I experimented with a slumpbuster streamer and a trailing salvation nymph. Miraculously on a subsequent strip of the two flies, another skinny nine inch brook trout hammered the salvation nymph. Sometimes it pays to try radically different fishing methods. Unfortunately that was the extent of the streamer action, so after a reasonable trial period I ended my fishing day with a parachute black ant. Surely the gusts of wind were dispersing terrestrials in this high elevation lake.
During one of the feeding periods that coincided with cloud coverage, I spotted a fish near the outlet that was just below the surface, and it was cruising in a circular manner and gulping something tiny with great regularity. In this case I could detect the trout’s direction, so I placed the black ant in its path. The gulper approached the fake ant and inspected it, and I probably reacted with a premature hook set. I missed my opportunity, and with that episode I ended my fishing adventure for the day.
Jane and I packed our belongings and began our return hike at 1:45 after a very enjoyable day at Upper Waterdog Lake. I managed to land three small brook trout, but I observed and gained insight into the feeding cycle of high country trout. Eventually my brain will block out the strenuous climb and only remember the beauty of the mirror smooth sun bathed lake, and I will make another attempt to improve my stillwater skills.
Fish Landed: 3