SEARCH FOR THE ELUSIVE GREENBACK CUTTHROAT TROUT -
We all have ideal vacation spots and little dream hideaways that we’d like to visit. When you think of vacation, there are going to be places that come to mind and places that you’ve had on a list of wanting to see “some day” and each of us will have different reasons for wanting to go to these places. I know that many of you will find it surprising, but almost all of my dream vacations involve fly fishing in some way. Many years ago, before I learned to even cast a fly rod, I saw a fly fishing program on TV where the host spoke about the greenback cutthroat trout and how it was brought back from near extinction. I’ve been on the hunt for one of these for several years and based on some research, I had wanted to visit and fish Dream Lake, in the Rocky Mountain National Park for some time.
The greenback cutthroat trout used to range all over Colorado on the eastern side of the continental divide. Due to unregulated over-fishing and the introduction of non-native species that took over their natural habitat, the greenbacks that took over 2-million years of evolution to create were considered to be extinct by the 1930s. In the mid 1950s and again in the 1960s and 70s, a small population of the Greenback cutthroats were discovered in a few isolated streams and the reintroduction of these small, native fish began. This changed the species’ status to endangered rather than extinct. Today, their status has been upgraded to threatened and fishing for the greenback cutthroats is permitted as catch and release only.
My search for the Greenback Cutthroat trout began with a short flight to Denver and a visit to Boulder, Colorado, with my girlfriend, Bonnie. I had targeted Dream Lake, in the Rocky Mountain National Park, as the most likely place where I could catch a Greenback Cutthroat in a ½ day of fishing. Dream Lake is a high alpine lake with a trail that begins at the Bear Lake Trailhead located around 9,460 feet in elevation. The trail to Dream Lake is just over a mile hike, with a final elevation just short of 10,000 feet. For those of us traveling from the desert, it means that you’ll likely get quite winded and a bit of altitude sickness.
The hike up in early August was cool and a bit damp. The higher elevation mountains were still snow capped but the afternoon hike up was comfortable enough that when moving, there wasn’t even a need for a jacket. The first lake on the trail is Nymph Lake. It is a scenic shallow water lake with lots of water lily pads, but very little fish activity. It was calm enough that there was some mosquito activity. A further hike uphill led us past a few swift streams before reaching Dream Lake. It was a calm lake and the Greenback cutthroat trout could be seen near the bank with very little fear of anyone walking by. I dropped an ant pattern in the water, without even a cast and got my first hook up. After a few seconds, it got off, but it got my heart pumping. I tried a few other flies including streamers with little success. Finally, I tossed out a foam ant and missed one hookup and then finally got one on, just as a storm moved in. Bonnie snapped a few quick shots of me with the trout before I released it, just in time for the hail to start falling on us. It’s hard to describe the feelings I felt, as the trout swim away from my hand and into the deeper water. I had caught and released a rare species and for a brief moment had the opportunity to hold it in my hand.
The temperatures dropped as the rain came down and the hike down was on muddy trail. Every step seemed to get a little colder. I began to regret my decision to wear shorts that day and for not bringing that poncho I had left at the hotel. By the time we reached the car I was absolutely soaked, but I had no regrets. I had caught and released my first Greenback Cutthroat Trout.Story and Photos By: David Hwang | Art Direction By: Gentry Smith | Copyright © 2010