Monsoon rains blowing up from the Gulf of Mexico have been soaking us here in the Colorado mountains most afternoons. It’s no fun and dangerous to be up near the Continental Divide hiking and fishing when a storm blows in. Temperatures can drop from 75 degrees to 45 in a few minutes replete with mountain pea-sized hail that resembles snow. So when the weatherman predicted a sunny day this week, I fetched the day pack from the basement along with my mountain lake fishing gear and plotted a trek to a high-country lake I have been hankering to try–Island Lake far up the North Fork Valley about 20 miles west of my cabin near Salida. It’s perched at 12,000 feet just below Sewanee Peak that pokes up into the sky at a mere 13,132 feet. A thirty-year old guidebook I have tells tales of huge, but finicky cutthroat trout in the lake, a story confirmed in hushed tones by some local fishing guides. So I hit the road at 7 a.m. the next morning, figuring it will take an hour to drive up the rough 4WD road to the trailhead and another hour to hike in. Visions of behemoth trout are dancing in my head.As I shake, rattle, and roll up County Road 240 after turning off U.S. Highway 50 at Maysville, I soak in the rugged, wild beauty of this narrow valley, flanked on the north by a string of 14er mountains like Shavano, and a line of 12 and 13,000 peaks to the south that soar into the bluebird sky. The North Fork of the South Arkansas River cascades down the lush valley at breakneck speed, fed by dozens of creeks. The drive to the North Fork Reservoir is about 10 miles and one hour from U.S. 50. Then it’s another mile or so up on the Billings Lake road to the Island Lake turnoff. But when I get to the turnoff, I’m not surprised to find the jeep trail is blocked. The USGS topo map, old guidebooks, and my GPS all show that I can drive another two-thirds mile or so towards the lake, but they are wrong. Not only has the jeep trail been blocked by a log fence, but the old road has been trenched in numerous places–probably to keep out those pesky go-anywhere ATV drivers. But no worries, it’s only about a mile and a quarter to the lake from CR 240. I hoist my heavy day pack, loaded with my mountain lake fishing gear, both a fly and spin rod stowed away and ready to unfurl. I am taking my light-weight waders and shoes along in case I need to wade the lake which makes fly casting easier if trees or steep banks make backcasting a problem.
The trail descends into a valley where I hop across the creek draining Billings Lake, a former mine tailings pond that reputedly holds fish but which has some nasty looking water. Then it’s uphill following the old jeep trail past a couple of beaver ponds and a small lake and over a ridge to where Island Lake is perched above the North Fork Reservoir. The climb is modest, and I cover the distance in about 45 minutes with plenty of time to savor the comely wildflowers like the Alpine Larkspur. It is possible to bushwhack up the steep slope from the reservoir by following the creek that flows out of Island Lake, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
My first view of Island Lake doesn’t disappoint…postcard perfect. The water is crystalline blue, punctuated by a tiny island on which a few dwarf spruce somehow claw out an existence. The lake is framed by a series of high peaks and jagged pinnacles to the south and an unnamed, orange-hued 12,500 foot “gentle” mountain to the northwest. And better yet, there’s a giant tree-covered rock where I can bivouac my gear and get out of the wind that’s sure to blow sometime during the day way up here. The only disquieting note is I don’t see any fish rising, and nothing cruising the crystal clear water where I can see the bottom 50 yards out from the shore. I remember that one of the old guidebooks said the lake might have fish-killed from a freeze in the 1990s, but that’s hard to believe since it’s almost 30 feet deep in places. But after fishing for a half hour without seeing any fish and casting all measure of flies and lures, I am quietly cursing those guides who are probably enjoying a little laugh at my expense. I am thinking of bailing and driving back down and fishing the North Fork River below the reservoir which has a good meadow stretch that looks inviting. Island Lake looks barren!
But before giving up, I decide to hike to the far end of the lake that appears to be deeper. As I scramble over some big boulders on a scree slope at the northeast corner, putting on my best mountain goat imitation, my eyes light up–a see a huge 20-inch plus cutthroat ambling along the bottom in 15 feet of water, followed by a “little” one that would go a respectable 16 inches! Both would qualify for trophies in most high-country lakes. I duck down quickly and tie on a weighted purple wooly bugger fly that will sink quickly and has produced in other mountain waters. The fly descends within 10 feet of the big one, but he disappears as a start to strip it back in. Then a torpedo launches out from the submerged rocks near the shore and swirls at the fly…but misses. Undaunted, he swims around looking for his prey, so I jig the fly to get his attention–and he NAILS it, pinning the wooly bugger with his mouth up against a nearly vertical rock right in front of me. I set the hook, and my rod immediately doubles with the weight of this hefty fish–18 inches and maybe more. He surges out towards open water, and when I put pressure on, heads deep towards the safety of the jumble of rocks where he’d been hiding. He’s a real trophy, and I am already thinking of the great photo he’s going to make. Now I have him near the shore, but curses, don’t have my net which is resting back in the SUV. I work him close, only a few feet away, but there’s no good place to bring him on shore among the jagged rocks. Then he jumps and throws the fly. But instead of darting for safety, the monster trout sits there getting his bearings in a foot of water. I see my chance and lunge forward and grab him, but he’s so big he wriggles free and darts past my outstretched arm towards the shore and hides underneath a rock. Undaunted, I plunge my arm up to the elbow in the cold water and try to “fish” him out of the nook with my hand. I feel his tail, but he’s too big and slick to get a good grip on. As I teeter over the water, the cutt burrows forward up further under the rocks, then somehow finds a vertical escape route up through the jumble. He shocks me by rocketing straight up a couple of feet into the air, executes a graceful flip that would have scored a perfect 10 in the Olympics, and flops into deeper water and freedom. I’m left laughing, with my right arm encased in a dripping, soggy fleece jacket sleeve! Talk about earning your freedom! I am just glad no one was filming me–would have gone viral on YouTube, with everyone rooting for the fish!! Fortunately, I see his little girlfriend who has been following him around and flip the fly back in front of her face….and she hits. The fight is on, and she’s a feisty one, making a couple of sizzling runs and dives before coming to the shore. She’s a good one, a beautiful, fat 16-incher full of eggs….and this time the fish doesn’t give me the slip!! A quick photo, and she’s back to her amorous adventures.
Now I think I have the ticket with the purple fly, but for the next half hour, I get follows and nips, but no bites. That’s often the story with mountain lake trout. Finincky food fussers! So I switch to my spin tackle and try a purple spinner that casts a country mile and sinks quickly… and then a flourescent yellow one. More follows and swirls, but no connections. Finally I see a couple of rises further up the shoreline, the first of the day. The water must be warming, and the fish getting more active. I search the water near the shore to see what they are eating, and spy a few black flying ants struggling on the surface. I tie on a black foam ant imitation and pick my way gingerly along the water, testing each rock before putting my weight on it. One misstep and the whole scree field could come down, treating me to a cold bath. I finally get close enough to cast, and immediately a small trout nails the fly. He goes 12 inches, followed by several more. A couple of big ones swirl at the fly, and in my excitement I nearly yank the fly into the next county sans fish. But it’s fun sight fishing for these risers. Finally I take a late-morning break, chowing down on some peanuts and beef jerky while I enjoy the gorgeous view back across the lake. Revived, I reach back to get my fly box to tie on something new and nearly jump into the lake as I feel something wriggling in my tackle bag. It’s a cheeky little pica who barks at me as he retreats to the top of a rock a few feet away. Talk about a cardiac infarction!! And he acts so darn innocent.
I continue to work the rocky shoreline for the next two hours where I see occasional big trout cruising and feeding. I get a few looks, but no solid hits even though I try several different flies–the usually reliable zug bug and other small nymphs get zero interest as does a PMX hopper. But then I stumble on the most gorgeous stand of columbines that somehow are not only eking out an existence among the rocks, but thriving. This is our state flower, and appropriately so. So lovely and dainty. Incongruously, the genus name for columbines is from the Latin word “aquila” for “eagle”, referring to the shape of the flower. The species name “saximontana” means of the mountains. Something is buzzing about one clump, and I am treated to a close up of a giant sphinx moth probing for nectar. These large moths and hummingbirds are the only reliable pollinators for columbines with tongues long enough to reach the nectar-filled spurs.
I take this as a sign to do a little exploring and then grab some lunch. As I start up the slope, a marmot objects to my presence and scolds me as he scampers into his hole. I decide to take a look at the little outlet creek that plunges noisily down to the North Fork Reservoir. Wildflowers carpet its banks–mountain paint brushes, elephant heads, and mountain bluebells. Quite a scene. I finally make my way back to the bivouac and break out lunch. The big rock blocks the wind that is whipping down the slope, and I relax in my fantastic compact folding REI backpack chair….I don’t leave home anymore without it. So nice to have a comfortable backrest after fishing all morning! It’s mid-afternoon by now, and I am thinking time to head home. But then I see some big rises across the lake where I had hooked several on the black ant. The allure is too great, so I head back to the rocky shoreline and pick may way carefully over and around the boulders.
I go with the black ant again, and sure enough on the third cast a good one nails it–a colorful 14-inch cutt. I continue to cast to risers, missing some, pricking others, then finally connecting with a stout fellow. He erupts on the surface, shaking his whole body, then dives. I manage to manuever him away from sharp, jagged rocks in the water that would sever my line, and finally get him close enough to secure my trophy–a outrageously colored 17-inch cutt with luminescent red and yellow cheeks and a fiery red belly–a make-my-day kind of fish. I let out a big whoop that echoes down the valley, then revive the big guy, and he swims away slowly in the clear water.
Now a few clouds are starting to gather on the Divide, and the sun is just starting to sink below the peaks. The sun’s rays put on a magnificent display, beaming down on the rippling blue waters. Tranquil…other worldly. The close of the day…maybe a sign to head home. I hike back to my gear, quickly load up my pack, and hit the trail. On the way out, I am surprised to see a glass jar along the shoreline–it’s Powerbait, a commercial dough-like concoction that trout have a hard time resisting, but are so eager to gulp that they often swallow the hook deep, which kills them. I am no purist, but hope that anyone who fishes Island Lake will use flies or artificial barbless lures only, then return these precious creatures to the water so others may enjoy their uncommon beauty. There are plenty of stocked, put-and-take trout in the reservoir below to put meat on the table. Let the wild ones swim free.
The walk back to the trailhead takes only 30 minutes, mostly flat or downhill. All the way down, visions of a big combination Mexican plate at Los Girasoles restaurant in Salida–chile relleno, enchilada, and tamale–are dancing in my head….along with those 2-for-1 margaritas! Olé!!