After a somewhat disappointing first day on the water I was looking for a way to change things up. As part of my planning for the trip I had met a fellow fly fisher (John) on the Internet who had written a short guide to fly fishing the Gunnison area. I wrote to him and he was gracious with his time not only answering my questions but also adding in some additional thoughts and suggestions. I had mentioned to John my preference for solitude over large fish which prompted him to recommend Mill Lake. The closest place you’ll find on Google Maps is Ohio City which isn’t much of a city anymore but still serves as a good marker for finding the trail.
The lake sits high up in the mountains at 11,440’ which was a concern for me. In the two years since my heart surgery I had never come close to such high elevation. Living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at 776’ above sea level didn’t provide much of a training ground. So as I drove up the rode to the trailhead my mantra was to go slow, take it easy, and if I didn’t feel right abandon the effort and go back to the car.
I need to speak about the road for a moment to properly prepare you especially if you are using a rental car. From the Ohio City turn off the dirt road gradually heads up the mountain. Initially the road isn’t bad you’ll need to slow down but nothing to worry about. However, as you get higher up the mountain the track becomes more challenging. In a pickup truck or SUV you would have no worries but I was driving a Ford Fusion with low clearance so the rocks on the road became a bigger and bigger concern. As you approach the remnants of an old gold mining operation and sadly a new gold mining site the road conditions worsen considerably. To get the Fusion up the mountain I had to pick my way through and around the rocks and low points on the road. It was doable by driving slowly and carefully selecting my route. Finally arriving at the trailhead which is at 10,000’ I was relieved just to have made it with the car still intact.
I hadn’t expected the drive to be an issue but knew the next part would be. While the hike to the lake is relatively short at around 2 miles it entails 1,400’ in elevation gain. My hope was that my time spent in Gunnison which is at 7,700’ hopefully had prepared me. Starting off I kept hearing my guides from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in my head. Pole’ Pole’ that would repeat to us which means slow, slow in Swahili. With no one around I knew my fate was in my own hands so it was walk for a minute or two and then stop. Walk for a couple of minutes then stop. As I progressed up the mountain things felt okay. I surely couldn’t run up the mountain but felt fairly confident reaching the lake was achievable as long as a did it pole’ pole’. About half way up the trail I heard foot steps behind me. A young lady was bounding up the trail. After a brief conversation she was off for the lake. I was disappointed not being able to keep up with her but again pole’ pole’ and I’d get there.
The trail is laid out very nicely in that there aren’t a lot of steep sections and along the way you’ll find sections that are level which are great for recovery. It isn’t an easy hike and is rated moderate according to one trail guide which is likely attributable to the elevation gain as the trail itself isn’t all that difficult to navigate. Still, cresting that last hump and getting my first sight of the lake caused a smile to appear on my face. I had managed to get here two years after nearly losing my life and what a beautiful site to see. A post card alpine lake nestled against the mountains which still had some snow packs on their peaks.
Of course the urge to fish struck instantly and I had to make a few casts. There were fish rising but from the entry point to the lake the casting was difficult to say the least with pine trees protecting the shoreline. Gazing across the lake I spotted an area that looked promising. It was a section where a rock fall had run right down and into the lake.
On previous western fishing expeditions, I had learned that these areas tended to hold fish so off I went. When I arrived at the spot my heart leapt as several nice sized cutthroat trout swam by in the crystal clear water. Initially I tried using traditional dry fly patterns and while the fish would show an interest they simply refused to take the fly. I’m not sure how or why my next idea came about since it was a technique I had never used but I decided to try tying on a streamer and then dropping a small dry fly behind it. Thank goodness this idea came to me because it proved to be successful throughout the remainder of my trip. I probably caught as many fish on the streamer as I did on that dropped fly.
On my first or second cast with the new rig a nice cutthroat grabbed it and was off to the races. I had always been under the impression that trout in alpine lakes (high altitude) would be smaller fish due to overcrowding and scarce food supply. This lake broke that rule and then some. These trout took my 3wt out to the reel on every occasion. I had chosen not to pack in my net so landing the fish took some additional care with fish this size. When I got that first one in, my first cutthroat ever, my heart was pounding like a little kid on Christmas morning. After CPRing him (Catch, Photograph, Release) I sat down to catch my breath and take in what had just happened. Despite all my worries and concerns I had managed to hike up to the lake and not only that I’d caught trout and not only that but a nice trout!
The day yielded several nice cutthroats simply adding to the pleasure of being in such a beautiful setting. At one point as I was fighting a trout a voice boomed from across the lake “looks like you have one”. It turned out to be Ken from Houston, Texas. He and his wife had made the hike up to the lake a significant accomplishment given that these folks were advanced senior citizens.
As it frequently happens when I meet someone on the water we quickly formed a bond via our love for fly fishing. Ken hadn’t brought his gear so I offered him the chance to use my rod for a bit but he wouldn’t hear of it. We talked for a while and I enjoyed how excited he got every time a big cutthroat would flash by. This is a sport that keeps you engaged truly from 8 to 80.
After Ken departed I caught one more trout and looked at my watch to see it was 5pm! I had set a mental stop time of 3:30pm to allow me time to get down the mountain so it was time to get going. Fortunately, the hike down was quicker and easier which was good because by now my energy level was running low.
Grabbing a cold water from the cooler I jumped in the car and started the long slow ride back down to Ohio City. I was overwhelmed by the days accomplishments. Despite my illness I had managed to climb to over 11,000’ and then once there had managed to catch some beautiful fish. Added to that, for the bulk of the day the lake had been mine and mine alone. Not a bad day, not a bad day at all.