We rose early the morning of August 16th. Exhausted, but eager, we tore down camp and found ourselves on the road before seven. Bidding farewell to Lake Granby and the IPWA, we swung a right on US-34E and began our brief trek towards the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Understandably less trafficked than the Estes Park entrance on the eastern edge of the Park, we were surprised to see no other cars as we approached the western gate. Even more surprising, we found the gate unmanned and a sign informing us to proceed without paying.
Not one to complain, we thanked the fishing gods for their kindness and began the 70 mile drive toward our destination pausing only to admire the occasional herd of elk or mountain vista.
Countless miles of trout stream paralleled and transected the road along our way, but, fighting the urge to stop and fish each, we stayed the course and found ourselves at the turnoff for Bear Lake Rd by 9:30.
One of the more popular and trafficked trailheads in the park, Jake and I would be forgoing solitude on this final adventure for the chance to add one more trout to our life list.
For all it lacks in solitude, Dream Lake, a short 0.75 mile hike from the Bear Lake Trailhead, offers an ease of access to Greenback Cutthroat not matched anywhere else in the park. With time now a limiting factor, it seemed the obvious choice.
As we proceeded up Bear Lake Rd, however, the obvious choice was quickly drawn into question. Large electronic billboards every few miles glowed yellow with the announcement “Parking Lot Full. Use Shuttle.” Not easily deterred, and having little interest in lugging our fly rods onto a crowded shuttle bus, we decided to try our luck and continued past the shuttle lots in hopes of finding roadside parking nearer to the trailhead. Sadly that too had filled and, as we approached parking for the trailhead, we could see car after car being turned back.
Seeing no reason that both of us should lose time on the water, I suggested Jake jump out with his rod while he had the chance and allow me to catch up with him after returning to the shuttle lot. As he debated this option, the fishing gods smiled upon us once again.
Second in line to be turned back, the driver in front of us rolled down his window and began arguing with park service employee manning the lot. The car clearly had a handicap placard in the window, and it was apparent that the occupant felt this was grounds for allowing his entry to the parking lot. The entirety of their exchange took no more than 90 seconds with the attendant quickly ceding to the driver and directing him towards spots reserved for those with handicap designation.
That 90 seconds, however, was more than enough to change the course of our day as not one, but two, cars exited the lot as the driver ahead of us was ushered in. Unaware, the gate attendant still tried to turn us back until a shout from his partner monitoring the exit granted us access.
Suddenly gifted with parking near the head of the lot, we were on the trail within minutes and began the short, steep climb to the lake.
As we approached the lake, trail side signs informed visitors of the presence of Colorado’s state fish, and we found ourselves slipping off the trail to prospect the small stream that flowed from the lake. While most proved unfishable, we caught our first glimpse of the treasured greenbacks in a small pond that formed a few hundred yards below the outlet.
Each tying on small attractor dries, we began to take turns prospecting the pool and were quickly rewarded with our first Greenbacks.
Satisfied with our quick success, we continued on towards the lake. Any pressure on the day lifted.
Once on the lake, it became apparent that two factors would be working against us, wind and people. Though trout could be seen throughout the pristine, emerald waters, finding water both sheltered from the winds and devoid of people proved to be a challenge.
Splitting up in search of fishable waters, I positioned myself on a rocky point jutting out into the lake as Jake worked his way towards the inlet. Concentrating on the small cove formed on the leeward side of the point, I began alternating my efforts between three decent sized greenbacks as each completed a distinct circuit around the cove. Less than fifty feet off the main trail, I had the spot largely to myself with the exception of a pair of overly amorous Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels undeterred by my presence.
Offering everything from #22 midge patterns to size 8 hoppers, the next forty five minutes consisted of a string of frustrating refusals intermixed with the occasional missed hook sets. The fish would eagerly rise to pine needles and twigs, but simply wouldn’t commit to my various offerings. There was clearly something off in my presentation, but I couldn’t pinpoint what it was.
Eventually though, luck won out as a small black smoke jumper midge landed awkwardly in the water and stuck in the surface film. Lying flat on the surface, instead of vertically as it was designed, I was a little stunned as my intended target raced from five-plus feet away and eagerly slurped my minute offering.
Sliding down the rocky embankment in front of me, I quickly made my way to the water’s edge and netted my prize. Not quite as large as expected, the fish was still stunning and provided perhaps my favorite photo of the entire trip.
Satisfied with my success, I decided it was time to give the ground squirrels their privacy and made my way towards the head of the lake in search of Jake.
A few refusals, missed hook sets and a broken tippet latter, I found myself at the inlet to Dream Lake. There I paused to watch Jake as he systematically worked his way up the small stream where it entered the lake. The fish were abundant here, and his past hour had clearly been more successful that mine. As I approached, he hooked and quickly netted a small cutthroat.
Peering over his shoulder as he knelt to release the fish, I was shocked by its beauty. Still olive backed transitioning to black freckled yellow-green sides, this fish exhibited the deep orange-red ventral coloration of a fish preparing for the spawn. No more than a quarter mile removed from the fish I had taken thirty minutes earlier, my prize paled in comparison to the cutthroat lying in Jake’s net.
He had apparently landed a number with similar coloration over the past hour and had at points garnered a crowd as the trail passed within feet of the streams edge as it began the ascent to Emerald Lake a mile up slope.
Hoping to add a pre-spawn specimen to my list as well, I worked my way upstream and began casting to a pair of larger specimen cruising near the head of a small pool. Thirty minutes and a pair of missed takes later, I conceded defeat and we decided it was time to make our way back to the car. It was mid-afternoon by this point and Boulder, our final stop, was an hour-plus drive away.
Pausing only briefly to land a few small brown trout on what we latter realized was the Big Thompson River, we made our way to Boulder before six and, with more than a little luck, managed to find a hotel room for the evening (As an aside, attempting to find a last minute hotel room in a college town the weekend before Freshman orientation is not an easy task).
A brief break for showers (the first either of us had taken in over a week), and it was off to Twisted Pine Brewery for celebratory pizza and beer (Try the Luppolo Maximo if you’re a Imperial/Double IPA fan!).
It had been just over seven days since we began our trip. In that time, we had driven roughly 500 miles, hiked nearly 40(!) and each landed more than 100 fish. We had landed lifers and lost trophies. We were exhausted and elated all at once.
Though we’d officially wrap up our trip chasing small browns in boulder creek the following morning, that beer and pizza would mark the unofficial end to our trip. The adventure was behind us, bags packed and it was time to begin discussing our next adventure…