Cutthroat Trout

Free of the flies that fooled her, there’s just time for a quick photo before this cutthroat is revived and safely released.

At 12,400 feet in the Sawatch Range, today was spent alternating between staring at the clouds gliding overhead and waiting for a particular cutthroat trout to swim by.

Such intervals are quite useful for reflections past and forecasting days to come. In July, days off from guiding are rare for me.

Usually, getting one means a chance to do research on some remote waters, trying out new flies or tactics, seeing how the fish and ecosystem fared after this lo-o-ong winter and spring.

The schizophrenic natures of the last two seasons have been a great opportunity to observe what these swings can do to alpine life.

So far, despite being a 180 from last year’s dry conditions and low water, the trout and their cousins have done remarkably well.

One notable exception is the Pomeroy lakes, where the lower lake sustained a drastic but not total winterkill of its Arctic grayling and the upper lake was still mostly frozen at the time of this writing. In 2018, we were fishing up there by June 12. Isn’t it almost August?

Returning to the shore of the lake I visited today, my purpose was two-fold.

First, a favorite antidote for summer heat and the angst of being a local in a tourist town is elevation.

Second, a few days ago one of my guests hooked and lost a trout of legend, losing $7.50 worth of flies in the process. While the latter may seem a bit flimsy of a justification for launching a crusade to the casual reader, true anglers will understand.

So, off the dog and I went. Jeeping up the drainage past the weekend carnival of tents, grills and poorly parked vehicles, we quickly left most of civilization behind.

Campsites dwindled, replaced by occasional contact with ATVs and rental cars totally out of their element.

Not many at the trailhead on a Sunday morning and even fewer when we arrived at the lake. Just three others had made the jaunt, rods in hand.

This was the fifth time to visit this place since late June and the changes have been dramatic. Instead of hiking across vast snowfields, the familiar trail has emerged, even dried a bit.

The vehicle-swallowing mud pit had dried enough to let drivers pass without ripping fresh unneeded tracks across the tundra. Because the season is now so compressed, it seems all the wildflowers have erupted in just the past 10 days.

Now free of ice, the water has warmed enough to trigger the spawning behavior in the trout. Many prowl the shallows at warp speed, ignoring almost everything an angler/fisherperson puts in front of them.

The sight of groups of large, brilliant, cruising fish in less than 2 feet of water catches the eye, whether you’re looking for them or not.

That includes the fish in question. This is a large cutthroat trout, even by the standards of a lake known for bigger fish.

While it had left my guest shaking after thrashing, running and breaking the line with ease, I was handed the memory of a flash of gold and red, with giant black spots across the back and tail. Right then, a vow was made to return as soon as time allowed. You know, to settle the score.

So, on went the concealing wardrobe, the sneaky approach and careful rigging of rod and flies to try and tip the odds in my favor.

The thermometer confirmed the water was right for active feeding.

With Trevor crouched on the bank next to me, on went the polarized glasses and the game began.

Finding it wasn’t too challenging, as cutthroats are creatures of territory and habit, especially while in the futile pursuit of spawning in a lake without suitable habitat.

Sure enough, centered in a cruising group of perhaps a dozen fish, was a sizable trout sporting a new piercing in its upper lip and trailing the dry fly at the other end of the broken line. About every 10-12 minutes, the same group would swim by on a variation of the same path.

Each time, they were presented with ample opportunity to inspect and inhale any of the three flies (one floating, two sinking) that were carefully placed to intercept the random track they took. After each pass, the flies would be changed to different patterns, a fresh offering.

This continued for several hours, with six of the group falling for the ruse, being netted and carefully released.

One time, the fish in question moved to the flies, only to be out raced by a smaller, colorful male who fought hard.

Despite the ruckus of catching some of its friends, that trout kept returning with an entourage bolstered with fresh members. And would refuse the latest offering, again.

Now, it is usually at about this point that most people, even dedicated fly fishers, will begin to question the durability of their fanaticism.

They taught me that this is the moment when the truly, clinically deranged dig a little deeper and stick it out for the “one last shot” as the sun drops in the West.

It’s not that Cutthroat trout are dumb, maybe it is more a matter of them often being less pressured by fishermen or just more primitive of a trout.

They are predictable in their maddening behavior and today was no exception.

I changed the flies on last time, back to patterns tried and refused several times already, placed them carefully out in front of the fish and waited, ready.

This time, it swam over and with a quick flick of the fins inhaled the bug it ignored at least a dozen times before.

Fortunately, I managed to not botch the hookset or the playing in of this beautiful, wild creature.

After reclaiming my lost flies and a few photos of the beauty (it was a she) in the net, Trevor and I spent another 10 minutes reviving her and guaranteeing she would swim back to her brood. With a sweep of the tail, she was gone.

Shouldering the pack, the dog and I began the trudge back. The best part of the whole day? Not once did the word work creep into my thinking and that was the whole point.

Expect great conditions on the high lakes of this area from now until the third week of September! Recreate safely and responsibly, please. I look forward to seeing some of you up there!

Stuart Andrew is head guide for ArkAnglers fly fishing guide service and an internationally recognized artist.

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