Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout

Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Chasing Cutts

The short season appears to be close to ending already.  A cool storm system has been affecting Colorado since yesterday.  According to the National Weather Service, snow levels may drop enough for some high elevation snow today into tomorrow.  The chances to fish high country lakes are quickly dwindling, but last weekend I explored a new area and saw some nice cutthroat while I was out and about.


The day started a lot later than intended, leaving a little after 11:00 in the morning would normally be a problem due to high country afternoon thunderstorms, but a large area of high pressure was forecast to hold on for one more day, keeping the showers and storms at bay.  The trailhead was crowded and finding parking was definitely not guaranteed.  Thankfully, after a couple of tours of the parking lot and surrounding roadside pullouts, a spot opened up and we were soon on the trail.

For those that fish the area regularly, I'm sure the pictures will give away the location.  For the rest of you, I'll just say that the trail started at around 11,000 feet above sea level and we topped out around 12,000 feet above sea level.  Our destination was a high country lake rumored to hold cutthroat.

I was not too confident since we would be arriving in the middle of the day.  Lake fish are notoriously spooky during periods of bright light, but the chance to explore still made the day worthwhile regardless of how the fishing turned out.  About a mile up the trail, we passed a lake that had several fly fishermen wading the shallows in search of trout.  Just above, the trail steepened noticeably as it climbed towards tree line.  Unaccustomed to the thin air, we finally stopped for a break to catch our breath and drink some water.  Noticing the scenery around us, the cameras came out.  No longer focused on the uphill trek, we could enjoy the incredible views opening up around us.



Continuing uphill, the trees shrank smaller and smaller yet until above us there were no more.  Every rise above us brought hope that we were approaching the end of our climb.  Finally, our final destination seemed obvious and we crested the last rise to a gorgeous alpine lake.




Lunch on the lake shore took up the next 30 minutes but then it was time for two more important tasks: fishing and exploring.  I had brought a 9' 4 weight fast action rod anticipating the possible wind.  The only line in my arsenal for this rod is a floating line, but I yearned for an intermediate or sinking line.  The fish were obviously NOT cruising the banks although one nice cutthroat spooked from the outlet as I walked by.  Finally, without even a tap on the end of my line, I switched to the second activity, exploring.  Climbing high above the lake, the views continued to open up.  The high plains stretched out far below but it was our immediate surroundings that kept us looking around with our cameras for the next interesting picture.





Closer at hand, the wild critters would occasionally make themselves known.  Can you find the marmot in these pictures?



Returning back to the level of the lake, I started casting again.  Changing to a scud and a midge with some weight to get it down, I started casting out and s - l - o - w - l - y retrieving the setup back over the shelf and through the shallows.  After several fruitless casts, I was almost to move on when a sharp tap on the end of my line reinvigorated me.  The fish were there, just not very plentiful and not close to shore.

Moving on around the lake, I started to think more about that fish in the outlet.  With the proper approach and presentation, surely I could catch the nice cutt.  Sneaking closer, I discovered that the fish had indeed returned to its observation point.  Crouching nearby, I raised the rod tip and as the flies sailed towards the fish, it ghosted slowly into the depths, clearly concerned by the movement overhead.

A few more fruitless casts convinced me that I might better spend my time hiking out before darkness came.  Heading back down the trail, I started to realize how tired I was.  Thoughts of fish started to fade as I considered the nice bed waiting for me at home.  Then, as I rounded a corner above a shallow puddle to small to even name, something caught my eye.

Rising trout?!?!?  Sure that the small pond was too shallow for fish to winter in, I had written it off earlier in the day but now, unless my eyes were deceiving me, trout were rising with abandon.  Moving quickly down the slope from the trail to the ring of willows surrounding the water, I found a narrow opening through the vegetation and was soon standing on a rock with only a good cast between me and the rising trout.  Were they brookies?  The rises sure looked like it, but then I kind of hoped that the brookies had not moved this high up the drainage.  Tiredness evaporated and all thoughts of sleep left me as I started to cast.

It only took two casts before I had my first fish on.  "Not brookies, cutthroat," I happily noted.  Small but beautiful, I almost took out the camera.  Instead, I decided to set my sights a bit higher.  "That rise over there looks like a good fish" I thought to myself.  Casting the same set up, I only managed a couple of strips before the fish hammered the fly.  Slowly fighting the fish, I decided that this one would have its picture taken.



A short time later, I released yet another beautiful cutthroat.  What a day it had been!





Thursday, September 06, 2012

Midweek Excursion

Yesterday, business took me over to Boulder.  Of course, it was only another 5 minutes to the lower end of Boulder Canyon so I decided to take the fly rod along (it really was a no-brainer!!!).  Arriving streamside around 7:00, I knew the light would fast be fading.  The resident browns were at their most gullible as the low light not only made it hard for me to see my fly, but also made it harder for the fish to spot me.

In probably the second or third pocket that I fished, the first small brown struck.  I was fishing my favorite 8' 4 weight with one of my favorite nymphs for Colorado, the Mustard John.  The little guy was momentarily airborn when I set a bit harder than necessary.

Continuing up the creek, I received one half-hearted tap on the nymph and decided to try a dry.  Out came the Yellow Neversink Caddis and almost immediately I had a fish hit.  Continuing up the creek in the fading light, I pulled little brown trout out of only the deepest and darkest of pockets as the fish are all on high alert with the low water levels.  My best fish came from a very predictable deep dark hole and paused long enough for a photograph.  It was a classically beautiful little brown.  Soon I intend to venture further afield in search of some larger browns.  In the meantime, this is not a bad way to spend 45 minutes!!!


Stunning Sunset

The other evening I was out on a nearby lake, flailing away aimlessly with my fly rod.  Happy to just get outside, the fishing was almost an afterthought.  As time went on, the sky went from "nice" to "stunning" in a matter of just a few minutes.  The late afternoon sun was lighting the clouds perfectly and a high-based shower was moving across the urban corridor looking more menacing than it really was.  My camera came out and I became more engrossed in taking pictures than catching fish...





Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Beginning

Warm nights are still the norm here on the plains.  High in the mountains the trees are hinting at the cool nights ahead.  Pockets of aspen in the highest elevations are turning golden yellow, splashing their brilliant colors across the slopes just below tree line.  Back in Tennessee, colors would start changing by late September, but even here on the plains I'm higher above sea level than everything except the highest elevations in the Smokies.  Winter comes earlier here, and I'm intent on enjoying the mountains before the snow flies.

The beginning of fall is here, never mind that it does not officially start for another couple of weeks.  Last Sunday I hit a high country trail.  In addition to the brook trout coloring up for the spawn and heading upstream, the trees were proclaiming the changing seasons as well.  The streams are low and clear and the late afternoon storms are definitely on the decline as the monsoon slowly winds down.  Fish are hungry, putting on as much weight as possible before ice takes over the streams and lakes.  As a fisherman, I love this time of year, likely because I feel like quite the pro when fishing for such hungry and aggressive fish.

On Sunday, I only made minimal progress up the trail before the stream was calling me.  That's one benefit of exploring a new area.  Instead of doing the smart thing and heading far upstream, you can ignorantly fish wherever there is water.  In my case, ignorance was bliss.  The brook trout were hungry and coloring up for the spawn.  Brook trout are probably not more beautiful at any other time of year.  The next two months is the time to catch them, not to mention all the other hungry fish out there.

As the trail and stream nearly merged into one, I had a front row seat and soon decided to jump in instead of carrying on as a specter.  The first thing I saw was a nice 8 inch brook trout that casually refused just about everything I tossed at it.  In faster water, a fish rose to the buggy Parachute Adams, and I was soon admiring my first fish of the day.  I snapped a picture and then remembered a fishtail picture for my buddy David Perry.



Moving up through the steep pocket water, I managed a fish from nearly every deep pocket and some of the smaller less obvious spots as well.  In one wide pool a chunky and colored up male rose from the deepest water to inhale my fly.  My excitement level shot through the roof as I saw the colors.  I dug out the camera and snapped a couple of pictures.  Another picture documented the little non-descript run that the big brookie rose from.  I suspect it had moved up from the deeper pool immediately downstream, but maybe it lives in the flat run year round.





Glancing up, I saw the beginning of fall broadcasting on the stream bank.  Eight years ago, I was in Arizona for the fall and while exploring the White Mountains, I fell in love with aspen dressed up in their fall colors.  My camera was still out, and after finishing with the aspen picture, I looked upstream and decided to continue taking pictures.  Every corner turned begged for another picture.  The beauty of this place was just incredible.



Moving upstream, I found some more willing brook trout.  The average size continued to be excellent and I found two more larger males sporting their spawning colors and some intimidating teeth.





Like a kid in a candy store, I was excited to discover what each new pocket and pool held.  The brookies seemed to just grow in size as I progressed upstream.  The lower portion of this stream follows a road and the average size of the fish I caught there was probably a couple of inches shorter than it was along the trail.  Finally, I decided to scratch my wandering itch and climbed out of the stream to hit the trail.  Looking up I spotted large patches of aspen turning gold high above.  After snapping a couple of pictures of the stream I had just left as well as the colors on the mountain, I was ready to head upstream.

Crossing the first bridge over the creek, I stopped to photograph the brook trout jumping the falls.  Another half mile up the trail I discovered a sign suggesting that I might find Greenback cutthroat nearby.  Glancing around, I saw a little pool beside the trail with a fish finning that looked different from the brookies I had been finding.  On the first cast the fish rose and I soon had my first Greenback!!!

Catherine McGrath Photograph

A nearby cascade suggested pristine Greenback water above so up the high I went.  Before long, however, I became more interested in the scenery than catching fish.  The views opened up quickly and  the cascades itself was stunning.






Absorbed in taking pictures, I didn't forget to catch another Greenback.  After following gravity back down hill, I found a few more willing cutts before deciding it was time to head back to the car for lunch.  By three in the afternoon, I get pretty hungry even when thoroughly distracted by the spectacular fishing and great scenery.





Sunday, September 02, 2012

Jumping Brook Trout!!!

These brookies think they are salmon heading upstream to spawn, or at least they were doing their best salmon impersonation.  The high country brookies are starting to color up nicely for the spawn.  Today I found many willing fish, but the highlight of the day was watching several fish repeatedly trying to scale a small falls.  They appeared to be moving upstream in anticipation of the upcoming spawn.  I got several pictures as the fish hurled themselves into the air only to be swept back downstream in the fast water.







While I was definitely pleased with the pictures, the real highlight is the following video taken by my friend, Catherine McGrath.  In just a 15 second clip, you can see three different fish trying to scale the falls.  For the best video, watch this in full screen HD...


Saturday, September 01, 2012

Thinking About Fall

As late summer holds on tenaciously with 90 degree plus temperatures here near Boulder, I find myself excited about the changing of the seasons that is almost here.  Before I left Tennessee, the dry weather had already started changing some of the leaves.


Here in Colorado I have found the same thing.  Long range forecasts are starting to suggest a significant cooling trend may begin by late next week.  Overnight lows in the mountains will be dipping down towards freezing which means the aspen will be turning a brilliant golden yellow, perhaps sooner instead of later.  In addition to chasing trout during my favorite season, I will also be out with my camera enjoying the beautiful transition to winter.  I can't wait!!!