Monday, December 28, 2015

A Monster In The Mountains

The wind cut through the trees like an icy dagger, piercing us right to the bone, as Bert Williams and I put together our fly rods to fish the banks of the alpine lake.

 “I may actually need my jacket today.” I said, as I dug for the fleece jacket in my backpack.

“It did get cooler after we stopped hiking.” Bert observed, as he lengthened the sleeves on his shirt.
“What fly are you tying on?” He asked.
“Little green beetle.”

“I think I have one of those.” Bert said, and after tying one on he found a rock to cast from.

There were no fish in sight, which is not a good sign when the water is as clear as it was that day; however, I have been fooled by this before. The best thing to do in these situations is to cast your fly out to the darker shaded water, because that indicates there is some kind of drop-off where a fish could feel better protected by its camouflage.

As soon as my beetle smacked down, a small shadow sprang to life. The dark oblong shape raced up to my fly and snatched it from the surface.

“Blam!” I yelled, setting the hook. Small flickers of chrome reflected in my eyes as the little fish struggled to free itself, which also caught the eye of something much more surprising. Another shadow bolted from the depths, only this one was gunning for my struggling fish, and happened to be the size of a large Hickory Farms summer sausage. The speed of the large fish took me by surprise, and it only stuck around for a second before it disappeared. I quickly brought in my little fish and unhooked it, with little goodbye, before I stood to cast back out for a chance at the bigger fish.

Small fish were smacking my fly, and I resisted setting the hook on them in hopes they would shake free and the bigger fish would steal my fly from them. That technique was only working half way: the smaller fish were shaking free from my hook, but the bigger fish were not taking the opportunity to steal the fly. After several attempts to entice the bigger fish, I decided it was time to move on. I lifted my fly rod, causing my fly to wake across the surface of the water, which got the attention of the big fish.
“Oh no, no, no!” I yelled as my fly came off of the water before the fish could take it.

I stood there far too long trying to bring that fish back up again, with no luck. I saw that Bert had moved further around the lake and thought that I better do the same.

Together, Bert and I leapfrogged each other from spot to spot in search of fish. One of the major reasons to get to the other side of the lake was to have the wind at our backs. As soon as we hit the other side, the wind switched directions and remained blowing in our faces. That’s typical, I thought as I went to cast my fly.
“There we go!” Bert yelled, and I looked over to see his rod bent with a fish.

“This is a big fish!” Bert yelled, “A very big fish!”
“Big enough for a picture?” I asked.
“Yes… And there are two more following it!” Bert’s voice cut through the wind as he kept yelling with excitement, “Get over here and cast to one of these other fish!”
I was already ahead of Bert. I had my line in and fly connected as soon as I heard there were some big followers, and was in full sprint through the thicket, headed his way. I arrived too late to see the other two fish, which was ok, but I was more surprised that my fly rod didn’t snag in a tree limb as I scrambled over. There was no need to get close to the bank to see Bert's fish; as I approached I could see the mass of it as it thrashed in the shallow water.
“Bert! It’s a monster!”

Nether Bert nor I had a net to reign the large fish, so we made sure the fish was finished fighting before Bert held it up for the camera.

“Just look at that fish, Bert!  Stop everything and just look.” I said jokingly, yet being serious. There was no need to say that to Bert, because he was right next to me looking at his fish.
“It’s a nice fish.” Bert said, as we both stood over the fish that was back in the water and rejuvenating.

“You don’t even know…” I said, trying to recall a time when I had seen a bigger fish in an alpine lake, let alone caught one.

“There it goes.”
“Yep.” Bert said, as we both watched his fish slowly swim away. The clear water allowed us to fully appreciate the release, as the fish swam deeper and deeper until its shadowy form was the only thing we could make out… And then it was gone.

I hit Bert on the shoulder and smiled after we stood up from watching the fish. My gesture was taken as a compliment, as Bert smiled back. I could tell he was purely happy about his fish, and he stuck around that spot a while longer while I continued around the lake.  

I always make a point to hike all the way around every lake I come to, and as I made my way across the northern shadow of the mountain I started to regret that decision. It was clear that this part of the shoreline didn't get much sunlight, if any at all. The ground was extremely wet and muddy, so there was no walking on it unless I wanted to sink ankle deep. Furthermore, the logs I was walking on were wet and slick from being splashed by the waves that were blowing straight at me. I could only hope that Bert was not experiencing the same as he retraced his steps to head back the way we had came. After I was through the most dangerous part of the path, I did hook into one more fish. It was nowhere near the size of Bert’s monster, so I let it go without a photo.

Bert and I managed to find our way back to the car, which is tough when the Forest Service does not maintain the path.
“That is a hell of a way to end the high mountain lake season.” I said to Bert, showing him a picture of his fish on my camera.
“You will have to get me out again next year.” Bert said, as he sat in the driver’s seat of his car.
 “On the contrary, my friend. It will be you that needs to get me out next year.” I said.
“That’s right! You’re going to be a dad by next season!”
“When is Gracy due?”
“February 20th”
“Well… It’s fun. Your life will definitely change, but it’s fun. I’ll be sure to get you back up in the mountains.” Bert said, as he kicked his car into gear.

“Here’s to that!” I said, raising my water bottle up to accept his gesture, and to solute our last alpine lake of the season.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Spooky Fish

Getting our little dog, Kiwi, to get in the car in the mornings can be tough. Normally that means she is getting dropped off at the groomer, which she hates, but this morning was different. She heard us mentioned an alpine lake and she bolted for the garage. When it was time to head out we couldn’t find her, and it had turned out that when we had the doors open to pack up the car, Kiwi had snuck in to make sure she would not be left behind. 
“There you are!” I said to Kiwi, who was firmly planted in the driver's seat, ready for a hike.

Deep Lake was our destination, and when we pulled up to the trailhead Kiwi couldn’t wait to get out of the car. The distance from the carseat to the ground is a large leap for little Kiwi, but she didn’t hesitate to jump as soon as the door was opened.

The hike to Deep Lake is a short and popular one, which can mean it gets a fair amount of visitors and anglers in a season. The truth is that you never know if an alpine lake is going to fish well; whether it is an easy hike or a hard one, there are no guarantees. So hiking to some easy ones can be a nice change from the steep hike to Snow Slide Lake the previous week.  Although the path is not nearly as steep or long, it is important to have plenty of water on you. Half way to the lake, Gracy stopped to offer water to Kiwi. I wasn’t sure if Kiwi would drink from the straw, but when Gracy held it out with water dripping from it, Kiwi stood under it to lap up the falling water.

The lake was not too far up the path, and as soon as we spotted it my eyes sourced the surface for a rising fish. Gracy and Kiwi found a spot to relax as I started my hike around the lake with my fly rod in hand.

The lake was so still and the clarity was amazing, to the point where this lake almost looked fake. I could easily see over fifteen feet deep into the water, but where were the fish? I looked all around the water for any sign of movement... but could see nothing. This wouldn’t be the first time I have overlooked a sneaky trout, and the only way to bring them up is by presenting a fly. 

A small ring grew larger as my fly sat on the surface of the water, and I waited for a fish to bolt up from the shadows of a fallen tree or rock to take my fly. Just as I had feared, nothing came up, even after a few twitches of my fly. As I walked over to another opening in the trees, I zeroed in on some movement in the water like an osprey. I froze and watched an eight-inch brook trout swimming just under the surface. It was gulping food off the surface and moving fast. I unfastened my fly from the rod, pulled some line out, and made a quick cast that immediately spooked the fish. My line hadn’t even hit the water before the fish bolted, its squirming little body quickly scurried into the deep blue water and out of sight. 

After that reaction it was obvious that this particular lake gets more pressure from anglers than the average alpine lake. As fast as the fish spooked, I thought it was time to go into “stealth mode” and that means I BECOME THE FOREST. It sounds a lot cooler that what actually happens. I just become hyper aware of the fish’s cone of view, and of my approach to the water’s edge if I get a casting opportunity. Sure enough, a fish came up and started feeding on the surface. I had stepped far enough away from the water to blend in with my surroundings, but still have a clear view of the feeding fish. A large tree blocked the fish’s vision of me, and I moved slowly, using the tree to eclipse my approach. With the large tree and the surrounding shrubs, there was no way I could make a cast. Well, not your typical cast anyway, but a slingshot cast may be doable. I slowly unhooked my fly and drew back my hand, while pointing my fly rod forward to create some tension. Whoosh! I let go of my fly, and it plopped on the surface. The accuracy was way off, but it didn’t matter. The fish turned on a dime at the sound of my fly hitting the surface, and ate it without a care in the world. I set the hook in silence, and brought in the seven-inch fish quickly.

All that effort for such a small trout... It seems rather asinine, but for me it was quite the accomplishment. It was almost a shame to let it go so quickly after walking around half the lake to find it, but it was just as enjoyable to watch it swim back to its home.

Any other fish in that spot spooked from the commotion of the fish when I had brought it in, so I moved on. The lake remained still as ever as I made my way around its entirety. I was only spotting a few brook trout no bigger than the size of your pinky along the way, and their mouths wouldn’t even be able to fit around my fly.

“How was the fishing?” Gracy asked as I kneeled down to pet Kiwi, who ran over to greet me as soon as I came into her view.
“It was tough. Only one good sized fish, and others were so small they shook off before I could bring them in.” 
“That’s too bad.” Gracy said, as we packed up our gear and said goodbye to Deep Lake.