Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Greenbacks and Mountain Tops

Colorado's state fish, the Greenback Cutthroat Trout, has been notoriously absent from my species list for some time. I decided that this summer was the time to remedy this. Having done a number of solo native trout quests in my time (paiute, apache X 2, goldens, lk goldens, etc. etc.), I thought it would be more fun to spend the weekend with a friend so I called my ultra-reliable fishing buddy Steve. Per usual, he was down. A plan was hatched. Because I was dragging Steve out from Miami, I figured I needed to add a little flare to the trip beyond just catching the rare Greenbacks. This came in the form of backpacking and mountain climbing. The plan was:

  • Meet in Denver on Thursday and then drive to Estes Park and spend the night

  • Hit the trail early Friday and hike up the Roaring River to Lawn Lake while fishing along the way

  • Camp at Lawn Lake Friday night and fish the lake in the evening

  • Crack it early Saturday and climb the 13,425 foot trail-less Mummy Mountain

  • After the summit, fish Big Crystal lake for large cruising Greenbacks

  • Fish the inlet stream between Crystal Lakes and Lawn Lake on the way back to camp

  • Bust out early Sunday for the car, have a nice lunch in Estes Park, and then make for Steve's 5PM flight in Denver
The trip went off without a hitch.

Greenbacks and Mountain Tops

On the way to the trail head coming down the road to Horseshoe Park we got our first view of the area we would be hiking. Lawn Lake and the Roaring River are noteworthy as an earthen damn that was built in 1903 to increase the size of the lake failed July 15, 1982 at 6:00 in the morning. A huge amount of water was release and rushed down the Roaring River canyon spilling massive amounts of debris and water into Horseshoe Park and down into Estes Park. Three campers were lost in the flood. Twenty seven years later the alluvial fan created as the debris spilled out of the canyon is still clearly visible. The peaks in the background, from left to right, are Chiquita at 13,069 feet, Ypsilon at 13,514 feet and Fairchild at 13,502 feet.

The Lawn Lake trail starts at 8,500 feet and works its way up to 11,000 at the lake over 6.3 trail miles. Most folks that fish the river for Greenbacks don't venture too far past the first point the trail hits the river. For a small river this area gets hammered. Especially on the weekends. We saw at least a dozen rods on both our way up and down that were fishing the lower section. It is too bad they didn't walk a bit more, because once you gain some altitude, the river and the fishing experience take on a whole new character.

This is the view of Mummy Mountain from 10,000 feet elevation on the trail. We fished a bit below the high-grade river section you see in the foreground but spent most of our time above it. Once above this section the fishing improves dramatically.

The higher we went the more the Greenbacks seemed to be wearing their spawning colors.

Greenbacks are amazingly beautiful fish.

Stealth paid dividends.

For the fish too...

The upper section ends, as to be expected, at Lawn Lake. You can see the outlet of the lake and the site of the damn failure in the photo below. The 12,398 foot "Saddle" is directly in the background and Hagues Peak, 13,560 feet, is to the right.

Steve pulled this nice fish out of the outlet channel at the base of the lake.

To celebrate the end of the first day we opened up the Hudson Single Malt.

Perhaps owing to the altitude or the long hike up (or maybe the Hudson), the next morning our planned "alpine start" slipped a little bit and we did not set out on the trail until around 10AM. This is a view of the summit of Mummy Mountain, our target for the morning.

On the way up toward Mummy you pass near Crystal Lake and the small stream that connects it and Lawn Lake. We made sure to make a point to return to this spot later to fish where the creek drops off into Lawn Lake.

To climb Mummy Mountain you follow an established trail toward the saddle then head into off-trail around 12,000 feet for the scramble up to summit at 13,500 feet. This is our first good look at Big and Little Crystal lakes.

This is me partway up Mummy. You can see two things here; that the wildflowers were out in force, and that the hike up Mummy was pretty steep.

Getting closer to the summit.

The final 500 foot or so push to the summit got a little "boney". Photo below of Steve holding up a rock.

Finally, a view of the summit and a sense that you really could die up there if you fell.

We could see our camp at Lawn Lake nearly 2000 feet below.

At the summit! (In Steve's left hand is the peak register)

The views of Crystal Lakes, the Roaring River and Lawn Lake.

The climb up Mummy took about 3 hours. The trip back down to where we had stashed our fly rods at the turnoff to Crystal Lakes took just over an hour. For those unfamiliar with Big Crystal Lake, it is purportedly home to some of the largest Greenback Cutthroat trout anywhere in the world. At 12,000 feet, the lake has no real consistent insect hatches and a very short summer feeding season. Consequently, the fish cruise near the drop-off around the perimeter of the lake opportunistically eating anything they can. Or so we've been told (including on our hike in during a brief conversation with a guide from Wild Basin outfitters that was guiding a husband and wife team on the Roaring River).

It turned out that we would not catch a single fish in Big Crystal lake.

I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. Here is what happened.

I can say with absolute certainty that there are large Greenback Cutthroat trout in Big Crystal lake. Little Crystal, by the way, is fishless as best we could tell. Probably because there is no good outlet stream for spawning and the two lakes are not really connected in any way. The trail to Big Crystal lake approaches the lake at the outlet stream. Before we could even see the water, we could hear big fish splashing. When we finally did see the outlet stream, what we saw there amazed us. Probably 90 percent of the fish in the lake were in the 250 yards of prime outlet stream in 6 to 24 inches of water. There were hundreds of fish (if not into the thousands) and they were all getting busy. Chasing each other, biting, flapping their tails out of the water, digging into the dirt and "shivering". The big fish were making wakes as they cruised. Some large fish were swimming in water that was so shallow their backs were exposed. The site of all of these rare fish stacked in such perfect, seemingly manicured, spawning habitat was incredible. And some of the fish were truly huge, easily over two feet in length. In order to best share this experience, below I am going to post most of the pictures Steve and I took as well as a short video that Steve took.

Steve's video.

A wider perspective to give you an idea of what the overall spawning habitat looked like. Honestly, it was like a Koi pond. But instead of Koi it was loaded with ornery Greenbacks.

After watching the fish do their thing for quite some time, we made our way out to the lake to see if we couldn't catch any. We didn't see a single fish rise in the larger lake and I only saw one cruiser and got a short strike on a streamer. We did see fish migrating in and out of the outlet stream. They just were not interested in eating.

A great picture of Steve fishing Crystal Lake.

Steve took this picture looking back toward me (Mummy in the background).

After spending a few hours at Crystal Lake taking it all in, we made our way back down to the spot at Lawn Lake we had noted earlier in the morning. We also fished the small inlet stream above Lawn. The inlet stream was good. The dropoff into the lake was great.

That night we did pretty well fishing till dark. Then we finished off the Hudson and hit the sack. The next morning we packed up and covered the 6.3 miles back down to the car in about two hours and made it back to DIA in time for Steve's flight back.

Great trip. Great fishing.