Bears, Scares, and Big Fish

Bears and scares

Thanks to the relatively new Rocky Mountain National Park backcountry reservation system, I had to reserve on the opening day to finally get a bucket list spot. This did finally happen this year, although I didn’t get my first choice. Instead of being a mile and a half from our desired destination, we ended up about five miles away. Even with bears in camp and only three miles into the backcountry, this was just right.

The group was supposed to show up to camp in two waves: the early wave and late wave. Of course, this meant one guy showed up by 7 am, the second wave showed up at 10:30 pm, and the last group rolled in at 2:30 am. Off to a great start.

I was in the second wave. As we were arriving around 10:30, our friend Davis who was already in camp showed up on the trail to meet us in the pitch black woods. He passed along the great news that when he walked into camp, he found a nice sign warning us of visitors.

A sign saying that a bear was in camp the night before
The friendly sign letting us know we were not alone in camp.

After seeing the sign, he set up camp and came to check the trail for us, before returning to find a bear rummaging through his tent. As if this weren’t enough, he also found two pairs of eyes (one very tall and one very short, a cub) looking at him from beyond camp.

When we rolled in just 10 minutes later, he told us about his encounter. This obviously put us at ease. We stuffed the bear canister off in the woods and talked a little louder than we normally would that night. As we found out the next morning, our last wave rolled in around 2:30, unaware of the night’s events.

The next morning we found our bear canister scratched up and tipped over, but still intact and full of food. Everyone surprisingly slept well the night before, although we got a later start than anticipated. In light of our encounters and canister-rummaging, we updated the sign.

A woman standing behind a sign on the ground warning of bears.
We updated the sign to make sure it was factual.

Big Fish

The late departure put us a little (ok, a lot) behind schedule for the hike, especially in regards to weather. By the time we reached treeline, dark clouds were rolling in over the mountains above our destination. We stayed in the trees and waited out the first passing shower. After all, the overused phrase about waiting 5 minutes for the weather to change does often apply.

When the clouds cleared, we made a push for the lake, 8 miles in from the trailhead. Fortunately, as soon as we made it, we had bright and sunny skies. Unfortunately, about 10 minutes after that, more clouds and rain came in.

The outlet was packed with cutthroats bigger than I’ve ever seen before, and blood red. They were spawning in the shallow pools between rocks and their backs were out of the water due to their size. I tried to get photos, but none turned out.

Trying to avoid fishing the outlet for spawning fish, I headed right around the lake, and a few headed to the left. Turns out, they made the right call, and I chose poorly. While I saw exactly zero fish as I fished around, I could hear celebrations taking place on the other side. I did see a handful of rising fish out of reach on my side, but they would have required a belly boat. I didn’t see any cruisers near shore.

As the weather got worse, friendships apparently collapsed and by the time I got back, the group had scattered. I didn’t even really have a clear idea of what had gone down with the others since some were already gone and others were on their way out.

We packed up quickly and took off for the cover of treeline. Of course, then the sun promptly came out. We made it back to camp a few minutes before dark and I finally saw photo evidence of the sounds of big fish being caught.

A woman holds a large cutthroat trout caught on the fly.
The hog Ali pulled out, and one of only three fish caught that day.

It turned out that what I thought was a lot of fish being caught, was actually just one big one being caught. As a group, we only landed three fish. To be fair, between our late start and weather, I think we only fished for maybe 30-45 minutes.

On the left side, the group found big fish cruising the banks looking for food. A Copper John landed this big fish for Ali, and I believe the other two fish as well. Not the best day of fishing, but the biggest cutthroats we had ever seen.

What was supposed to be a hardcore fishing trip turned mostly into a hardcore camping and drinking trip with a little fishing. So, all in all pretty standard.

At first I was bummed that things didn’t exactly go as planned, and that most of us got skunked. In reality though, I got nearly everything I wanted out of the trip. The chance to see massive spawning cutties, an exciting and fun-filled backpacking trip, a grueling hike, solitude on the trail, beautiful lakes and wildflowers, lots of whiskey, and most importantly, an excuse to go try again. As if I needed one.

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This is a list I made and use for my own trips, and I think any backcountry angler will find it handy.