Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Heart Lake Cutthroats - The Final Day

August 28, 2011

I nearly bounced out of my tent this morning. I had last day sadness and wanted to enjoy every hour left. I slammed a few cups of coffee then devoured three pieces of French toast without hardly tasting it along with sausages and soon found myself in my pontoon boat slowly stripping my lake trout flies down deep while scanning the mountains for bears.

Today began with a beautiful morning. The lake was so calm you could see the occasional rise from a mile away. Ducks left mile long wakes as they silently swam. And I could see my own wake all the way back to camp 20 minutes after I left. The temperature was warm and I was already down to a t-shirt. This day was absolutely magnificent. The only problem I had was that the fish were asleep. At least most of them. Other than a few bumps, the only fish I caught was a cutthroat that should have been a lake trout because I pulled him from 60 feet down with a giant lake trout streamer.

I fished for an hour or so then headed in to brake down my boat and pack up my gear. That took me about an hour and then it was about 9 AM, leaving me with about three hours to fish from shore before our hike out. I purposely left out my 5-weight RX rigged with my floater, a few dry flies and my floatant and off I went to the beach that we walked along the first day. You may remember, on that first day we saw rising fish that we could have easily reached from shore but we didn’t have our gear packed in yet. That rod-less situation haunted me the entire trip and I couldn’t wait to get back and catch those fish. Today was the day to do it.

Joe Burke came with me. That’s good because we had to walk a mile through an area posted to have a problematic grizzly. We made a heck of a lot of noise and carried the bear spray in hand rather than on the holster. Luckily we had no encounters and arrived at the beach safely. At first, little was happening. There was one fish gulping but he was out of reach. There were just a few callibaetis starting to hatch. I took the time to methodically check all my knots and made sure my rig was in perfect shape to tackle the first gulper. To my surprise, Joe didn’t even pack a rod. He put everything away and it was already getting loaded up on horses. That would be something he would wish he hadn’t done.

After a half hour of patiently waiting, a fish rose close to the bank but a few hundred yards away. Then he went again. He was so far away that Joe suggested I not bother. Fat chance. I ran down the beach like I was roosterfishing in Baja. When I got to him I was quick to realize he was moving and feeding going away from me. I don’t like to cast over a fishes back if I can avoid it, but he was so close to the beach I couldn’t just run past him to get ahead because I would spook him. Therefore I had to retreat up in the willows and lodge pole forest behind the beach and pop out ahead. Twice I tried that but there was so much downfall it slowed me down and I popped out right where the huge trout was. Also, running through bear infested woods is not a good idea. I just couldn’t keep up with him. So when I popped out the second time I just went for it with a long cast. That was a rookie mistake. Not only would I of had to cast over the fish because he was swimming away, but I made such a long back cast that my fly snapped off in a tree. My flies were in my pack all the way back with Joe. So I sprinted back.

Joe was laughing. I thought he was laughing at me and I’m sure that was part of it. But really, he was laughing because the cutthroat had turned and was feeding back our way. He was moving so rapidly that I had to retie on a new fly fast. Really fast, and I was having difficulty. At 45 my eyes are finally starting to give me trouble up close and I could not get the fly threaded. What made it extra difficult was that I could not find my clippers so I could trim my tippet at an angle, a trick that makes threading much easier. I was trying to feed a jagged tippet end through a size 16 flying ant.

By the time I got the fly on, the trout was right next to me. I didn’t even bite off the tag end of my tippet or add floatant. I just spun around and dropped my fly inches in front of the trout’s nose. He ate it and. . . . I MISSED HIM! Damn!

Although mad at first, I started laughing at myself. What is it about gulpers that make me so crazy? I brought my fly to hand while sitting on the beach and bit off the tag and added some floatant. That fish was gone. On the next fish I’d do a much better job. The one thing I did do right however was my choice of fly. The water was now covered with bugs, many of them flying ants.

I got my second chance at a fish within minutes. This one I nailed! Every cutthroat on this lake is huge! Heart Lake is truly the best cutty fishery I have ever experienced. And I was a lucky kid in that I fished Yellowstone Lake in its heyday. But Heart is even better. After I landed that trout there were cuttys gulping everywhere. With my one fish, I’d done what I set out to do and I handed my rod to Joe and told him to get one. Joe was psyched. I don’t think he was expecting me to hand over the rod but for me it’s just as fun to watch a good angler catch a fish as it is to catch one. Joe was fully dressed for the hike out and wasn’t going to get wet. Therefore his target had to be close to the beach. Sure enough, one started working towards us in range. Wisely, Joe crouched down like being on a spring creek and dropped my ant six inches in front of the oncoming cutthroat. And without hardly a dimple this trout ate the fly. Joe was hooked up.

Joe has been fishing Heart Lake for years. He’d never nailed a gulper on this lake. On his last trip he didn’t even bring a dry fly set up. Joe is in his mid sixties and he was giggling like a little kid at the candy store. And moments later he was getting soaked wrestling his gorgeous dry fly cutty to the beach. We were having way too much fun!

In less than three hours, Joe and I ended our pack trip by landing six of these fantastic cutthroats. What a way to end a great adventure. All I can say is that the fishing on Heart Lake is incredible. The lake has everything to offer from a beautiful back country setting in Yellowstone to great lake trout fishing and cutthroat fishing. Anyone can do this trip. You can hike in and shore fish or you can get packed in like us. To get packed in, contact Wilderness Trails of Jackson, Wyoming. That’s who we used and they did a terrific job. Our gear made it. They got all the permits for our camps. And they fed us like all hardcore dawn to dusk anglers need to be fed.

I didn’t know about this trip till ten days ago. I was not budgeted to take five days off from my artwork and etc. However was it ever worth it! The only bad news is that now I’m behind badly and fishing is great everywhere. Tomorrow I’ll try to get three days work done in one so I can take Granny to Quake Lake in Montana. Stay tuned. . . .


  1. Really great blog Jeff. Thanks for sharing. Wondered though if the NPS supports catch/kill of lake trout in Heart Lake. Pat

  2. Pat, glad you are liking the blog. The rule on lakers in Heart is kill all you want. Theres rumor you are supposed to kill all them no matter what. Not sure on that rule. We released all ours to keep grizzlies out of camp. I found on the internet that they were stocked in 1890 (probably the same in Yell lake) so I thing they are getting along fine.