As a fly fisherman, I tend to do a lot of dreaming. My mind is constantly wandering to far off corners of the globe with visions of incredible species in even more incredible places, always looking for that special place that combines the two. I’m sure that most of us truly fish-obsessed folks in the fly fishing community have all had that moment where we’ve seen a fish or a place that just stopped us on the spot. Whether that was a glimpse at a fish like a 55″ Siberian Hucho Taimen, or the unmatched beauty of a backcountry New Zealand stream, we’ve all had that moment of clarity and the thought that “I have to make that happen.” This is exactly what I went through last October when I received a text from my good friend and fishing buddy, Mat Slater (@matslater). The text was a photo of a monstrous Lake Trout he had caught from a pristine glacial lake, nestled somewhere deep in the Rocky Mountains. Giant native char that live 200 feet deep, don’t see flies, eat 15” cutthroat for a snack, and can live to be 70 years old. Are you kidding me?! Right there, I knew I had to make that happen.
Usually, fly fishing dreams will consist of far-off destinations that are seemingly unobtainable, or at the very least, “trips of a lifetime”, however; living in the middle of Southwest Montana, I have the luxury of being right in the very center of easily some of the best trout fishing in the world. Within a ten-hour drive radius in any direction, I can hunt down the largest browns, rainbows, cutthroats, brook trout, and steelhead that North America has to offer. Being a college student with a family, this has been paramount for me in chasing trophy trout, and this time was no different. So, before the lake was even frozen, plans were put into motion for the following year.
Our first plan was to make it up as early as the fishing season would allow and try to hit it right at ice off. If you know anything about Lake Trout, it’s that they like to sit deep. As in hundreds of feet deep. The only feasible times to catch them on the fly are during ice off when they come shallow to warm up, or in the fall when they come shallow to spawn. So, early this summer I loaded up the fishing gear and hit the road to meet up with Slater in Glacier National Park (or maybe it was Waterton, I can’t quite remember) for some giant glacial monsters.
The lake itself, besides being a hell of a long drive for me, is not one of those places that is easily accessed. As with most mythical places in the fishing world, the more work you put in, the better the experience is for both the scenery and the fishing. This starts with a hike to the lake and finishes with hours of paddling in a canoe. Nothing too wild, but you had still better check that the lats and delts are in prime shape for what’s to come. By no means, do you want to put in all the work required to find the fish, only to realize that the back and the hamstrings are too shredded to handle the strain of these glacial beasts.
The weather that early July morning was fairly sunny and warm as we set off towards the lake. The hike wasn’t too bad but at the first sight of the lake, we realized that there was not a piece of ice to be seen. That meant that there was an early ice off and bad news for our fishing chances. Knowing that it could be tough and with the wind starting to pick up, we got on our horse (an old rusty canoe that looked like swiss cheese) and went to work. Hours passed with not even a woof so we decided to man up and make the long haul to the furthest point of the lake where Slater had had success last year. It was getting a bit later in the day and the journey takes close to two hours of hard rowing. The air had a sort of ominous heaviness to it as well but the chance for one of those gorgeous fish was only a few miles away and off we went.
Over ambition to catch a slab or two has gotten me in a few predicaments in my fishing career but this one might have topped them all. We got to the far end of the lake and not a second after making our first casts, the weather took a turn. The wind was the first thing we noticed, and not long after that, the storm clouds rolled over the steep peaks, bringing lightning and a downpour. The Master was able to catch one little micro slab before we decided to try and get the hell out of there. We emptied the leaky canoe of water and jumped in, rowing like mad. The wind was absolutely howling and the little lake was starting to resemble the Bering Sea. We were still talking and laughing but were cut short when the white-caps started to break over the top of the canoe. It was in this moment that we realized a few things that we had kind of shrugged off earlier.
1. We were at least a quarter mile from the shore of a 40-degree temperature lake.
2. Our multiple layers of jackets and clothing were completely soaked through.
3. We had waders and wading boots on that act like sinking stones.
4. Our only life vests were tattered cloth with Styrofoam sticking out.
I had found myself in another predicament. We figured it was best to just head straight for the nearest shoreline and wait out the storm. The canoe was rocking violently with every swell as we started to frantically paddle towards shore. The rain and waves had built up about 4 inches of water in the bottom of the boat which was starting to bog us down even more. With the lateral delts on fire, a wild ten minutes ensued until our canoe touched the shore. We waited out the storm and busted out of there just as darkness fell thankfully dodging the Grizzlies as we went. The next day I started the long journey home with some unfinished business.
After the initial failure and sketchy experience, I was more fixated than ever with these wild Char. Within a few days of returning home we called up our buddy Lyle Brown (@highflya), and game planned a three-day backpacking trip in September. We thought up some different fishing methods and some different areas. We brought some new flies and also plenty of whiskey to either weather the storms or celebrate the slabs. This time we wouldn’t be denied.
Those three days ended up being some of the most prime fishing I’ve ever experienced. The weather was beautiful, the lake was glass, and the fish were slamming the piss out of our streamers. We ended up catching fish from the shore, trolling in the canoe, and dropping our streamers 100 feet to the bottom and ripping them back to the boat. These extremely aggressive fish would eat two or three times if we didn’t hook them the first time. A couple of my favorite moments came when fishing from shore. While ripping my streamer back in I could see the flash of giant white-tipped fins following my fly. As the streamer got closer I would run out of real estate to strip the fly in and the Laker would lose interest until we found that you could entice a slam out of them with a Musky fishing style figure eight. They would hammer the fly right below you with only a couple feet of line out. Easily some of the coolest eats I’ve ever witnessed.
Needless to say, the whiskey ended up being for celebrating and our bags were a little lighter on the way out. We camped, drank, ate some clay, fished hard, and rowed harder. We slabbed out, high fived, laughed our asses off and didn’t nearly drown. All of this after our first failure and all of it a part of the recipe. From the stunning surrounding wilderness, the magic of the lake itself, and the mystery of the ancient creatures lurking beneath the surface, this place was special.
For more content from Brier Kelly, be sure to follow him on Instagram @brier_kelly! Be sure to read Brier’s other post about catching massive browns out in the West: