“Big Cutthroats”, he said, and that was all I needed to hear. I had been talking to a guide in the Conejos River Anglers fly shop about six years ago asking about high country lake fishing in the area. A local angler stepped up and said that Crater Lake held huge Cutthroat trout. He said the hike was fairly difficult so that kept most people out. Since that day six years ago I had been hoping to fish Crater Lake. After all, you can’t beat alpine lakes and native cutthroats.
Meadows, beginning of Crater Lake Trail
Meadows, beginning of Crater Lake Trail
Continental Divide Trail (is very close but Crater Lake is not exactly on the CDT)
Crater Lake is not very well known. It is a remote lake, in a remote wilderness area, in a remote part of Colorado. The South San Juan Wilderness is known as “Colorado’s Wildest Corner” and it was in 1977 that the supposed last Grizzly in Colorado was killed. An Elk bow-hunter startled a Grizzly sow with cubs somewhere in the backcountry and she attacked him. According to an account I read, he fought and killed the Grizzly sow with an arrow by stabbing her repeatedly in the chest while he was being mauled. He lived, she did not. Some people swear there are a few ghost Grizzlies still haunting these forests and high, rolling meadows but of course no one knows for sure.
Skye the Dog on the trail
The Crater Lake trail is rated as a difficult one, but not completely brutal, at least we thought. It is roughly 3.5 miles one way to the lake, but you gain about 800’ at first going steadily uphill through high country meadows. Then you plunge roughly 1600’ down through the forests of a steep canyon until jumping over into the upper basin of an adjacent canyon. (When coming back up from the lake that 1600’ really takes its toll.)
Beginning of the Wilderness, and the trail heads down
In the basin of the adjacent canyon, below the jagged crags of Montezuma peak lies Crater Lake, a true alpine jewel. The waters are crystal clear dark blue and with polarized glasses you can easily see to the bottom of all but the deepest spots in the lake. You can even see big Cutthroats cruising a dozen or so feet from its shores, looking for their next meal. Of the many high country lakes I have hiked to in my life this one definitely ranks in the top ten.
On the way in we noticed all types of wildflowers and the high, rolling, green mountain meadows stretched away to even higher peaks. The high country in this area is spectacular and is among the most beautiful in Colorado. But the dark clouds that were always swirling around in the distance made us a bit uneasy, even though on the trail things were sunny and mostly clear.
Dark clouds in the distance
The downhill plunge through the dark, damp forest to the lake began to worry me when we kept going down, down, down, with no end in sight. I knew the hike out was going to be tough. Finally we crossed over into the other basin and within ½ mile we were standing at the timber-choked outlet of Crater Lake.
Feather on trail
The view was amazing; crystal blue water and a jagged peak looming over the scene in the distance. It felt primordial. On the surface of the water you could see the occasional trout sipping insects and making small ripples.
First view of the Crater Lake basin, lake hidden
Just after lunch the one human that we had seen at the far end of the lake beneath the peak passed us on his way out. He said he had caught several nice fish using live grasshoppers. Thus, we decided to hike up to the head of the lake and give things a go there rather than near the outlet.
Fishing at the head of the lake, dark clouds swirling around
Excitedly I put my rod together and tied on a big, Yellow Humpy. Several trout cruised right up to it, gave it a look, then flipped their tales and cruised away. They all seemed like good sized fish but the water and the refractions concealed just how big they actually were.
After three different rejections a big, yellow Cutthroat confidently cruised up to my fly and sipped it right in. I set hard, too hard. The tippet snapped right off and he disappeared.
Ticked off at myself for such a rooky mistake, I tied on a big Red Humpy. I cast it out and fished it for about 15 minutes before another big, yellow Cutthroat swamp up quickly and struck the fly. This time my set was true. I gently but firmly fought this big guy for a while before finally getting him to shore. The whole time Skye the dog was whining and barking in the background.
Hooking, fighting, and landing a big Native Rio GRande Cutt
Once I reached down to pick him up from the shallows I realized just how big he was. It was a genuine 17” Native Rio Grande Cutthroat, and he was BIG. He had brilliant, bright red jaw slashes, glowing yellow skin with large black dots, and a powerful caudal fin. Unfortunately, the pictures we took do not convey his size very well. He was a beautiful male and the second largest Cutt I have ever caught.
Detail of the tail
Cutthroat detail in moving water
Cutthroat detail in moving water
My wife fished next. We put on a nice, bright green hopper and she cast it out and began to fish.
She too had a number of inspections and nudges from nice sized fish and even missed one take. Then we saw a dark form shoot up from below and slam her hopper like a Great White coming up for a seal. She set perfectly and then the fight was on.
It was another tough, strong fish but she prevailed and eased it to shore. It was another big, Native Cutthroat hen, and she went 15”. We took photos then released her, watching her slowly swim off into the deeper water to recuperate.
Second Cutt of the day
Just as I was about to cast again it began to drizzle and the drizzle slowly grew heavier. We knew it was time to head out. By the time we had reached the foot of the lake we began to put on full rain gear, and not a moment too soon. The bottom fell out and it rained, hard, really hard. Then after a few minutes the rain turned to hail the size of #2 buckshot. One hit me straight on the thumb and it stung.
We had to hike all the way out, up, up, up, through blinding hail, rain, wind, lighting and thunder. Although our raingear kept the rain out were we soaked to the bone by the sweat of the uphill effort. The deluge lasted for over an hour and the hail became 2” deep in places. There was so much hail on the ground it looked like an odd snowfall. The lightning and thunder scared the dog and we were increasingly afraid of having to hike through the high, open country toward the beginning of the trail with all of the lightning crackling around.
With unbelievable luck, by the time we reached the end of the forest and the open high country just beyond, the lightning, rain and hail had stopped and moved on. Thank Jah.
On the way back out we saw a big, solo female Elk slipping toward the forest from the high meadows and startled a covey of this year’s Ptarmigan chicks and their mother out on the high meadows. We also saw a pair of large Marmots whistling to each other amongst a huge rockslide.
Even though we landed only two fish, it was an incredible day, one we will not soon forget.