Headwaters and Homewaters: Sometimes lake locations mean you have to work for your fish
August 28, 2016
Two of the best days of hiking and fishing this season have been sort of unusual. One of them even a tad extreme. Neither one of them was a "regular" outing for me.
The stereotypical great hike for an angler starts at a trailhead and proceeds uphill to a destination that includes one or several lakes, streams and creeks. After all the great landscapes, wildlife viewing and trout wrangling have been enjoyed and glorified, the day ends with a long downhill walk out to the trailhead.
Well, Pumphouse Lake doesn't work that way.
This lake is at 11,334 feet, but you've got to walk downhill to get to it. What? How can that be? You've got to drive up the old Moffat Trail (Grand County Road 80/FS149) from the Winter Park side to Rollins Pass/Corona at 11,671 feet, then tromp downhill to Pumphouse Lake.
There are brookies here, rather indiscriminating brookies who were happy to clobber whatever flies we put out there. Stimulators and small, light brown Elk Hair Caddis imitations drew the most robust strikes as three generations of anglers cast into the waters. Then, in a weird twist, we packed up and hiked uphill, back to the car.
Another lake that breaks the mold, partly by being so dang hard to get to, is Arrowhead Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. This is one of the spectacular Gorge Lakes seen from Trail Ridge Road from the Rock Cut and Forest Canyon overlooks. There are several routes in, all difficult and with various advantages and drawbacks.
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We left from Milner Pass at Poudre Lake, ascending above tree-line almost to the top of Mount Ida, then down a long tundra ridgeline. Here we saw two Rocky Mountain bighorn rams lounging on a snowfield with Inkwell Lake and Terra Tomah Mountain in the background. We continued down a series of steep gullies to the shoreline of Arrowhead Lake at 11,120 feet.
Getting to this lake involves gaining about 1,900 feet in four miles, then descending 1,400 feet in two very rugged miles. That means the hike out is also going to be up and down, re-gaining that 1,400 feet to reach Mt. Ida's shoulder.
We caught a few fish, native greenback cutthroats, and they were beautiful in post-spawning colors. Then as we walked out, uphill — relentlessly uphill — in a weak moment I privately wondered if it was really worth all the effort.
Finally we topped out, and that two miles and 1,400 feet of elevation gained had been earned. Yes, it was worth it. The last four-miles downhill leading back to Milner Pass and U.S. 34 were a piece of cake by comparison. We ultimately covered about 14 miles and arrived back at the trailhead 13 hours after starting.
The smoke from the Beaver Creek fire up along the Wyoming line caused a prolonged, colorful sunset with lingering alpenglow as we rolled homeward, crossing Trail Ridge and descending the Big Thompson Canyon, Greeley-bound.
— Tom Adams is a retired educator living in Greeley and working as a fly-fishing guide in the wilds of Rocky Mountain National Park. He can be reached at email@example.com.