When I go backpacking, I usually bring along a 7.5′ three-weight fly rod. It’s light and packable. It’s also a Three Forks combo from Cabelas, which makes it a low-end-yet-high-quality rod that’s a wicked good deal. When our core group went backpacking in the White Clouds mountains in Idaho a couple of summers ago, I took this rod. Except, along the way, I made a mistake.
In the White Clouds, there’s a chain of a dozen connected lakes — Boulder Chain Lakes — and they’re all beautiful. Most of them have fish, but as I cruised the shoreline on a day hike from base camp along these lakes, each lake only seemed to have small fish in them. Sure, there might have been a lunker hiding in the deep water, but in my experience, even the big trout cruise the shoreline looking for wayward beetles, ants, and grasshoppers.
All I saw were 6-to-8 inch trout, with the occasional skinny 10-incher catching my eye. Not big enough to halt a multi-mile day hike.
When we got to Headwall Lake, we stopped, cooked up some soup, basked in the sunshine, mountain air, and stunning rock vistas. Up above us, though, out of sight, was Lonesome Lake. A few of our party decided to climb up to it. There wasn’t a trail, and it looked to be a fun-but-steep scramble over rocks and high country grasses. To lighten my load, I left some food, a jacket, a cruddy camera that was irritating me, my rod, reel, and some other gear behind. This was, after all, just a detour to a little lake that was probably only a puddle on the edge of a mountain.
After 45 minutes of climbing — I would have expected 20 minutes just eyeballing the climb — we followed the outlet creek over pristine granite to find the lake. Lots of boulders to hop around on, and we walked along the edge and ran into an infestation of gnats. The rest of the lake was bare — no brush, no grass, no trees. It was just water and rock. The water didn’t look particularly fertile. But it was cold and clear. And the view all around? The horizon? Amazing. As we started on the way back down, we noticed some fish in the shallows near the outlet of the lake.
Surprised? Hell yeah, I didn’t expect any fish in the lake at all. For months out of the year, the lake had to be iced over with a thick snowpack. Perfect conditions for winter kill if any fish managed to live there. And swimming up the waterfall from the lower lakes? Damn near impossible.
And yet, trout were slowing cruising the shallows. Big trout, 18-inches easily, and thick. Healthy.
I could not believe what I was seeing. It was so far beyond my previous backcountry lake experiences that my mind couldn’t process it. Where was the food to support these big fish? Here at 10,435 feet of elevation? In one of the highest named lakes in Idaho?
What the hell!?!
And my rod . . . far down below me on the trail, out of reach. I calculated the timeline:
- 20 minutes to get down, scrambling quickly and trying not to break an ankle
- 60 minutes to climb back up with tired legs
- 30 minutes of fishing (oh boy!)
- 30 minutes to get back down safely
- 2 hours to get back to base camp
It all just didn’t add up. Even if I thought I had enough gas in my legs to do all of this, I wasn’t sure that we’d be able to get back to camp before an afternoon thunderstorm, if not get back before nightfall.
Even then I’d either be hiking back alone or asking my backpacking buddies to hang out and wait for me for another two hours. Not cool. They were tired, too. It had been a long day hike.
But the Fish!
It was a hard decision.
I had to walk away. I kicked myself for miles. Even today, I remember those fish several times a year, but now I remember something else — always take the rod.
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