Lakes with grayling have been on my radar for a few years now, but in order to visit some of these lakes I knew I had to be ready for an overnight trip. Lightweight hiking/backpacking gear is expensive, and with every art show being cancelled due to the pandemic, all photography sales have just been nil. Thankfully my mother-in-law has some of the best backpacking gear on the market, and she provided everything I needed to make the grayling trip a possibility for me this year.
Photographing fish is not easy, however it is definitely a passion of mine. On the list of “fish to photograph” grayling is near the top. If shooting a typical fish is difficult, wrapping my head around photographing a light sensitive, light reflecting, iridescent fish can only be discovered by trial and error. Grayling can reflect an array of colors in the right sunlight; however, if the light is tilted or reflected awkwardly, all the electric blue colors of the elongated fin fades to black and red.
My buddy, Mike McLean, was playing with a bit of underwater photography and captured this image of a grayling…
It has been my inspiration for what I would like to capture, and that required hiking to a specific lake that has many grayling for the opportunity to photograph as many as I can.
We picked a lake that had been stocked with grayling, and only grayling, for several years in a row. There is no path to this lake, and it’s tucked behind steep ravines, making it unpopular to visit. Still, with grayling on the mind, I knew I had to go.
Mike McLean is my most reliable friend to hike with, and is always ready for a weekend getaway in the backcountry.
Also joining us on this overnight stay was my youngest brother, Bryan. Bryan is no stranger to the outdoors, and has the best gear with him at all times, ready for adventures that come his way. He had been staying in his van up in McCall and hitting a new mountain lake every day, sometimes multiple in a day, in search of fun fishing.
The three of us met up at Mike’s place Friday night to get an early start on Saturday. We still spent Friday night reminiscing about older fishing trips and stayed up way too late. Saturday morning came fast.
Boom, boom, boom… A knock at my door woke me up. A small wave of panic washed over me.. I had set me alarm, why did it not go off?
“Okay.” The voice of Mike came from outside my door.
“What time is it?” I asked, wanting to be sure I was not too late. We had all agreed to wake up at 5:30am.
“It’s time to get up.” Mike said, his voice fading as he walked away.
Confused, I reached for my phone. 5:20 AM. That’s why I had not heard my alarm go off… I still had ten minutes to sleep. There was no going back to sleep now, so I got up and ready to head out.
Bags were packed the night before, which made heading out early an easy transition from sleep. The trail head is the same one to Boulder Lake, and starts at Boulder Lake Reservoir. Once there, we heaved our packed on our backs, and headed up the trail.
I didn’t dare weigh my pack before we took off; better to just not know before this four mile hike. We kept a steady pace as we neared the first lake, slowing down only to be surefooted around muggy spots on the trail. As we hiked there were under ripe huckleberry bushes all over the place, but every once in a while we would come across a few ripe berries. There was enough for the three of us to pick the hidden fruit as we hiked. The sweet taste seemed more brilliant a couple miles in.
We had done our homework for this hike…the first three miles were the easy part.
Landmarks were being checked off as we approached each correct site in the backcountry: a right peak, a marshy section, a frog pond; all of it was leading us to our final destination.
“Well, we all knew this was coming…” I said, as we made our way to an open valley where the lake rested. The steepest part of the hike was here.
“Yep, we just need to take it slow.” Mike said, looking for the safest route to start our decent.
“This isn’t that bad.” Bryan said, taking a quick glance, “In Washington it can be steeper than this, and I do it all the time”.
“Well GEEEEZ, Mike! Aren’t we so lucky to be around this kind of greatness?!” I said. Bryan, cocked his head with a slight smile, deflecting the sarcasm and accepting my words as some kind of endorsement.
“Look at him just smiling.” Mike said, with a laugh.
“Well, the way I see it we can take this ledge this way…” Bryan said, pointing out a route with his finger, “…then cut across those boulders there that way”.
“Yeah, I like that.” Mike said. I took a look at what Bryan said, and the terrain was so steep that there was no further route-finding from the boulder where Bryan pointed. Bryan and Mike both looked at me.
“Onward!” I said, and we all clung to boulders that made up the steep path leading to the lake.
We still found loose jagged granite as we progressed down the steep slope. I have been hiking this kind of terrain with Mike before; I know his pace is slow and sure. And if Mike is slow, then I’m sluggish. Every step I took was a sure step. There was no quick decent for me. I made damn sure I was safe, because where we were there would be no easy way to get out if any of us got hurt. Bryan, on the other hand, was like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I have no doubt he was being safe, but he was fluttering over these rocks like Li Mu Bai tiptoeing over a bamboo forest.
As fast as Bryan was going, he was sure to wait for us when a route seemed more complicated ahead. Once together we selected a reasonable trajectory, but it was time for a quick snack. My dad had picked up a bag full of goodies for our hike, and this time he nailed it with some chocolate covered peanuts he picked up at D&B Supply.
“Wow, these are good!” Bryan said, taking another handful.
“Those are good!” Mike said.
“I’ll have to remember theses things for next time.” I said, now holding an empty bag.
The lake was in sight which fired us up get going.
Going down such a hill takes much more effort than going up, and our packs were getting heavy. Once down from the steep part of the hike, it was cake from there. We passed by the huge boulder field that separated us from viewing lake.
Once over the small creek that drained the lake, there it was: our final destination.
“This is fantastic!” I said.
“Do you see any rising fish?” Bryan asked.
“No…” I hesitated to say. That was the LAST thing I wanted to see: a lake with no activity. The entire idea was to get to an isolated lake for the opportunity of fantastic fishing, however this was not looking good.
“Should we walk around looking for the best camp spot?” Mike asked. Our packs felt the most heavy they had been the entire trip; finding a spot to shed them sounded great.
“Yes!” I said, breaking away from the bad fishing thought.
It wasn’t long before Bryan spotted a great camping spot. From the looks of it, someone had been there before. I was hoping for this; it’s always nice to get to a spot that has a nice fire pit and some cleared out spots for a tent.
Thud, thud, thud…
“Ohhhh, that’s nice.” Mike said, as the three of us let our packs hit the ground.
“Oh wow, I feel super light.” I said, walking in circles. The weight removed from my shoulders made me feel like I was walking on the moon; each step felt effortless and fun. I knew this feeling would go away soon, so I made the best of it as Bryan started unpacking.
“I want to get my tent up before the bugs get too bad.” He said, and I followed suit. Mike didn’t bring a tent. He brought himself a bivy-sack with a nice sleeping pad for a bed. The three of us set up camp.
“It’s nice to be here!” I said.
“Yep!” Bryan agreed, with a smile.
“And what a great day for that hike.” Mike chimed in.
The three of us were all smiles. Bryan and I had our tents up. Bryan wasted no time setting up his sleeping pad and sleeping bag for the night.
“Aaaaaaaaah!” He sighed, tucking himself in to try out his new bed. It’s no overstatement to say we were all excited to be where we were, but none was more happy than Bryan. Despite the mosquitos that found us quickly, there was no taking away the smile that remained on Bryan’s face since we had arrived.
Bryan had also bought me a gift before this trip: a GeoPress water filtering bottle, which was our next task.
We walked over to the lake, scooped up some water, and applied pressure to filter the water before drinking it.
“It’s good!” I said, smiling.
“Yep!” Bryan said, out of breath from a long gulp. We looked at the water, still not seeing a rise, but we were not going to catch a fish just looking around. We had to test the waters. We walked back to camp and started blowing up our Wilderness Light float tubes.
Fly rods were put together, and the tubes were pumped… it was time to fish.
“What the hell are you guys doing?” Mike asked, as Bryan and I picked up our tubes and headed off to the water. A quick glance over and I had realized, in the time it took Bryan and I to set up camp and gear up, Mike had only set up his bed. He had unpacked his bag with gear everywhere, his Wilderness Light float tube laid flaccid over a granite rock.
“Uhhhh.. Going fishing…” I said.
“Uu-huh… I see how it is.” Mike started, playing the victim. “Now I would expect this kind of behavior from, Erik. Got to get ready first! Be in his float tube first! Catch the first fish! But I expected better from you, Bryan…”
Bryan’s smile shifted to a slight guilty smile, like he had just been caught misbehaving.
“Now I see you are no better than your brother.” Mike continued, “It’s all about you and the fish you catch. It has turned into the Moncada show”.
“I know I’d tune in!” I said, not missing a beat.
“I’ll be out there soon. I’m not as fast as you guys.” Mike said, laughing as Bryan and I continued to the lake.
Sitting back on one of these Wilderness Light float tubes is a cool feeling. I would never have expected this super lightweight float tube to be so comfortable. With it being so light, and with no more limitations on the mountain lakes due to shoreline or lack of backcasting, for the first time I feel flooded with confidence when on the water.
“There’s one!” Bryan’s voice echoed over the lake. The water sparkled with every kick of his fish.
“It’s a Grayling!” He yelled in triumph.
I was too far away to get any kind of good look at his fish, but even from afar, it looked like a nice grayling.
Something broke the surface of the water off to my right. I kicked my way over, and launched my fly.
I waited, twitching my fly to entice anything that lurked near by.
“Here we go, here we go!” I yelled, and brought in a tiny fish.
“Is it a grayling?” Bryan asked, yelling over to me.
“It’s a cutthroat trout?!” I said, confused. “Of course I would find the only cutthroat trout in this lake that had been only stocked with Grayling.” Bryan laughed, as I unhooked the little fish and went back to fishing.
Fishing was poor at best. There were long stretches in-between catching fish, and that got frustrating due to the effort we put in getting to this particular lake. Mike was now on the water, and he was kicking over to spots we hadn’t hit yet. The three of us pounded the water, and only Mike caught a fish at the other end of the lake.
Okay, I have to approach this lake a bit differently, I thought to myself. I knew the others were not as prepared as I was to switch up, but even with that in mind it was hard to commit to a huge change of tactics. Still, I made myself kick to the bank and got out to rigged my outfit with a sinking-tip line.
Casting with a sink-tip made things more difficult, but it was nothing I couldn’t manage with an Orvis 10’ 4 weight Recon, my current favorite fly rod for the versatility. My line hit the water hard, and I gave it a 15 second count and started to retrieve.
I had a fish on the first cast. This was it, I just had to get deeper. I had felt the nice sized fish before it spit the hook, but with all the confidence on the lake, I pitched my line back out there.
I held on to my confidence for way too long… nothing was taking my fly. I was trying all kinds of different retrieves and depths, nothing was key. When a grayling finally took I was convince it was due to dumb luck rather that any skill I brought to the lake. Still, it was nice to see a grayling at the end of my line, and I was quick to get some good underwater shots.
After hours of no fish, the three of us went back to camp to give our legs a break from fishing.
“Damn alpine mosquitos are the worst!” Bryan yelled with frustration, smacking his own face. It was at this point I realized how nice it was to have a tent up. We had geared down to take a breather, and no better place than in my tent and away from the mosquitos. Bryan had climbed in his tent too, while Mike sat on a rock defending himself from the bugs. Mike had just purchased a new Garmin GPS unit, and was fidgeting with it.
“It’s going to be good as soon as the light gets off the water.” Bryan said from his tent.
“You think so?” I said back.
“You know…” Mike said, “…According to this Garmin this isn’t a good day to fish. It says we are in a high pressure weather system and next week should be fantastic”.
“What about when the light gets off the water?” Bryan asked.
“Actually, yeah! It says at 6pm tonight it should be good for a few hours. At that time the light should be behind that granite wall.”
Bryan clapped his hands together as if he had all the validation he needed for his lights-out theory. I wasn’t too convinced the Garmin could pinpoint good and bad fishing by the hour, however being in a high-pressure condition does indeed have an affect on fishing; so it did have that right.
“Does the Garmin have any fly suggestions?” I asked sarcastically.
“Says to use a purple haze…” Mike answered.
“I think I have one!” Bryan said, a spring-sweetness to his voice.
“Shut up!” I said, laughing.
“It didn’t say that?” Bryan asked.
“No.” Mike said, with a chuckle.
Bryan took a little nap in his tent, while Mike continued to play with the Garmin GPS unit. I was laying in my tent and remember I had brought three salted chocolate chip cookies I had picked up from the Co-Op the day before to share. I grabbed my cookie and ate it up. The soft chewy cookie was perfectly intermingled with its sweet salty taste…the only problem was that it was gone too soon. Bryan and Mike didn’t even know I had these cookies for them, and what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. Yeah, it was that easy to convince myself. Practiced hands snuck each cookie out of the plastic bag with not too much of a sound, and each bite was a glutinous pleasure of delight upholding the old saying that everything taste better at a mountain lake. Would Bryan and Mike really, truly, deeply appreciate these cookies as much as I? Poor Mike was out there smacking mosquitos off his face, and a cookie would have made his day. I was feeling guilty; perhaps that’s why I was being so quiet. I really hope the Garmin didn’t know about this.
The light was going to be off the water soon, we all headed back out to catch the evening bite. There was still no surface activity on the water, so I stuck with a subsurface fly, and it paid off immediately. My fly darted through the large boulders that made for good underwater habitat, and WAM! It was nice to see another grayling on my line. A little anxiety shot through me with the idea of it spitting the hook before I could take some shots, but it all worked out. The light was still good and I had my camera set to the fading sun for some underwater shots.
The sun faded fast behind the mountain side, and the lake was in shadow faster than expected.
The sound of rising fish caught my ear, and I spun around to see several fish taking something off the surface of the water. I switched my rig to top water, and focused on the rising fish.
I have seen this many times… something that LOOKS like decent fish rising. However after a closer look it was little dinks making the splashiest topwater commotion when trying to eat flies with their little mouths.
“I said it! They are rising everywhere!” Bryan yelled across the water, however “rising everywhere” was a bit overstated. Still, it was nice to see some surface activity. In the distance I saw Bryan make a cast, a fish ate his fly, then he set the hook aggressively sending the little fish cartwheeling towards him. The sight of it made me laugh.
The temperature was dropping fast, and with the way fishing has been today I made the decision to get off the water. No need to be super cold at night for no good reason. Bryan and Mike followed closely behind, with Mike catching a really nice cutthroat trout and Bryan another grayling on the way back.
Mike and Bryan got the Jet Boils fired up for our rehydrated dinners, which were not bad at all, to my surprise.
“Mike, what are you photographing over there?” I asked.
“My spoon.” Mike replied, holding up a stick. “I forgot my spoon…so I found this stick.” Mike sat down in front of his rehydrated beef stew, and tested his new spoon which seemed to work well.
The fire burned hot as the night grew cold, and even the mosquitos have had enough. Bryan celebrated no-more-mosquitos with a drink of choice, and we polished of the night with great stories of our pasts.
We had all gathered wood for the fire, and Bryan took it upon himself to keep it going.
After that long hike and fishing, I know I was feeling tired. We were all tired, and after the fire died down it was time for bed. I had planned to watch the stars for a while, but after laying down I fell asleep faster than I could remember, hoping the next day would bring better fishing.