It had been a while since one of my best fishing buddies, Ali, and I had gotten to wet a line together. The last big backpacking trip we did was back in 2018, when we went looking for a remote population of golden trout in Colorado. Now, this trip to the Flat Tops started much the same way: a desire to spend a weekend in the middle of nowhere, the chance to land a golden trout, and a hike that started at roughly 11:30 PM.
Because most of our weekend trips begin after work, Ali and I haven’t gotten to a backcountry site together before 1 AM for at least the last three trips. Possibly more. While our last night hiking experience was cut short by a lingering pair of eyes that wouldn’t get off the trail in front of us, this one proved much better. With a nearly full moon, a water bottle full of white wine, and a massive ridge to climb over, we got started.
The hike was short, but demanding. After climbing nearly straight up onto the narrow ridge separating the trailhead area from the Wilderness area, we realized our headlamps were no longer necessary. The moon lit up the whole valley ahead of us. Lakes shimmered and the silhouettes of trees let us know where the meadows ended. We hiked by moonlight until we descended far enough to start looking for a spot in the trees to pitch our tent.
The next morning wasn’t quite so magical. We woke up to rain pattering on the tent, and though it had let up by breakfast, it was obvious that more rain was on the horizon. We ate a quick breakfast and set off toward our first stop of the trip.
There didn’t seem to be much action at the first lake, but no matter. The rain was holding out for now and we were occasionally seeing what appeared to be small rises around the edge of the lake. After trying dries and nymphs alike without so much as a tug, we finally got a look at what was causing the small rise rings around the edges: fat tadpoles. These tadpoles would, every so often, gradually squirm their way to the surface and break the tension with their noses. Once we saw the culprits, we decided to pack up and move on, realizing that most lakes we’ve been to with large tadpole populations don’t tend to hold many fish.
We made our way through a short section of woods to pop out into a meadow full of lakes, ponds, and cows, which eyed us with suspicion. After trying some of the smaller ponds without luck, we moved on to the first larger lake. What we didn’t realize, however, was that the lake was surrounded by a 50 foot barrier of thick, muddy marsh. I’m not sure who was in the better position: Ali, who only had on sandals and could easily make it through the marsh, but with cold feet and legs, or I, who had on long pants and waterproof hiking boots, which quickly got in over their head and filled up.
After striking out on fish in this lake, too, we were starting to get discouraged. But upon popping down to the outlet stream, our luck changed. The tiny trickle of a stream held brook trout that looked entirely too large for their home, and with bright colors. The problem was that they almost always saw us before we could get close enough to place a fly. The crowding willows prevented us from sneaking up on anything, so we settled for heading downstream to the next lake.
Here, we finally got into some fish. Brook trout were rising, and despite still dealing with the marshy moat around the edge, we were both able to get some fish to the net.
Next, we decided to check out some of the many streams in the area, and ended up finding one with both cutthroats and brook trout. Ali caught the first cutthroat of the trip, and I landed possibly the prettiest brook trout I’d ever caught, with yellow instead of white slashes on its pectoral fins.
After a full day, we made it back to camp and promptly fell asleep around 6:30 PM. By 6:30 AM, we were back up and at it, heading out for what appeared to be a much nicer day weather-wise. This was not before we dried all our clothes from the previous day on our “clothesline” by the tent.
We had a new lake in mind to visit this day, and this was where we had the chance of hooking into a golden trout. When we arrived, we quickly realized that despite the sunny weather, we’d be dealing with heavy winds. Not the kind that’s a minor inconvenience, but the kind that seems to personally victimize you. The wind remained in our face the entire day, even though we walked the whole perimeter of the lake. If we had gone to opposite ends, I’m sure it would have found a way to originate in the middle and blow both ways. It was really a meteorological spectacle how much of an a-hole this wind was.
After managing to land a handful of small, somewhat colorless cutthroats, Ali finally hooked into what we came for: a good-sized golden trout. It took us a while to make sure that’s what it was, as it had quite unusual coloration. We kept checking the throat to make sure it wasn’t just a very colorful cutt, but after double- and triple-checking, we were sure it wasn’t.
I spent the next two hours or so desperately trying to get one of my own, but without luck. I got a consolation prize of about eight little cutthroats, but no gold. Satisfied that at least one of us got what we came for, and absolutely sick of the wind, we hit the trail again for the cars.
It’ll probably be at least another year before I get to do another trip with Ali, but I’m sure the next one will start just as late, involve just as many mishaps, and be just as fun as them all.