Deep in that slow exhale of late summer is when you will lose it. Hopefully. Another full parking lot at your favorite piece of water and just like that you’re over the rail and off the back—babbling like a lunatic about flying ants, pregnant scuds and mousecapades after midnight. You’re headed for the hills and some long trail therapy. Time to walk it off.
A small, dense bag is loaded smartly from years of experience and error. A simple but proven fishing kit assembled (don’t over think it). Modern lightweight gear affords you a bit of extra snivel ballast in the form of dark chocolate, aged bourbon and 100% DEET. Comfort while wandering the high places hassling fish is of course a relative and personal thing. Choose wisely to suffer well.
You sneak into the Wind River Range under the cover of darkness. The long dirt road ends and the crisp late August air is thick with pine and mosquitoes. The plan is simple: no real plan. Pick a few targets on the glacially-scoured backbone of the Continental Divide, and convince your legs to take you there for a look. Fish everything in sight. Go.
Morning bleeds in with strong coffee, and sippers in the camp hole. Getting tight before sunrise is always a good omen for the day and angling superstitions have their place. You check the bag one last time, toss in another spool of tippet, and you’re off. The siren song of a few beers stashed in a heavily iced cooler to call you out in a week or so.
The trail wanders off endlessly through alpine meadows and Zen-like conifer forests, and all day long you give chase. Trailside creeks thick with boulder choked pour overs and mystery ponds all receive furtive casts and produce fish. White-tipped fins slash out from shadows and bank brush.
High country pocket water as soul fuel.
You fish inlets and outlets in passing and grab a quick nap in tall grass as the afternoon weather pushes up valley. The mountains breathe and all you hear is wind, water and line shooting rhythmically through the guides of a favorite rod. There is no agenda except rumors of golden trout way back in there, so you walk and fish all day, and you’ll do the same again tomorrow.
Tired legs piston you over high passes that scratch at the sky with granite ramparts and footpaths worn deep with lore. You lunch in a lofty place with weather building around you, where the light rain off of each boot drains to a different ocean, and trout-filled lakes fall away in all directions. The storm builds electricity and you flee down the backside of the pass in its wild unleashing. Watching casual rises by fat cutthroat from a lakeside boulder cave, you wait out the storm sipping whiskey, brewing coffee and mending your leader.
When it subsides you resume plucking cruisers off the edge of a deep turquoise shelf in the alpenglow, without a stitch of wind. Each connection telegraphing the type of electric feeling you prefer.
Unpressured, you fish your way deeper into the range to the nondescript blue dot on the map that had you curious. As rumored and researched, like a gift they are there—stacked up in the slow riffle of the outlet at sunset. Specters of piscine gold finning gently in that short fierce growing season of the high country.
Feeling unhurried you simply watch them for a bit, admiring them in this demanding and perfect place. You toast their tenacity, pay respect to the Fish Gods in a small and ridiculous ceremony, and step up to the plate for a few casts at the same moment a downslope breeze kicks up.
Alone with them for two days in a raking cirque wind at almost 11,000 feet you take a beating, but make it work. Food and fuel rations are stretched, money flies doctored, and for all the effort you manage to gently cradle some living gold. It is a small but luminous detail among many in this place.
It’s tough admitting you have to go down, when you’d much rather keep casting into the liquid mirror of sky and stone. It feels wrong turning your back on them when the wind is finally laying down, and the code has been cracked.
Begrudgingly however, the rod is stowed.
The trailhead is a long ways off so you put down some miles and drop a bit of elevation before dark. Soul recharged. Legs on fire, curiosity still pegged wide open with every turn of the trail. It’s not over. You’ve got two days of walking, as well as an off-trail brookie lake and two creeks to check on before you get back to those cold beers waiting in the truck.
WORDS BY: Mike Tea
Tired legs give way to new enthusiasm as the days end and twelve long miles come to a close.
Sometimes you get lucky, the drake is no ant, but, on occasion, that's just fine.
Last winter's snowfall, is this summer's water.
Shane Grimes and the often sought but seldom seen Golden trout.
The stories never get old as the legends grow. Matt and Shane swapping old times and fish tales on the banks of Island Lake.
Dawn till dusk in the search for fresh water and rising fish.
Pajama time in the foyer with Fremont Peak looming above the day's destination.
Matt Garvin and the alpine paradise that's Titcomb Basin.
Tight with a Golden.
High country cutties.
Camp life on the banks of Island Lake with Fremont Peak and Titcomb Basin just a few steps away.
The boys and the original late night talk show.
Swinging meat is always an option. Shane Grimes pulls out the next course after an extended dirth of risers.
After hours of studying maps, planning routes, organizing gear, crushing trail, and finally arriving in the thin air of the high country - it's time. The only problem is that it's blowing 12-15 mph straight into your face and the fish and food are concentrated on the windy side of the lake. The golden sides of the fish flash in the heavy ripples about 30' out - line up their route and send the cdc ant 30' out into the headwind. Enter in the ultra compact 376 DART, with plenty of power to send a pointy loop out beyond the dropoff where the big ones cruise, while maintaining the liveliness of a true 3wt rod. Make an 8” native fish memorable and that 18” unicorn a true mystical battle. Pair it with the 3/4/5 CLICK and a RIO Creek fly line and you have yourself an ultralight setup that is ready for the journey into those off the grid locations.
Casting to native fish on alpine lakes is a great way to beat the heat and get into some larger fish than you might find in small mountain creeks. You need a versatile rod that can fish dries, nymphs, leech patterns, even small streamers on both floating and sinking lines. Since most fish in lakes will be feeding sub-surface, having a fast action rod like the 490-4 Sage X to help lift sinking lines and make rapid-fire casts to cruising fish is a must. The 490-4 X rod will lift an intermediate line like the RIO AquaLux out of the water quickly and get the line back out with minimal false casts. A 4-weight line will land softly and help with not spooking wary fish and the line speed generated by the X will help you cut through the wind. String it up with your favorite leech or nymph pattern and experiment with retrieve speeds. Twitch it or simply let it sink slowly on a long leader…and hang on! Fish in pristine, cold alpine lakes have been known to make some vicious grabs!
Words & Photography
Editor / Writer Mike Tea is a writer, illustrator and fly tyer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. His words and artwork have appeared in both The Drake and The Flyfish Journal. Formerly a wildland firefighter, Tea has a twisted love of long arduous walks with eye-popping pack loads. Quick with a smile, a laugh or some flies for your box, he’s always happy to talk tying, fishing or artwork. Tea is currently teaching his 3-year-old daughter, Lily, how to double-haul rooster flies, tie a proper mouse pattern and row the drift boat with style (no doubt so he can heckle from the tail gunner seat).
Photographer Jeremiah Watt is a climber, skier and angler who has made his name capturing the environmental context, raw emotion and human experience of the cultures he bleeds. Documenting memorable moments in iconic locations—from mountain streams to tropical flats—his work takes us to a different place. Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, Miah is a fan of both wine and whiskey and is always up for a late night with an eclectic crew of fellow travelers or an early start in search of dramatic light.