Rocky Mountain Brookies
By David G. Duncan
I definitely do not consider myself a good fisherman. In fact, at best, I might just make it into the class of novice fishermen. As the son of a top-notch fisherman, it has always puzzled me, why I never got hooked on fishing. In fact, fishing has always been way down on my list of gratifying out of doors activities. Trapping and hunting were the woodsy endeavors that got my blood pumping.
Although considered in my planning, I must admit that fishing was only barely on my radar screen of reasons to undertake a three-week long backpacking trip into the Rocky Mountains. Getting in shape and exploring the region for a future elk-hunting trip were my primary objectives. But a chance encounter with a generous fisherman, on the shore of a mountain lake situated along the continental divide trail (CDT) north of Steamboat Springs Colorado, quickly changed my focus to fishing for the remainder of my solo backpacking trip.
Backpacking, I figured would be the perfect mode of backwoods travel to transformer my overweigh body. Since backpacking was new to me, I took some time to get myself educated on the topic by reading a book. I quickly learned that there are many different approaches to backpacking, but going light was the main theme.
Not wanting to break the bank, I figured I would utilize as much of my existing camping equipment as possible. I put together my gear and ventured out on a trial 3-day backpacking trip near home to test my newly acquired backpacking skills.
Heading out on my test hike.
My pack tipped the scales at well over 50 pounds, which may not be a heavy load for a seasoned backpacker, but it definitely made a big impression on me. So after 2 days on the trail hike I called my wife to come pick me up. The fact that it rained all day everyday may also have had an impact on my decision to cut the trial short.
Following this trial hike, I quickly came up with a new plan B. Rent a horse and lighten my pack. Since my wife and I have rented packhorses, during several of our past elk hunts in Colorado, I was well versed in the skills needed to wrangle horses. Besides, once I made camp, I could ride the horse on trips to explore more of the high mountain country.
My faithful packhorse Rosy.
With Rosy loaded with 150 pounds of alfalfa cubes and grain, it did not leave a lot of room for my camping gear, so I still carried a 30 pound pack, as we headed into the mountains near Rabbit Ears pass.
It was the first week of July and spring was just arriving along the CDT in this region of the Rocky Mountains situated at the 10,000’ above sea level. Leading Rosy, I made my way through knee-deep snowdrifts that periodically blocked the trail; while at the same time doing serious battle with swarms of freshly hatched mosquitoes. Rosy was covered with a living blanket of blood sucking insects. I felt so bad for her, that I gave her rump a swat with the brim of my cowboy hat. The mosquitoes were so thick and so full of blood that my hat brim turned red. At that point I hoped she had a lot of blood to donate to these clouds of winged fish food.
After traveling about 8 miles we came to the first of many high mountain lakes we would encounter during our backpacking adventure. I decided that this spot would be a good place to set up camp for several days to allow me to explore the surrounding country. The grass was deep and Rosy ate and rolled in it with great delight, as I haphazardly casted a small spinner baits into the clear water of this mountain lake, without realizing any success.
The next morning as I drank my coffee sitting on a rock next to Fishhook Lake, a young guy riding a mountain bike came out of the woods, where the CDT crossed the stream flowing out of the lake. I watched with great interest as he parked his bike and grabbed his fishing pole. He made a long cast into the lake and immediately began fighting a nice brook trout, which he landed and released. Now he definitely had my full attention. Being the type of guy, who is not too proud to admit my shortcomings, I struck up a conversation with this young man. I needed to know what type of fishing lure he was using that allowed him to catch a fish on his first cast, while my many casts into this lake had been a total failure.
He showed me the spinner bait he was using and said, “This is just a cheap spinner bait, with yellow streamers, I brought at Wal-Mart”. Following our brief exchange he mounted his bike and head up the trail.
Camp on Fishhook Lake.
Well, at least I knew that there were fish in this lake, so I immediately took up the challenge of catching some fish, spurred on by my newly acquired enthusiasm. I remember feeling the presence of my deceased father looking over my shoulder, as I made my way to the far side of the lake and perched myself on top of a large rock. This elevated vantage point gave me access to the deepest part of the lake. I was confident, that this would have been the spot my father would have picked to try his luck at catching the largest fish this lake had to offer. I my spinner bait as mighty cast that sent it far out into the lake.
It was not the first cast, but before long I felt the exhilarating feeling of a fish bending my light weigh backpacker’s rod into an extreme arch. The words of my father rang in my ears as I fought to bring this feisty fish to shore. My Dad would always cheer me on saying, “Keep the tip of the rod up and don’t horse him too much”.
I did manage to land two nice Brook Trout. I knew my Dad would have been pleased with my success. But unfortunately, while fighting the last and largest Brookie, the last six-inches of the tip of my flimsy lightweight pole broke off.
My fishing adventure had come to an abrupt halt, just as it was getting started. Well, at least for the next five days, until my wife would meet me to resupply me with dehydrated food. She could drive me to town so I could purchase a proper fishing rod. A rod that was stout enough to handle these huge high mountain lake Brook Trout. My focus had now shifted from exploring to fishing, even though I had a lot more to learn!
Lost Lake home to 20 inch Brook Trout.
I had the great good fortune to meet a real fisherman midway through my hiking trip. I had ventured 5 or 6 miles from my camp on Fishhook Lake, to check out several other lakes and ended up on a lake called Circle Lake. There I met Gary Kline, a former resident of the area, who was guiding his brother and nephew on a fishing trip.
They had driven four wheels to the lake carrying an inflatable boat, which allowed them to reach the center of the lake to fish the deeper water, where the larger fish were found. Gary informed me that they had caught and released at least 50 Brook Trout at this lake the previous day. We spent over an hour exchanging hunting stories on the shore of the lake, while his brother and nephew fished.
As we parted company, Gary told me that they were going to hike by foot to Lost Lake and had to park the four wheels, since the trail ahead was restricted to motorized vehicles. In fact, they were going to hike cross-country to lake and would likely fish a secret spot of his for large cutthroat trout on the way. I knew Lost Lake; it was only a couple of miles from my Fishhook Lake camp. They headed up the trail packing their now deflated boat and I mounted Rosy to ride down the trail in the direction they had come to check out some scat that Gary had told about to see if it was left by a wolf. It turned out to be only coyote sign and headed back to camp.
At the fork in the trail that took me back to camp I decided to take the trail leading to Lost Lake and I am glad I did. Gary and his fishing party had beaten me there and through my binoculars I could see them hauling in some huge Brook Trout. Gary had rowed their boat to the center of the lake. I watch Gary and his nephew reel in Brook Trout, easily measuring 15 to 18 inches, on just about every cast. All the fish were promptly released. It was not long before Gary came ashore to let his brother, who had been fishing from shore; replace him in the boat.
Gary had seen me watching and with some difficult made his way over the rocky landscape to join me at my vantage. Although our friendship had just come into existence, during our earlier encounter, I felt a true kinship with this outdoorsman. We sat chatting and watched his fishing partners pull in trophy trout from this secluded deep high mountain lake.
Gray freely shared with me his knowledge of how this lake became filled with these huge Brook Trout. He said, “This Lake had only small trout, until some guys came in during the dead of winter, on snow machines and commercial fished it through the ice. They took out coolers full of fish in clear violation of the fishing laws. Not sure if they got caught, but after that the remaining fish have been getting bigger and bigger. I am sure the Colorado state record Brook Trout of over 20 inches surely lives in this lake.”
While we sat there he, shared with me the secret of how to caught these large trout from shore. He stated, “You need to use a fairly heavy lure, in order to cast into the deep far from shore. Then you need to count to about 12 before starting your retrieve, so the lure can sink down to where the fish are during the middle of the day.” He went on to show me the lure he used, which was a “Kastmaster” lure and was even gracious enough to give one of his lures. I thanked him greatly and we parted, each going our separate ways.
The following day I returned to Lost Lake to try my luck at catching a trophy Brook Trout from the shore. I had Fire Line on my open faced reel and Gary’s Kastmaster lure attached as I sent the lure on a high arc toward the center of the lake. He was correct; the distance I achieved with his lure was spectacular. I mentally count to 13 and started the jerking the lure with the retrieve that Gray had instructed me to use. I believe it was my third or fourth cast when I felt the hammer like strike of a hog of a fish. After a very respectable fight I land a deep-bodied 15-inch long high mountain lake trophy Brook Trout.
My largest Lost Lake trophy Brook Trout.
I managed to catch one more trophy Brookie from Lost Lake, before I lost Gary’s Kastmaster lure when it snagged on a submerged log. Gary had told me to fish in a particular location on the shore for this very reason, but I had decided to move to a spot of my own choosing and suffered the consequences.
I will always be indebted to my friend Gary and hope to be able to return to Lost Lake sometime in the future. Only this time I will definitely be packing an inflatable boat!
Fishhook Lake Brookie.