It has not been a good summer to be a trout in Colorado’s rivers. The lackluster snowpack, made worse with ongoing dry weather and missing monsoons, left most watersheds in dire shape. As August rolled around, the shallow water had many advocating to stay out of the rivers and leave the trout alone. Rumors of shaming those fishing along local streams were circulating. Our own hearts were not into fishing places we usually enjoy. There was only one thing to do—go high.
Last July we backpacked to Missouri Lakes Basin in the Holy Cross Wilderness. The situation was dramatically different with a massive snowpack that clung to the lakeshores and covered the passes. We abandoned our plan to make a loop, having left crampons and axes at home, and camped by the middle lake. They were fantastic days spent catching abundant trout at 11,500 feet. As we realized last month that we needed an alpine solution to our fishing ambitions over Labor Day weekend, our thoughts returned to Missouri Lakes and completing the loop.
Drought has driven the seasons forward ahead of schedule and the trail along the Missouri Lakes drainage was lined with dried, spent flowers and hints of autumn. We were relieved to see flowing water and pleased to encounter very few hikers, all heading down the hill. Our hopes of quality fishing and solitude rose with each step of elevation gained. The lakes were indeed low and only a few snow patches remained high in shadowy cliffs. Inlets were largely quiet and outlets not robust, but trout gathered nearby eagerly sipping at the surface. We were in the right place for our weekend adventure.
While lowland fish are sluggish and stressed, the trout we encountered during our forty-eight hours above 11,000 feet were energetic and bedazzling. The cutthroats were flashing fall colors. The brookies were fighting like warriors bent on denying the reality they were tricked. We camped at the highest of the Missouri Lakes the first night and put on every layer we carried with us to get a little fun on the line in the cold mist. The trout were biting, and after a long, hot summer it felt good to be chilled, at least until the fingers could no longer function after cold water exposure. Keep ‘em wet philosophy clashes with poor circulation in digits when fall fishing at altitude.
The next morning, we ascended the Missouri Pass trail with expectations of finding our next fishing destination just beyond. Treasure Vault Lake sat just over the pass in a beautiful sunlit basin flashing burnt orange and crimson colors of a tundra in transition. The lake was a brilliant half moon of blue begging us below. The low water level revealed a pristine beach set against a glassy surface reflecting the big peaks of the Holy Cross Wilderness. This was a magical place, off the trail, for us to drop a line and hang out for a few hours. No one came near us, except cutthroats, for the time it took to circle this pristine body of water among the clouds. Leaving was a double-challenge between the added uphill trek to regain the trail to Fancy Pass, and the regret of leaving behind such a productive and dreamy solitude. But we left and made it over the next pass as dark clouds rolled closer.
Our last fishing destination came into view as we grew weary of the steep trail descending past mining relics. Fancy Lake, deep green in its charming cirque, was the muse that kept us going as our feet grew tired and ankles less secure in our boots. As soon as we laid claim to a campsite on a cliff above Fancy Creek just beyond the lake, we took a rod to the lake and spent the rest of the afternoon taking turns dancing with brook trout. I swear they possessed the finest frosted tipped fins of any I’ve seen. They were coy, unusually picky for alpine trout in the early days of autumn, but patience usually paid off. And while they were not large, they too were feisty flying on the line in embarrassment they had bit on a hook covered with a tiny bit of purple thread and a feather (that’s a story for another blog). It was a delightful afternoon of fishing and tequila sipping at a lake we nearly had to ourselves.
We finished the loop on Labor Day after a quick excursion to the ghost town of Holy Cross City. The cold mist, and occasional snowflake, that morning added an eerie vibe to the decaying cabins and metal monsters of an old mining hub. Shattered crockery and porcelain bore remembrance of the individuals that lived there before, and a flume draining mountain water from the old site continued to flow. Those ghosts had a distance to go for fishing and I hoped they were good hunters. Then I realized we had driven four hours for our fish pursuits, and their couple mile walk was not substantial in the scheme of gold mining adversity.
As we ended the trek and toasted the experience on the tailgate after our baby wipe baths, it was easy to be grateful. The walking was done and the memory of the electricity on our fishing lines still pulsed. It is unfortunate that our rivers are a self-imposed off-limits to us this season. Luckily, we have the option to go high. Good things wait to bite on the fly if you put in the work and climb a height where the views and the fish are hearty.