(c) Jack Ballard
Start with a national park. Add a short hike of just over a mile that gains less than 500 feet in elevation. End at one of the most picturesque lakes in the region. What does this recipe yield – Dream Lake, one of the most popular hikes in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park.
For fly anglers, there’s more to Dream Lake than pretty photos, invigorating vistas and moderate exercise. Greenback cutthroat trout, Colorado’s state fish, fin the waters of this lovely alpine tarn in relatively high numbers. Once thought to be extinct, greenback cutthroats are now thriving in a growing number of lakes and streams in high mountain habitats across the Centennial State.
In late September, a friend and I depart from the trailhead at the Bear Lake parking lot, headed for Dream Lake. A five-piece travel rod is strapped to my daypack, a reel and small assortment of flies nestled inside. My companion carries a camera. Her goals for the hike involve photos, not fish.
Shortly after leaving the trailhead we veer left at a “T” in the path. A few minutes later we encounter another fork in the trail. This time we veer right, our footsteps aimed uphill. A pleasant jaunt of a half-mile brings us to Nymph Lake, a comely little puddle in a very big landscape, devoid of fish but flush with photographic possibilities. Departing Nymph Lake, it takes just 30 minutes to reach the shoreline of Dream Lake.
The view is as lovely as heralded on the hiking websites and park service brochures. But we aren’t alone. On this pleasant weekend, a sunbathed, summery prelude to the cooler days of autumn, dozens of other Rocky Mountain National Park hikers lounge on the rocky outcroppings near the outlet of the lake. Along the two shorelines, whose vectors pull the visitor’s gaze inevitably toward the stony summits of Flattop and Hallett Peaks, I spy a couple dozen anglers flipping lures and casting flies. On the water, dainty dimples and the occasional robust rise betray the presence of Colorado’s most prized cutthroat.
A crumb-trail of large rocks protruding from the lake lead to a whale-sized boulder in deeper water. I rig my rod, then leap rock to rock, as a watchful audience on the shoreline roots for a dunking. Perch gained, I crouch motionless on the boulder, eyeing a pod of cruising trout nipping bugs from the surface. Ruefully I recognize their targets as tiny dark midges. I have nothing in my meager fly assortment that remotely resembles these miniatures in size or color.
Unable to match a trout-targeted hatch with a reasonable imitation, I’m generally inclined to try something completely unrelated instead of plying a second-rate imitation. I tie a black foam-bodied cricket to my tippet. In the course of an hour, dozens of Dream Lake greenbacks from 6 to 12 inches fin over to inspect the cricket. I miss one determined strike, then 20 minutes later hook and land a strikingly beautiful, foot-long greenback. A couple onlookers clap while Lisa records the moment with her camera. It’s not the fastest action I’ve had on an alpine lake, but loads of fun.
When I return to Dream Lake and Rocky Mountain National Park, I’ll carry a selection of small midge dries and ants. So armed, I’m hoping the ratio of fish to photos will tilt toward the trout.