Guest Blog by Katie Burgert of Fish Untamed
After taking my first trip to the Sangre de Cristos for a quick backpacking trip over the 4th of July (where I unexpectedly crossed paths with Andrew Todd, as he mentioned in his post below!), I was itching to get back to the area. The relatively light hiking traffic, lakes in every drainage, and eager fish made it an angler’s paradise.
We decided to head back to the Sangres the following weekend to get our Flyathlon entries. The goal was to find a drainage with a really long day hike and the possibility of catching a decent fish. A bit of Googling led us to the Xxxxx Lakes, just south of our previous backpacking loop.
The trail was marked as 13.7 miles roundtrip, perfect for getting some Flyathlon points and for earning our post-hike beers. We set out just after 6 a.m. According to the logbook at the Wilderness entrance, we were the first group of the day, and one of only two groups currently in the Wilderness area.
Despite the length, the trail was pleasantly flat. Not flat flat. But, compared to other trails in the Sangres, it might as well have been. The gradual ascent from start to finish kept our heart rates up but still allowed us to chat about the deer, waterfalls, and wildflowers we were seeing along the way.
The first lake we hit was Xxxxx Lake, which was relatively shallow and had an amazing backdrop. A quintessential pyramid-shaped mountain stood in the background, and this mountain divided the upper two lakes, Xxxxx Lake and Yyyyy Lake. A friend of a friend who’d been to the area before gave us some intel on the fishing. According to him, the lower lake was packed with small cutthroats, while the upper lakes held larger, pickier ones. Based on his information, we came up with a fishing plan. Considering the length and altitude of the hike, getting stormed out was a real possibility. While we wanted to catch the biggest fish we could, coming home fishless would have killed our Flyathlon plans. We decided to start at the lower lake and hopefully get a fish on the board regardless of size. Then, if the weather held out, we’d continue up toward Yyyyy Lake to see if we could catch a lunker.
The fish in the lower lake were harder to catch than we anticipated. They seemed wary of everything we threw, and after 45 minutes or so, we’d only landed one fish each. That was fine by us, as we had bigger fish to fry (not literally). After getting our photo evidence, we packed up and started up one of the only steep trail sections of the day. The word “trail” is a stretch for this section. It was mostly a line of trampled grass passing by occasional cairns, clearly not a heavily used area.
Yyyyy Lake appeared to be much deeper than its lower partner, and we could immediately see massive fish cruising the shelves. The advice we were given rang true, as these fish were quite picky, often rising near the surface only to turn away at the last second. Many also swam by without giving our flies any attention at all. I gave up trying to cast to fish I could see, since they seemed to be just as aware of my presence as I was of theirs.
On a long, blind cast way off the shelf, I finally got what I came for: a slow, methodical rise from a massive fish. After a long fight and barking some netting instructions to my boyfriend, we finally landed it. It filled the net and then some. Unfortunately, as I lifted the fish for a photo, it mustered one big flop and sent itself back into the lake. While I wish I’d been able to submit it for points, I’ll settle for the memory of watching my biggest cutthroat to date (based on measurements of my net, I’m guessing between 19 and 20 inches), sip a small dry fly from a glassy lake.
Not long after, I was able to land one more fish from Yyyyy Lake, another nice cutthroat that ended up becoming my submission fish. At 16 inches, it was no monster, but its plump belly and vivid colors still made for an awesome catch and photo. A storm sent us packing after another couple casts, and we spent the long walk back trying to stay dry and keeping the dog calm while thunder cracked overhead.
We rewarded ourselves afterward with a quick stop in town for burgers and our first sampling of Rocky Mountain oysters, a great way to cap off a memorable fishing trip.
Guest Post by Ashley Rust
I am lucky enough to say that I have been a participant in the Flyathlon since the beginning, back to the beta-phase, when our great leader, Andrew Todd, was fleshing out the idea and organized an unofficial trial run. Every year since, I participate, volunteer or support the Flyathlon in some way and every year I walk away totally inspired. This year was different, it is 2020, but I still walked away uplifted and inspired.
Gwen Nelson, an old friend from Creede and a fellow Flyathlete and I encouraged each other to register for the first ever Socially Distanced Flyathlon and made plans to meet later in the summer. I hadn’t seen my friend since leaving the Middle Creek Flyathlon last summer. The day came and we met at a trailhead outside of Buena Vista.
My girl, Gwen had done her research and found a trail to a high alpine lake with cutthroat trout in it. The trail for Kroenke Lake, shares a trailhead with Mt. Harvard and both are well utilized and well-maintained trails. The trail to Kroenke Lake was gorgeous with a lot of exposure to North Cottonwood Creek, which is a good sized stream with a lot of fishy habitat. However, our destination was the beautiful cirque lake 8 miles up.
We got caught up as we hiked, covered it all as girlfriends can do and arrived at the lake midday. It was full of people but there was plenty of room and fish for everyone. After setting up, trying a few different flies we both joyously caught some gorgeous cutthroat trout. It was my first time catching our state’s beauty on a fly, and to add to the kismet, I used a packable Rolling River Anglers rod created by a Running Rivers board member which I purchased at a Rare-Fish-Rare-Beer fundraiser a few years ago.
We finished the day with our feet in the Arkansas River, the local Eddyline beer in our hands feeling elated. It was a highlight of my COVID summer. Thank you Flyathlon for getting me out on an adventure and for introducing me to the joy of catching our mighty natives.
Guest Blog Post by David Fawcett
I started fly fishing about a year ago, and hadn’t really run for about 10 years until March, when I started running with my daughter as her soccer training went virtual due to Covid isolation. Running felt great as my mileage increased, and trout fishing provided a great escape from the realities of the first half of 2020.
This made me super psyched when I found Flyathlon and the Socially Distant Flyathlon Challenge. It gave me license to create an adventure, set some goals, train for something, and do some good in the process.
The Minnesota Driftless has over 700 miles of designated trout streams, including 221 miles of angling easements on private land, plus access in Minnesota State Parks and State Forests. Some of my favorite creeks range from street to sidewalk width. You can catch native Brook Trout, naturally reproducing Brown Trout, stocked Rainbow Trout, and the pretty rare Brookie - Brown hybrid Tiger Trout.
I started my challenge day early, parking at the approach before sunrise. Corn all around, no moon, stars and planets still glowing. I brewed up some coffee in the Jetboil and sipped it until it was light enough to start. When I got to the stream, it was lower than the last time that I had been there, with a slight stain in the pools. The stream-side vegetation was a lot taller too, overhead in a lot of places. A hot day, but the water temp in this Driftless spring fed creek was in the low 60s.
No rising fish in the first pool, so I rigged up a #18 rusty brassie below a local favorite heavy Pink Squirrel variant. I caught a really small Brown Trout at the top of that pool, and was relieved to have at least circumvented the DNC (Did Not Catch) designation. Some more Browns in the 10” range took the brassie as I headed upstream, and then things shut down despite changing my approach several times.
My designated turn-around point was a rock at the top of a pool where I had been about a month before with an awesome local guide. We had watched a good-sized trout sit up against that rock and gulp insects off of the surface as they floated by. We had both made casts to the fish and coaxed it to strike, but neither one of us was able to connect with it.
On this day, I stopped at the bottom of the pool and watched the rock for a while, but there were no rises. After tangling up my double-nymph rig to the point of no return, I cut it off so I could just tie on a new one. As I started, from behind my back, I heard it, “slurp...”.
New plan! I attached a #18 Missing Link Caddis that I had tied myself, and after several attempts, placed the long cast where I wanted it. The fly drifted right past the Brown, and he grabbed it. I kept him out of the late-season vegetation, landed him, took some quick pictures, and made sure that he was ready to swim away so we can play the same game again next time.
What an awesome start to the day! Fishing alone on a beautiful, isolated stream, and for the first time, catching a trout on a dry fly that I had tied myself. Confident that I would not be able to top that for the day, I wrapped up my line and hiked back out to the car.
For the running portion of the challenge, I headed over to Whitewater State Park. The park is 100 years old, with the Whitewater River and another trout stream running through it. There are some really spectacular overlooks on the bluffs, and some cool Depression era CCC construction in the valley. You can also fish for trout in the park all year round with a catch and release season after the traditional season ends in September.
When I started to scope out a place to run, I realized that Whitewater had about 12 miles of trails, and it really was a classic representation of the topography, geology, and fisheries of the Minnesota Driftless.
I started on the Dakota trail in the valley, ran up past a couple hundred million years of paleozoic rock, and deposits of rock dust ground up by the Late Wisconsin glaciers that missed this part of the state. From the top of the bluff, I headed back down to the floor for an out and back along Trout Run Creek, and then up a few hundred stair steps to the rim and on to Inspiration Point. I worked my way counter-clockwise through the park trails, with several more trips up and down the scarp. I hit 10 miles, realized that I had enough to complete the full 12, and then finished my run at the swimming beach for some natural cryotherapy, soaking in the cold, spring-fed pool.
After driving back home I wound down with a False Pattern from Modist Brewing and a Garden Rager from Wild Mind Artisan Ales. I am already excited for the Driftless Area Flyathlon in person in 2021!