Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Heart Lake Yellowstone Park Day 1

I’m sitting in camp on the banks of Heart Lake in the backcountry of Yellowstone. Heart lake is a good size lake, in fact its one of the largest backcountry lakes in the lower 48 states. Not only is famous for being bear infested, it’s absolutely full of huge cutthroats and lake trout. Heart was once high on my “must fish” list but slowly slipped away as I discovered international adventures. Boy was that a mistake.

This is an organized pack trip through Wilderness Trails. I lucked into this because my friend Carter Andrews had to cancel at the last minute. He had to forfeit his payment so he offered me his spot for a deal I couldn’t refuse. The other five guys on this trip are friends I know well from back in my fly shop days. Joe Burke is a long time pal. I met Joe way back in 1987 when I moved to Jackson, Wyoming. Peter Moyer is also a friend. We haven’t hung out much but fished big browns on the Green once. Stan Chatham was a long time customer of mine and friend for many years. And Jim Fisher and Jack Larimer are friends that came through the shop on occasion and I see them around town a lot since I left the fly shop. All these guys are retired or nearly retired and are in their sixties with Jack leading the age group at seventy. They’re all in great shape and I can only hope my body holds up as well as I get up there.

It’s 7.4 mile trail from the car to
Heart Lake. Then it’s about another two miles around the north side of the lake to our campsite. Although this is an organized horse pack trip some of our group including me opted to walk in rather than ride. Nine miles sounds like a long way but I guess I’m in reasonable shape these days because the walk seemed easy. The beginning of the hike was relatively flat for four miles then the last part was mostly downhill into the lake basin. The scenery along the way was gorgeous. We weaved through lodge pole forest. Much of this forest is young as this area was nearly completely burned in the famous Yellowstone fires of 1988. Then as we descended upon the lake we walked the trail around numerous steaming thermal ponds.

Just shy of two hours is when you get your your first view of
Heart Lake. From this viewing point you think you’re only a half hour or so away but it took us another hour to reach it. The distant lake is just so big that it looks a lot closer than it is. When we finally arrived it was close to noon. We gobbled up some sandwiches then walked along the beach.

Our camp can be reached via the trail which is off the lake or you can walk the beach along the lake. Naturally we walked the beach and looked for fish the entire way. It didn’t take long for me to spot a nice cutty gulping up callibaetis off the top. It turns out the stillwater mayflies were hatching at an explosive level, so heavily that when you looked closely at the beach it was an inch thick with spent callibaetis from days before. This lake is rich with trout food. Mixed in with the callibaetis were pale morning duns, caddis, ants, hoppers, damsels and dragon flies. You can only imagine how many nymphs and minnows are swimming around below the surface. Regrettably, all our fly rods were well behind us getting packed in on the horses and all we could do was watch and weep.

We reached camp about two hours ahead of the horses. They started later than us because they had to load up the tons of gear we brought including pontoon boats. So we just relaxed. Peter and Jim took a nap while Joe and I smoked cigars and explored our fly boxes. We were so amped!

When the horses and gear showed up they dumped our boats and tackle on the beach. Rather than venture inland to camp (camp was a five minute walk in the woods) we immediately broke out our gear with hopes we could get a few hours of fishing in before dinner. By now it was 4 PM and so hot you couldn’t believe we were over 7000 feet in elevation in Yellowstone Park. I have little experience setting up pontoon boats so it took me about an hour. I made up for time lost setting my boat up with three rigs ready to go. All I needed was to add a fly. I had my 5-weight Ross ready for a dry fly and I tied on a callibeatis cripple. I had my 6-weight Ross rigged with a Scientific Anglers Stillwater line so I could drag some leeches or nymphs a few feet under. And last I had my lake trout rig. Although a little heavy, I brought my 9-weight Ross, mainly so I could cast my Scientific Anglers 300 grain Streamer Express. Lakers live deep, particularly in August, and that line will flat out drag my fly down 50 feet with a little patience.

Once rigged and ready, five of us kicked off towards a distant point. With the exception of Stan and me, the rest of the gang has been to Heart Lake before and know some good places. We all trolled leeches all the way to the point but no one hooked up. Once there we began casting away. While Joe, Jim and I slowly stripped leeches over weed beds in shallow, Peter was out deep dredging for lakers. Peter comes on this trip specifically to fly fish for lakers. Last October he landed a remarkable 41 incher!

I was the first one to the point. As I retrieved my leech rig I couldn’t help but take in the beauty of
Heart Lake. It was really sinking in how lucky I was to be on this trip. Shortly into my fishing I got jolted and I landed a cutthroat on a red sparkly leech. All I’m going to say is these cuttys are unreal. This fish was huge! I’m new to this pontoon boat thing so handling him and getting a good picture didn’t happen, but honestly, this cutty was 20 inches if not more and grotesquely fat!

The evening fishing overall wasn’t too good for us. I landed one more cutty and a couple of the guys got lakers. The good news however was that we are all rigged and ready to start fishing our butts off for the next four days.

Tonight our camp crew fed us a feast of tri tip steaks, potatoes and green beans. The feast was so good, I must confess, I feel bad that my friend Carter missed out on this trip. Of course now we are full and happy but we all know this is bear country. We just hope like heck that every grizzly within 25 miles isn’t headed for camp!

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