I live for the summertime. I live for the Colorado sunshine, that at 10,00+ feet can more often than not come across as being too “strong.” I live for backpacking into the untouched landscapes of our public lands and camping underneath a sky full of stars unaltered by light pollution. I live for the echoing squeaks of taunting marmots and I cling to the hopes of seeing mountain goats clamber up sheer rock faces. I live for mountainsides bursting at their seams with every color of wildflower imaginable. I live for the glacial cold, crystal clear, emerald waters that lie above the tree line, nestled amongst the clouds. My heart skips a beat when I see those colored up, cruising giants just below the water’s surface. I live for fly fishing the alpine.
For me, there’s the reward of fly fishing, and then, there are the unyielding rewards of fishing the backcountry. The views are unparalleled, the solace is humbling. Being surrounded by boulder fields and slow growing, trembling firs takes my imagination back to simpler times. It takes a certain kind of adventuring spirit to seek a landscape as raw and unpredictable, but those who choose to venture to such places do so religiously, unrelenting. Packing in heavy loads, miles deep, and holding on tight to the hopes that some of our favorite spots were finally thawed from their winter standstill, we were reminded this summer that the alpine doesn’t always play fair. Anyone else who shares the love of fishing in the high country knows that this year was unforgiving; a harsh winter, a late ice-off, a steady blanket of blood thirsty mosquitos, and particularly picky fish.
We counted down for summer to hit, speculated a bit on years’ previous ice offs and then took off running first chance we had. We hiked for miles straight uphill in knee deep snow only to be let down. To see an alpine lake completely frozen-over in mid-July is to feel the absolute desolation of winter above 11,000 ft. Needless to say being in one of the most beautiful places Colorado has to offer, we cut our losses, set up a hammock with a five-star view and enjoyed a picnic and a cold beer.
When the end of August came around and we had just enough time to give it one last try. There were fresh elk rubs on the hike in, their grassy fragrance lingering in the meadows we crossed through. Speckles of yellow were starting to trickle in amongst the aspen. We saw a steadily determined coyote on the hunt for more calories. Despite hiking, my breath was cold, like the breeze coming off the surrounding peaks. Fall was nearing.
The lake itself was immaculate, its mirrored surface gleaming in the last bit of summertime sun. The fish were rhythmically cruising, weaving in and out of the depths to rise here and there. They had doubled in size from last year, and to see them was to love them. With water as clear as an aquarium, sight fishing proved to be nothing short of an absolute tease. Watching fish after gorgeous fish, do a full 360 head tilt to refuse our flies was agonizing. After an hour or so of switching up flies to present to them, we finally landed a painstakingly picturesque Golden Trout. The take was fleeting, the fight was riveting, the fish was undeniably worth all the effort.
Moments later we were hit by a storm so strong that hail, roughly the size of cherry pits covered the ground so rapidly that inches of it had built up within no time at all. With lightning all around us, it was clear that one fish was all that the alpine would give to us this time.
But that one fish was enough to keep me desperately hanging on a thread until next time. While I’m away, fishing at lower elevations, the high country will forever be etched into my mind. When I close my eyes, I see mountain goats hunkering down in the swell of a snowstorm. I see marmots burrowing deep into the earth to await the spring. I see fir trees growing heavy under white blankets. I see ice slowly creeping from the banks into the center of the lake. Just below that ice, I see all the colorful fish that keep me coming back every year, and I live for them.