There is always a further step to take when it comes to alpine lake fishing, and it was only a matter of time before taking that step. Hiking to a lake that has no trail means you need to be savvy when it comes to the outdoors, or in my case, know someone who is. Mike McLean’s knowledge of the backcountry in the McCall area is impeccable, and I have a long way to go before achieving Mike’s supernatural septentrion abilities. Before we started, Mike pointed to the blue blob on the map, and drew his finger down to point out our best way to the lake.
“I hope you brought your lungs.” Mike said with a smile, as he clipped on his pack.
“I did…” I said, “…and after studying the map, I also came mentally prepared.”
“That’s actually really important.” Mike said seriously. “If you came up here thinking this was going to be an easy hike, you are about to have a miserable day.” He chuckled.
“I know what I’m in for.” I said.
“Well, are we all ready?” Mike asked, turning to Alan and his son, Logan.
Both Alan and Logan were hiking up to the same lake, and asked if they could tag along. Mike and I have the same philosophy when it comes to the outdoors, so we were happy to have them with us on this journey.
“We’re ready.” Alan said. He looked to his son, who gave him a nod to go ahead, and together we headed up the mountain.
There was no warming up to it. The path we had charted went straight up the mountain, and showed no sign of leveling out. The once sturdy dirt embankment turned into crumbling rocks the further up we went, making it that much more fun.
Every step we took was carefully planned out to ensure we didn’t slip, but even the most sturdy rocks were full of surprises. The trail was getting steeper, so I grabbed nearby branches to help pull myself up when a large stone broke away like a rug being pulled from my feet.
“ROCK!” I yelled, as my arm jolted up and I hung onto the branch. I looked back to see the watermelon-sized rock gaining speed as it tumbled down. Both Alan and Logan were just off to the right of where I had slipped, and were also watching the large rock crash through everything in its path.
“Don’t go this way.” I said, getting back to my feet.
“Good idea.” Alan said, as he and Logan took a different route up.
The burn in my thighs was becoming more apparent with every step I took up the mountain, and when a breeze blew by, I would take off my hat to cool down a bit. Mike was still leading the charge and was moving upward with such a brisk pace that he failed to see the berries on the bush he had just passed.
“Mike, huckleberries!” I yelled up to him.
“I must have missed them…” he said on his way down, “…all I’m thinking of is going up”.
Together the four of us started picking huckleberries, and I didn’t waste any time popping them in my mouth. The little berries offered a punch of tart flavor that could wake you up from a daze, and it took the plastic water taste out of my mouth. Picking the huckleberries gave us all a much needed break from climbing and an extra rush of energy to continue up the mountain.
The surge from the huckleberries wore out quick, and so did our path up. A large granite wall stopped us from going up any further, but after a quick look at the map, our ascent was just about over. Now we just needed to shoot across to the lake.
If only it had been that easy. As we skirted the mountain, we came to a large draw that opened up into more trees.
“Well, I think the lake is just beyond that other ridge there.” Mike pointed across the draw. Meaning, we had to walk down about 100 feet to get to the bottom of the draw, and then hike up another steep embankment where the lake was… hopefully. And blocking our way was a dense field of ten-foot bushes that offered no sign of going around them; which meant only one thing…
“All for a fish!” I said, with a laugh, as we started to make our descent. The phrase came from my grandpa’s girlfriend, Lois Klatt. She can’t believe the mentality of anglers that will hike up mountains, walk through the toughest terrain, and travel the world… all for a fish. And here I was, swinging like a monkey down another plunge-of-a-hillside with no footing, just to get to a fish. At one point the smaller branches were so thick on top of the bushes, we found it easier to hunker down and simply go under them.
The thought of running into a spider had crossed my mind, as I blindly reached for branch after branch, but I forcefully shoved the idea out of my head. We had finally reached the bottom, and had cleared the bush field.
“Didn’t you have two fly rods, Erik?” Mike looked at me with concern.
His bluff would have worked if I hadn’t just checked to see if my rods were still securely intact to each side of my pack.
“Nice one, Mike.” I said with a laugh. Although I would be lying if I said I didn’t check again…even though I knew he was joking. Everyone was accounted for, gear and all, before we started up our final ascent.
On our way up, I spotted the ankle high plant covered in little red berries.
“Grouse whortleberries, Mike. And they are perfectly ripe.” I said, picking a few.
The blast of flavor from such a small berry is incredible. If you ever come across them, it’s worth picking ten or so, then popping them in your mouth all at once for a tart twang on your taste buds. Like the huckleberries, the grouse whortleberries had provided a blast of energy to send me up the mountain.
“A cairn!” Mike said, pointing to the small stack of rocks to mark the correct way.
The sight of the cairn made us all smile; it was the first real sign we were actually going the right way. And after walking straight up a mountain, tripping over rocks, skinning up knees, and sliding down through big bushes like a monkey, we had finally arrived to our destination.
I was finally looking at it: the very lake Mike and I had spent almost two years talking about.
Both Alan and Logan walked to the right of the lake, while Mike and I took the left side. We sat back and unclipped our packs to take a small breather before we started fishing. We were past due for a sandwich, and as we ate up, we could see a small fish leaping out of the water, eating every bug that hit the surface.
My sandwich was gone in record time, and my fly rod was put together just as fast. I tied on a pico spider, and found a spot where I could make a cast to a fish.
I looked over and saw the shadow of a fish before I actually saw the fish itself, and it was cruising the bank looking for food. Well let’s give you what you want, I thought as I slapped down my pico spider, and it was love at first splat. The fish reacted just as it was suppose to, and bolted for my spider.
“Gotcha!” I yelled, and the fish detonated into action.
“Whoa! You’re bigger than I thought!” I said to the fish, as it started peeling line from my reel. I quickly reacted to get control, and brought in my first fish of the day.
A nice fish indeed, especially for an alpine lake. I stood looking into the water, and saw no more shadows of fish, so I pressed on.
I found a spot on a rock that would allow me to cast further into the lake without snagging a tree behind me, which is rare at an alpine lake. Despite the ability to perform a long cast, I first had to slap my fly down next to the edge of the rock. BLAM! A fish came out from under it and took my fly.
Fishing around the rock was certainly paying off. Another cast landed me another fish right next to the shore, and the fish seemed to be getting bigger. Once the fish around the rock had been caught, it was time to launch a cast further out into the lake. The pico spider glistened in the sunlight as it sat on top of the water, and after a single twitch to bring the spider to life, a fish rocked out of the water to eat it. I looked over at Mike, who was too far away to have witnessed the explosive attack, as I brought in the fish.
The fish was landed, and I dipped my camera underwater to capture a picture. The fish was cooperating nicely by not moving around too much, but it was the damn yellow jacket buzzing around my head that made things tough.
Nothing can ruin fishing like a lurking yellow jacket.
“Get away from me!” I scolded the pest, but it wasn’t listening. I was in the process of taking my fly out of the fish’s mouth, when the yellow jacket buzzed my face. With my hands unhooking the fish, all I could do was spit at it as it buzzed around me. The yellow jacket flew away so I stood to cast again. A BZZZZZZZ right in my ear screwed up my cast, and I was pissed.
“Alright damn it, you want a piece of me?” I yelled, putting down my fly rod and taking off my hat. I stood there in the ready position, hand open like I was ready to wrestle, with my hat in my right hand. The yellow jacket came from behind and buzzed my head. The nerve! I took a swig with my hat, but missed: the yellow jacket had anticipated the move, and counteracted with a series of fly-bys that ended up behind me. I parried the pest as it buzzed by, while turning 180 degrees to follow it, but the yellow jacket was already turned back around and buzzing me again at full speed. A blind swipe with my hat just missed it as I turned again to face my enemy.
“Come on!” I yelled, when the yellow jacket flew out of sight. I stood ready, and there it was. Back in my face again, the yellow jacket buzzed left, then right, back to left, then right… I had its movement timed by now. I took one step back while simultaneously backhanding with my hat. The sound was unmistakable, a solid connection with the yellow jacket sent it soaring into the water. SPLAT!
“It didn’t have to end this way!” I yelled down to it, as it buzzed in the water, trying to get out.
I slipped my hat back on my head.
“I told you, you didn’t want to mess with me, and now look at you.” I said, then turned my back to pick up my fly rod.
I looked back quickly to see a large ripple in the water, and the yellow jacket was no more. It will not have died in vain, I thought as I slapped my pico spider down where the pest had once laid. Boom! The fish came back up and nailed my fly.
“Thank you, yellow jacket…thank you.”
The rainbow trout kicked away fast, and I stood up to gather my line back into the reel. I fastened my fly back to the holder and walked over to see how Mike was doing.
“Catching some fish?” I asked.
“Yeah, but I switched to a bugger.”
“How has that been working?”
“I have one following it now.” Mike said, stripping in his line.
“Come on, take it.” Mike said, watching the fish get closer.
“THERE!” He yelled, setting the hook.
Mike brought in a nice-sized rainbow trout, then quickly let it go to continue fishing.
“What time do you want to get going?” I asked, as he made another cast.
“Probably in the next thirty minutes.”
“Well, I’ll fish my way over to Alan and Logan to see if they want to join us back down.”
“Good idea.” Mike said, and I took off around the lake.
I stopped a few times to fish as I made my way around the lake, but nothing was to be seen. The water was shallow enough to see a cruising fish, but none came.
“Hey guys, how has the fishing been for you?” I asked both Alan and Logan as I approached.
“It’s been good.” Logan said.
“We have both done well.” Alan chimed in.
“Good to hear.” I said back, “Mike and I are going to head back down in a bit. You guys certainly do not have to come with us, but you are welcome to.”
“I think we will, if you don’t mind.” Alan said, and started to put together his pack. They both followed me over to where Mike was now waiting, before we started to walk back down the mountain.
On the way out, Mike was following the cairns down the mountainside, where an unmanaged path was present.
“Watch for these dingle berries.” Mike said, referring to the small marble-sized rocks on the steep path.
“They can take you down faster than you can recover, if you are not careful.” He said.
Baby steps all the way down was the key, with a bit of slippage here and there. The real danger came a little further down the path, and Mike stopped to point it out.
“Erik, be extra careful here. That is a cliff right there.”
I looked over, and sure enough, the steep gradient sloped right towards a cliff only thirty feet away.
“Well that looks fun.” I said to Alan, who was standing right next to me.
“Yeah.” He said, then we both watched as Logan walked down the path with no worry at all of the consequences.
“I was that young once.” Alan said, as we both carefully took our time through that particular section.
Walking up the mountain, you know it’s steep, but walking down is when it becomes most apparent. Getting lost here was not a worry at all, because we would just need to walk downhill and we would eventually run into the road; getting hurt is another worry that was far more concerning as we made our way down.
Hiking down was a nice change from climbing up, but it requires good knees to support the high impact steps that it takes to walk down. Most people who hike say they will take an uphill trail to a downhill one, simply because it is so hard on your knees. I was beginning to understand what they were talking about, but to me, at my age, I would still take the downhill trail. But whether you would pick up or down, there is nothing like a flat trail. We had made it down the mountain with no casualties, and the flat trail leading the rest of the way out was welcoming.
“We did it!” Mike said with a smile, as we put our packs in the car.
“It was good stuff, but I am tired.” I said back.
“Me too…” Mike said, “…and you still have to drive back to Boise.” He said.
Both Alan and Logan were camping here one more night before heading back to Nampa. We quickly said goodbye, before Mike and I hopped in the car to head back. Getting off my legs after a good hike is like a breath of fresh air.
“Want to hit another lake next week?” I asked.
“I think we can make that happen.” He said.
“Gracy will want to join us, so check to see if Kerry would be up for the hike.”
“I will.” He said, and we drove home, looking forward to the next weekend.