Bug spray is usually a necessity up in the high country, but this year, unless you count my encounter with the yellow jacket, it has been a low pest year. Having mosquitoes buzzing in your ears can be an annoying distraction when fly fishing, and not having them around has inspired us to walk a bit further into the woods.
The nice thing about this hike was that we had the opportunity to hit three lakes, time permitting. The two Grassy Meadow Lakes would be the first lakes we would pass on the way to Coffee Cup Lake, and a large percent of people never go passed those two lakes. With Mike and Kerry McLean, Gracy, and I, hiking a bit further away from people and into the steep backcountry would be the cat’s meow.
The overcast day shaded us from the sun, and as we headed up the steeper part of the trail just past the Grassy Mountain Lakes, both became visible near the summit.
“Can you get a picture of Kerry and I?” Mike asked, as they stood with their back to the lakes.
“Yeah.” I said, as he handed me his camera. After the picture, Gracy went and stood with her back to the lakes. I handed Mike his camera back and looked over at Gracy.
“I guess we want a picture too!” I said dismally.
“Shut up and get over here!” Gracy snapped, and Kerry giggled as Mike took my camera for our photo.
“Now get out of here, I’m done with ya!” Gracy said, giving me a push.
“If only you were joking.” I said back, then quickly stepped away before I got hit. Before too long we were looking down onto Coffee Cup lake, and a smile grew on my face.
“I like when you can see the lake at the top of the summit.” I told Mike, as we viewed the lake.
“I think I saw a rise!” Mike said back with a smile, knowing full well that we were too far away to see anything of the sort; but that kind of stuff is funny to us fly fishers.
The hike down to the lake got seriously steep with a narrow trail that could give the most experienced hiker vertigo, but once that was past us we found ourselves in a sea of little berries.
“What are you picking over there?” I asked Gracy, who was doing her best to not squish the little berries as she picked them.
“Grouse Whortleberries.” She said, showing me the small handful she was collecting.
The little berries are the best, but are so small that it would take us an hour to collect a cup full. That is more time than any of us wanted to put into berry picking, so we pushed on to the lake that was just around the next tree.
I didn’t see many rising fish, but that didn’t stop me from setting up my fly rod at the speed of light. Mike, Kerry, and Gracy had all found seats on the large granite rocks that spilt off the mountain.
“Hey, it’s a chipmunk.” Gracy said, looking at the small animal behind her.
“Actually, I think that’s a ground squirrel.” Kerry said, as it came closer and closer to where we were sitting.
“It must be used to people.” Gracy said, as I pulled out my camera to take a picture of Gracy and the ground squirrel just behind her.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Kerry asked, as I started to walk away with my rod and reel all rigged up to fish.
“No! He ate his sandwich on the way down here so he could have his rod rigged up and be the first one to catch a fish, while the rest of us had our lunch!” Mike explained.
“You know me too well, Mike.” I smiled, then headed around the lake to do some fishing.
The lake seemed placid, with a few ripples caused by rising fish out in the center, which was too far away for me to cast. I rolled out my fly as far as I could, and as soon as it hit the water a fish rose just off to my left. The rising fish was too far away to be attracted to my fly, so I swept my rod up quickly to bring all my line off the water and into a large circling loop in front of me. Every bit of my fly line was in the air, and as soon as the tip of the line brushed the water it was time to fling it forward. The tip of the line has to hit the water first to create drag, and I would use that drag to load the fly rod and shoot the line in a different direction. This is called a single handed spey cast, and in this situation it was the perfect cast, because the fish nailed my fly as soon as it hit the water.
The fish was bigger than I thought it was going to be, which is always a nice surprise in a mountain lake. I let the fish go, and stood back up to cast out again. It’s hard for me to stay in one spot when nothing is hitting, and with a slight opening for a back cast up ahead, I decided it was time to move on.
Another rise in casting distance quickly got my attention. I peeled line off my reel and made a fast cast, only to discover that my line had knotted up in my haste to get it out of the reel. My fly line jolted to a stop as the knot hit the first ferrel, and my fly slapped the water unpleasantly and way off its mark. When gunning your fly at a fish every second counts, and there was no way I was going to get a second chance at this fish with the knot I had to deal with.
“Come on, come on!” I murmured under my breath. It seemed with every tug of my fly line the knot got worse, and I didn’t have time for this. Finally the last loop was untangled, and I looked up to see where my fly was. A slight breeze blew my fly further to shore as I fooled around with the line, and it took me a second to realize that it was only five feet out. I picked up my fly rod to cast again, and in the process of doing that, I drug the fly across the surface of the water. SPLASH! The wake of my fly had gotten the attention of a hungry fish.
The fight was short. The cutthroat trout was thrashing like mad, and it shook free just when I had it in arm’s length. I should have played the fish a little longer to get the fight out of his system before I tried to grab it. I stood up to see that Mike was standing just on the other side of the lake from me, and had found a nice spot to make a longer cast.
Fish were taking Mike’s fly, but they looked too small to actually eat the fly. I looked over to the lily pads near me and wondered if a fish could be hiding under them… I made a cast that tipped the edge of one of the large floating leaves. A small commotion disrupted the lily pad and something grabbed my fly. I lifted the rod tip fast, and kicking like mad was a small frog, still clawing to hold on to my fly.
“Heeeeey…” I said happily to the frog, “what are you doing eating my fly?” The frog was kicking all over the place, and wouldn’t stop so I could free him. It kept doing little flips on the line like a trapeze artist, so I plopped him in the water and he stopped moving.
The little frog stayed motionless while it was suspended underwater. Now that it wasn’t moving I was able to get a good look at the frog. Now I’m no herpetologist, but judging by the funky pattern and course skin, I would say this little guy was a Columbian Spotted Frog.
With the hook out of its mouth, the frog kicked away like a toddler on a boogie-board and I went back to fishing. On the other side of the lake, Mike started on his way back to Kerry and Gracy, and I was ready to head back; that was until I saw a fish rise where I had once been. The motivation to head back wasn’t so bad anymore, and it was worth a shot. As soon as I flicked out to the rising fish, it came up and gently sipped in my fly like a late-harvest merlot. I set the hook and could see the bronze flashes of a cutthroat trout just under the water as it struggled to get away. I kept my cool this time, and brought in the fish a bit slower so I could grab it for a picture.
The fish slipped out of my hands, and I watched it as it disappeared deep into the crystal clear water. I pressed on and was just about half way back, when I felt the need to catch one more fish before ending the day. That kind of mentality can get you into a lot of trouble. One more fish can mean three more hours, depending on the day. And today had not been a great catching kind of day. I was fortunate though. A fish rose right near the bank, and the disturbance caught my eye. A quick flick sent my fly in the fish’s general direction, and in a second the fish came up and smacked my fly. What the fish lacked in size, it made up for in heart. The little thing fought with all its might, but it was landed quickly and let go after a quick picture.
With my last fish caught, I was ready to head back. When I arrived to where everyone was sitting, all the attention was on the little ground squirrel from before.
“Should we get going?” I asked, getting everyone’s attention.
“Check out my friend!” Gracy said, with a smile then turned back to the ground squirrel. Gracy picked out a small piece of cheese from her snacks, and held it out in front of her.
“It will take it from her hand.” Kerry said to me, but didn’t take her eyes of the little squirrel as it approached.
Everyone remained silent as the squirrel scampered around the large rock, disappearing only to reappear on a closer rock. Gracy didn’t move.
If the squirrel made one more jump it would be on the same rock Gracy was sitting on…and it jumped.
You could now hear its tiny nails on the rock as it cautiously stepped forward, then opened his arms to snatch the piece of cheese from Gracy’s fingers.
As soon as it had the cheese, it turned and jumped away to a nearby rock and started eating. Gracy turned to me beaming with happiness, as her friend, which she name Peter, started eating the cheese.
“With our luck it has the plague.” I said, as the squirrel stuffed its cheeks. Gracy frowned at me for even suggesting that.
“I didn’t think of that.” Kerry said.
“I think we are okay out here.” Mike added.
“Still…” I said, “…you can’t keep it.”
“I’m not going to keep it!” Gracy told me, “But I was thinking that Kiwi needed a pet.” Kerry laughed at the thought of our little dog needing a pet, and we all continued watching as young Peter finished his cheese.
Peter watched from a distance, on the tallest rock, as we packed up and started heading out.
“Bye, Peter.” Gracy waved, as we lost sight of the squirrel.
Passing a sea of Grouse Whortleberries is a hard thing to do without stopping to pick a few, but if we wanted to hit the other lakes we didn’t have time to stop. I could tell Gracy really wanted more of the little berries, so I pulled up a chunk of the plant and handed it to her so she could pick off the berries as we walked.
We arrived to the first Grassy Meadow Lake, and the fishing was slow. I caught one little brook trout and that was it. We didn’t fish long, because it was really time to get going if we wanted to make it home at a decent hour.
The best part of the day, for me, was catching the frog. Friends of mine tell me about catching frogs on a fly all the time, and I have always wanted to get one. The day came, and now I can be apart of the club; it is, after all, the little things that make this sport pleasant for me.