I’m cruising through the Wet Mountain Valley on the last leg of my annual migration from Florida, eager to get a look at my home water, the Arkansas River, to see if it’s fishable. My heart drops as I come down the hill into
Cotopaxi–the Big Ark is BIG. When I check the water levels later I find it’s running at 3,500 cfs–I fancy myself a strong wader, but don’t go near it when it’s over 750. AARRGGHH!!! Well, maybe the smaller creeks are in better shape….but no, when I cross the usually diminutive North Fork of the South Arkansas on the way to my cabin just outside Salida, I find it’s jumped it’s banks and is blown out. Plan B seems to be in order–maybe a hike to one of the high country lakes near the hamlet of Monarch/Garfield, just up the road. Next day I check in at my local fly shop, Ark Anglers, and get the good word. Ice is out on Grass and Hunt Lakes, two of my early season favorites. The weather report is perfect–70 degrees and sunny. My alarm is set at 5:00 a.m!! Grass Lake or bust!The unmarked, rather obscure trailhead to Grass Lake is about 1.8 miles from the old Monarch Lodge along U.S. 50 west of Salida. There is a good parking area on the east side of the highway, then it’s just a easy 100-yard walk back down the road to the trailhead on the west side. The hike is short–only about a mile–but the climb is immediate and steep going from 10,200 feet to 11,840. Keep the faith. If you can survive the first fifteen minutes, you are golden. Don’t forget your hiking pole! It usually takes me about 40 minutes to cover the mile, with ample breaks on the way up. A word of caution–the pestiferous mosquitoes will be on you whenever you stop so juice up with bug repellent before you start. Oddly, I rarely am bothered once I get to the water.
The initial steep section is followed by a more moderate one that turns north back along the lovely little creek that
drains the lake. The trail is obscure at some points, but if you stay within sight of the creek, you will be OK. Don’t be tempted to bushwhack up the rocky slope to the south as I did on my first expedition up here. The trail gets steep again as you approach the lake, and you will likely hit some big snowdrifts in mid-June. I usually take along some gaiters to keep my pant legs dry, but this year I am able to dance around the drifts. That first glimpse of Grass Lake is spectacular, post-card perfect. It sits in a small bowl under the watchful eye of Banana Mountain at 12,330 feet, snow still hanging on around the summit.
west end where the fish tend to congregate around the main inlet. I ford the creek and follow the distinct trail on the north shore where the snow has melted off. Caveat: The south shore is pocked with big drifts in June, but if you are from the South and want to play in the snow and get some snowball photos for the folks back home, head that way. On the north shore, you will cross another small feeder creek that often has cutts finning in the shallows at its mouth. The water is crystal clear, and you can see the cruisers, but rest assured they can see you if you aren’t stealthy. Just before reaching the west inlet, the trail juts up over a huge rock outcropping, which calls for careful climbing. The view from above is terrific, and you many see some big trout–over 18 inches–feeding in the shallows like I did last year.
After clamoring down from the rocks, I cross over the inlet stream and spook some hefty cutts already working their way up to spawn. Darn! Was hoping to hit the lake before the spawn started, when romance seems to trump eating. Undaunted, I quickly set up shop in a shady area back in the woods. I have two rods with me. I’ll use the fly rod first, a 9-foot, 4 weight with a 6X leader. The other is a 6-foot ultralight spinning outfit that I can use to reach fish in deeper water or along stretches where the trees crowd the shoreline and make back casts an adventure. I have lugged my lightweight waders with me and a pair of tennis shoes that I bought at a big-box store for $12. They are super light and don’t absorb much water like my regular Korkers, so are much easier to pack out. Wouldn’t be good for stream fishing, but very serviceable and practical for these back-country lakes. Even if you don’t bring waders to Grass Lake, make sure you have some waterproof footwear because the shoreline along the best fishing area around the west inlet is usually wet and marshy early in the year. The bottom of the lake is mucky along the west shore, so wading while possible is tedious. The south shore is rockier and more conducive to wading and throwing flies.
I tie on my usual searching pattern, a Zug Bug, which is a reliable pattern to start with in most mountain lakes. As I creep slowly towards the creek mouth, keeping a low profile, I am engulfed by a swarm of black midges. There are clouds of them everywhere, and the lake is covered with them. Oddly, though, there are no risers. So I tie on a #22 black Zebra Midge dropper, wave my fly wand back and forth, and let the rig fly. Several nice cutts immediately take up the chase right up to near the shoreline, but dart away when they catch sight of me. Over the next hour, that scene is repeated to my increasing frustration. I get a couple of light bumps, but no solid hits. Trout are cruising everywhere, and a school of big ones is stacked up at the creek mouth, getting reading to make their run. I swear they are mocking me!! I try several dry midge patterns. NADA. And then my old reliable mountain lake pattern–a small #16 foam black ant. Again, some lookers, but no takers. This calls for a contrarian approach so I tie on a #12 black Crystal Bugger, and sure enough, on my first cast a fat cutt follows and then pins the fly to the bottom. He’s on!! The brightly colored cutt puts up a good tussle before sliding onto the grassy shoreline. A quick photo, and he’s off to chasing some girls again. I hook several more, but then things go quiet again, with lots of follows and swirls, but no good hits.
By now it’s lunch time, and I dig my usual RC Cola out of a snow bank–nice and cold–then plot my afternoon. After a good eat, soaking some rays, and admiring the abundant early wildflowers, especially the marsh marigold that blanket the wet areas, I pull my waders up and head to the south shore where I can wade more easily thanks to a rockier bottom. But it’s all for naught. I spot a few cruising trout, but they are studiously disinterested. I switch over to my spin outfit and finally connect with a chunky cutt at the north feeder creek. It took a long cast with a spinning bubble and a slow retrieve in deeper water to fool this one. It’s only 3:30 p.m. but the sun will be sinking behind the Divide soon. I’m thinking it’s time to head back home and a good mango margarita. But I spot some rises
back at base camp by the west inlet. It looks like they are hitting midges, so I switch back to the fly rod, but score a big fat zero on several midge dries and nymphs. So I go contrarian again and put on a #14 Parachute Madame X–a hopper pattern…when there aren’t any hoppers within miles this time of year. BAM! A big cutthroat slams the fly and cartwheels out of the water. He puts up a terrific fight before posing for his release. Nothing like a big one to make one happy and smiling after a modes
t three-fish day! Now I can show my face at the fly shop with some semblance of honor. I have a few more strikes and hook ups, but nothing to the net before the action calms down again. Time to head home.
As I pick my way carefully back down the steep trail, leaning on my hiking pole, I’m already planning my next expedition to Hunt Lake, unabashed by the curveballs that the cutthroat in Grass Lake threw at me all day!
The Greenback Cutthroat Of Hunt Lake
It’s barely a week later, and I’m headed back up towards Monarch Pass, this time to chase one of the few bastions of the Greenback Cutthroat Trout, the only native trout in the Arkansas River Basin. It feels almost like holy quest, a
certain reverence warranted for such a rare, beautiful creature. My hat is off to those federal and state wildlife biologists and land managers for their good work! The trail to Hunt Lake begins at Boss Lake, an artificial reservoir high above the town of Garfield (now called Monarch by some). You can hike to Boss Lake on a good trail from Garfield, or four-wheel it as I did, but caution. County Road 235 to Boss Lake, about 1.5 miles up US 50 from Monarch Lodge, starts out mild enough, but after the first big switch back, turns into a gnarly, tooth rattler! The so-called road is steep and very rocky–it takes me half an hour to go one mile!! Next time I’ll park at the switch back and walk, it was that hair-raising, even for one who is follicly-challenged.
You’ll find a fair number of people at Boss Lake, a big, deep, and scenic lake that has some decent fishing of its own. A float tube would work well here. But if you want to get away from the madding crowd, carry on to Hunt Lake. It lies upstream and to the south of Boss Lake about one mile on a moderately steep, pleasant trail that is wet in spots with some snow this time of year. It takes me about 40 minutes, not bad for an AARP member.
That first view of Hunt Lake, which sits at about 11,500 feet just below the Continental Divide, gets my fishing fever stoked, especially when I catch sight of some nice cutts cruising the shallows. So it doesn’t take me long to rig up my rod with a Zug Bug (#16) and a red Two-Bit Hooker dropper (#18). But then Mother Nature decides to intervene. The partly sunny sky goes dark in a flash, and I am pelted with a nice mountain hail storm! The temperature plunges to near freezing as I huddle under a tree, wrapped in my fleece jacket and poncho for half an hour, thankful I remembered to pack my stocking cap and warm gloves. Half way through the storm a couple of guys come up the trail in shorts and no hats–they ask me if there is a shortcut back to Boss Lake!! No wonder people die in these mountains every summer. I have to break the bad news to them. Fortunately the sun soon breaks back out, and the rest of the day is warm with a blue-bird sky. I don’t find any bodies on the way back later, so happy to report the boys apparently made it safely. And more importantly, the fish are hungry!
The Two-Bit Hooker nymph, living up to its name, proves to be the alluring fly. But after catching a half dozen 8″-12″ beauties near the inlet creek, the fish get spookier under the sunny sky, especially in the shallows. I switch to a foam black ant (#16), and the fun continues. This is a good lake to bring a fly rod and waders with you. The waders let you get away from the trees that line most of the lake, and bottom is hard enough to wade in many places. The fly rod allows for a more delicate presentation than a spinning rod and bubble rig–although I have many trout smack the bubble instead of the fly when I use the spin outfit in deeper water. Go figure. No one ever said cutthroats are the smartest trout!! I find the fishing best along the north shore, the inlet, and the east shore shallows. It’s a blast because much of the day is sight fishing for numerous cruising trout. By 3:30 p.m. I have caught and released at least two dozen fish–only a few over 12 inches, but every one a gorgeous treat and feisty to boot!! Now I am ready for some stream and river fishing, thoughts of big browns and rainbows cavorting in my head as I descend back down to Boss Lake and head home.