Traveling to this lake was a gamble in more ways than one, not just because of the pucker factor of the route, but because I had no information on the quality of the fishing. I knew the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife had stocked Golden Trout years ago. Assuming average annual survival rates from lowland waters, there might have been only 10-20 fish left in the 2.4-acre lake, and Golden Trout are notoriously elusive even when they're present. So I was thrilled when I reached the lake to immediately see fish rising.
After quickly running through some camp chores, I got to fishing, first with a dry fly. One of the trout had risen a few times right next to the little knoll on which I set up camp, and I could look down and see that it was a Golden. However, it wasn't feeding predictably, and I would cast one way when the fish went another. When I landed a cast close enough for the fish to notice, it spooked at the commotion from the line landing on the water, despite a fairly gentle presentation. This was the first of several times I cursed my choice to put a weight-forward rather than a double-taper line on my 5-weight.
No more fish were rising consistently, just sporadically around the lake. I worked my way around the high, rocky shoreline looking for fish. I probably wasn't trying to conceal myself as well as I should have, but the commanding views down into the clear blue water were too tempting to pass up, and for the most part there were no low viewpoints anyway.
The fish I saw--all Golden Trout--were only briefly emerging from the depths to take a few food items from the shallows before their route took them back down out of sight. Unlike Lower Lake where the Cutthroat were rising constantly, I only saw one of these Goldens every 20-30 minutes. When I spotted one in the shallows, it typically didn't see my fly (due to a bad guess at the next heading), ignored the fly for no apparent reason, or spooked at the line landing on the water.
Eventually I worked my way over to a point where a granite slab jutted out into the depths, and had some action:
At this point I was probing the unseen depths with a sinking line and a beadhead pheasant tail nymph, when I saw one of the shallows-cruising trout headed toward my line. I was in just the right position to pull in some line and put the fly in front of the fish, at depth, with no disturbance. I saw that it caught the fish's interest, but couldn't quite make out a take -- it was too subtle. I vaguely sensed it and pulled up. I don't know if I struck late, but when I set the hook I felt and saw a single headshake before the fly popped loose from the fish's mouth, and it was gone.
A bit later from that same spot, I was fishing a realistic damselfly nymph imitation down deep, and got another brief tug and flash of gold followed by nothing. Occasionally I would see a single rise, but that never seemed to be enough to pinpoint a fish's next location and place a fly that wouldn't scare it.
I worked my way around several scenic spots, seeing less and less action from the fish:
Finally, after sunset, a group of at least two fish started rising consistently. I was in position to place a cast ahead of the direction they were moving, but it was my only shot -- they were on the opposite side of the lake from me across a narrow constriction where I could cast to the other side, but any move up either shoreline would put them out of my reach for the evening. I casted ahead of the approaching rises and waited... and they randomly started moving back the other way, out of range, taunting me for what was left of twilight.
A single, less consistent fish was still rising within range, far more sporadically. It sipped a gently-landed dry fly, but nothing was there when I set the hook. Daylight ran out. I had fished for about five hours, seen 10-20 fish, missed three strikes, and caught nothing. The optimism I felt upon arriving at the lake and seeing rises faded into frustration at the thought that I might have come all this way and fallen short of my goal by just a hair. I would have little time to fish in the morning, because I had to downclimb about 5,000 feet of treacherous terrain the next day. Still, I had to try.
I woke up at the crack of dawn and forced down some food, knowing I needed the energy, although over-exertion the previous days had ironically sapped my appetite. The glassy surface of the lake reflected the surrounding peaks like a perfect mirror. As I sat in my tent enjoying the view and lacing up my boots, I saw ripples from a rise right in front of camp. I quickly snuck over and grabbed my rod, keeping low and peeking over the rocks to see what was going on. More ripples. I saw the fish. It was feeding steadily in the shallows. I had a good position to crouch behind a rock and direct my casts sidearm through the lake's outlet gulley so they wouldn't fly too high overhead and spook the fish. The first cast was no good -- the fish went a different way. But it didn't spook. On the second or third, it convincingly thwacked my Elk Hair Caddis, and I raced down to the water with the net.
Finally, my longtime goal was met!
Better yet, it was only 6:20 am, minutes before sunrise. I didn't need to catch another; I wanted all the time I could get to escape from the mountain. Besides, I only saw a few sporadic rises the rest of the morning as I packed up camp, on a day so still I could see any rise in the lake. It was dumb luck that the one really catchable fish had appeared right in front of my camp. After so much bad luck the day before, one thing finally went my way. The scenery was great, too:
The peak of the mountain towered above it all. I'm glad these don't call to me like they do to climbers; the lake was hard enough.
The climb back down to Lower Lake went relatively quickly and left me feeling good about the prospects of reaching the car before dark. Cutthroat were jumping all over, but I didn't stop to fish -- just to take a picture of the lake and the imposing wall leading to Upper Lake.
The rest of day was filled with anxiety about upcoming obstacles and relief after overcoming each one. One cliff I had to climb via faint trails on the ridge traverse was especially daunting. Even with GPS tracks to guide the way, they weren't precise enough to show the right route, and it wasn't as obvious as it had been on the way down. At several points I thought I might be stuck and have to downclimb and start over, but I eventually found a way up without falling.
The last obstacle I did not see coming. With only about 1,000 vertical feet left to go to reach the car, I got attacked by a swarm of angry yellowjackets. Fortunately I was in a stretch of open forest with only about a 30 % grade, so running from them wasn't out of the question. I had to climb down the rest of the way with about 10 fierce stings. I was running out of water (and electrolyte powder), again, and was rationing my last few sips over the last thousand feet despite having tried to ration it more carefully already. The last few hundred feet were the easiest of the climb in terms of slope, but even simple forest gymnastics like climbing over, under, and around fallen logs were nearly impossible and had me falling and stumbling left and right. My legs wanted to just give out, but they held up just long enough to reach the car. I filtered some water from a nearby stream, gulped a Five Hour Energy to stay alert, and stumbled like a drunk into the nearest grocery store to buy a big bottle of cold Gatorade. Getting home after that never felt so good.
I appreciate the rarity of spending Labor Day Weekend in the mountains within 40 miles of Seattle and not seeing another soul. But even by the standards of nutty adventures -- see Putting the Nut Back in Troutnut
-- this was way too much. I would never do it again, and I would not have done it the first time if I had understood what it entailed. It should only be attempted by groups of 2+ people with much better fitness, skills, and comfort on steep mountains than mine. But at least I got my trout!