The Big Toe Blister Hike To Fish Heaven

My favorite recreational activity is to hike several miles to a high mountain lake in Montana with the hope of casting a dry fly out onto the surface of some ice-cold tarn on a warm summer day to catch a nice sized cutthroat trout.

Some of the lakes that were great for fishing years ago have not been very good the last few years – too many people fishing there and keeping their limit I guess. But I did find one this summer that offered me the single best hour of fishing in my life. It involved a 14 miles hike (7 in and 7 out), resulting in the worst toe blister of my life, but I would take that blister all over again for the opportunity to catch fish like I did that day.

I had heard about _____________ Lake from my son, Jesse, and his wife, Cara, who went there about 5 years ago and caught tons of cutthroat. They had told me that the fish weren’t that big – just 10 or 11 inchers, but that there were lots of them to catch. As this summer was ending and some of my other trips had yielded disappointing fishing results (compared to past years) I decided to go to ____________ Lake.

I knew it was a hard hike with 3000 feet in elevation gain across 7 miles of some rough terrain, but I felt I had to try, and I really love these challenging adventures. So, I packed my gear and got up the next morning at 5 am to drive the ~40 miles to the trailhead.

Armed with my hiking poles and a new Garmin Satellite GPS Device that I was just learning to use, I started hiking just after first light – around 7 am.

This particular hike has you climbing about 1000 feet in elevation in just the first couple of miles so it’s really steep at first. But with fresh legs, (and all the hiking I’d been doing earlier this summer) I had no problem with that. Then the trail flattens out a bit and you go another 3 miles or so to gain another 1000 feet in elevation.

After about 5 miles on the main trail, you see a rock cairn off to the left which marks the spot where you need to get off this primary trail and hike the rest of the way on unmaintained trail for the remaining ~2.5 miles to the lake.

You first cross a stream by walking across a log jam and then through the forest where you alternatively climb over or under logs that have fallen across the “path” created by all the hiker’s boots that have stomped the ground there over the decades.

Soon, you come out into the open and find yourself needing to cross several large granite boulder fields on the final ascent toward the lake.

The boulder fields are broad and treacherous. The path is sometimes marked by little rock cairns that previous hikers have put in place to show you the way, but mostly, you just push on in the general direction of the lake as you continue to gain elevation.

Because you are now at about 9000 feet, oxygen is a much harder to come by. To make it worse, the final push is almost straight up on boulders for the final 700 feet of elevation gain before you arrive at the general vicinity of the lake.

Up on top I cut too soon toward what I thought was the lake and found myself climbing up and down steep embankments only to arrive at what turned out to not be the main lake. Instead, it was a small after-bay below the lake. I felt I needed to get to the main lake, so I continued moving upstream along the creek that flows out from the lake and gradually worked my way there, but not without having to rock climb over a 10 foot wall of granite to get to the lake.

Having arrived there after five and a half hours of hiking, mother nature greeted with me an overcast sky and about a 50 mile an hour wind. Because of the wind, there wasn’t even a chance that I would be able to fly fish there.

I was exhausted, but I put together my spinning rod and tried casting some lures into the lake. I got no hits on the lures in 20 or so casts and then my line got all snarled up on the cheap spinning reel that I’d too quickly packed for this trip. I made a mental note to stop bringing spinning rods and to just give up altogether on lure fishing. I don’t really enjoy it and its always done out of desperation when the real reason I go there is to catch fish on flies.

There was no hope of throwing flies in the snarling wind, so I didn’t even try that. Instead, I sat down to eat a little bit of lunch. At this point the winds seemed to pick up even more until it was not unlike the situation you see someone hugging a lamp post as they report on a hurricane that’s slamming into the Carolina coast somewhere. The treacherous wind blew one of my gloves toward the water in the lake and I had to lunge to save it from going in, which just further irritated me.

At this point, I was pretty much exhausted and totally ticked off at the situation. I had hiked for more than 5 hours and climbed more than 3000 feet to get to this place and I couldn’t even fish. At this point, in a rather immature moment, I started screaming at the wind. Some choice words were shared.

If anyone had seen me, they would have concluded that I was totally insane at this point – exhaustion and disappointment can do that when mixed in healthy doses.

So, in utter disgust, I decided that I would just pack up and get the heck out of this place. But I stopped for a minute and said a prayer that, somehow, this day could be salvaged and that I could at least regain my serenity.

As I surveyed my surroundings to plot the course out, I realized I was in a weird spot. I knew that I should head north to get to the trail that parallels the lakes edge (that would be the quickest way to get back out) but there were some pretty high cliffs in the way. (see cliffs in the lower right of the picture below). It’s one thing to climb up a 10 foot wall – it’s a whole different thing when they are 30 or 40 feet high.

So, I decided to just retrace the path that brought me in since I knew I could get back out that way. This route took me back to the 10-foot cliff that I now needed to climb down– going down it was harder than climbing up it. Thankfully, I made it down off that without injury.

This now put me, again, along the creek that flows out of the main lake. The sun started to peek out. At the same time, the wind seemed to die down, partly because the creek was protected by a cliff on the opposite side of where I was hiking along the creek.

At this point, I decided that I might as well put my fly rod together and at least try to fish the creek. After I had put my rod together and strung the line, I put on my new favorite dry fly (a Swisher’s PMX royal #14). This recently discovered pattern looks and fishes a lot like a Royal Wulff but floats better and longer and is easier to see on top of the water.

I cast out into one of the little pools that form as the creek flows down to the after-bay and I immediately hooked a very nice cutthroat. I quickly reeled it in and saw that it was a very pretty 13 inch cutthroat.  The coloration is particularly beautiful on this trout though, so it almost looks like a Golden/Cutthroat hybrid.

I removed the hook quickly and took a picture with my iPhone before releasing it back into the water to see it swim away. Watching these beautiful fish swim away is fast becoming my favorite part of fishing.

I got back up and sorted out my rod, got the line in order, and made sure the fly was dry. Then I cast out again – and almost as soon as the fly hit the water, another nice fish took the fly and ran. When I reeled this one in it was about the same size as the first one with the same beautiful coloration.

After a few casts yielded no new bites, I moved down to the next pool and cast toward the top of it. The fly hit the water and floated a foot or two and – WAM, I got another nice one. So, after getting skunked at the main lake due to the wind I now found myself in fishing heaven, catching trout essentially at will.

After about half hour of fishing the little pools in the creek, I found myself at the place where the creek flowed out into the after-bay. As I threw out my fly here, I sometimes saw two or three fish going for the fly at the same time before it even hit the water.

In just little more than an hour I had caught 20 fish. They were all around 12 or 13 inches (and quite healthy – fat and beautiful) and one or two that were more like 14 inches.   So, this was easily the best cutthroat fishing hour of my life.

I needed to get going because this was late in the summer and I knew it would take me at least 5 hours to get out and back to my car so I, sadly, had to stop fishing at about 3:15 pm and packed up to go out.

The hike out seemed to be just as brutal as the hike in, thanks to the boulder fields near the top and getting confused about where the trail came out of the woods below. I wasted at least 40 minutes going into some woods (well below the foot trail) and having to bushwhack through a bunch of brush to get to the trail. The thing that saved me was my Garmin Satellite device. It had dropped way points on the way in so I used the device to point me in the direction of one of the nearest way points and I was soon back on the trail.

And that was one of the happiest moments of the day because, even though it was a secondary trail, it was like an interstate highway compared to bushwhacking through virgin forest.

Since I’d lost a bunch of time bushwhacking, I was now in a major race with the end of daylight.

I got back to the primary (maintained) trail very late in the afternoon with 2000 feet of elevation still to drop and at least 5 miles still to go till I reached the trailhead. So the rest of the hike was essentially a race against coming out of the mountains in the dark. I had a headlamp in my day pack so I *could have* hiked in the dark if I needed to, but I didn’t really want to have to do that.

On top of this, my left big toe had started to become “hot” at some point during the descent from the lake and all the bushwhacking I had done, and I didn’t have time to stop and check it. Even if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to doctor it, so I just kept going. At one point, I was pretty much running to get out before it got dark. Finally, after what turned out to be a 14-mile hike I was back at my car.   In less than 15 minutes it was pitch dark.

When I got home and took off my boot, I observed the worst blister of my life. It took more than 2 weeks to heal, but, thanks for soaking in Epsom salts and good bandaging I didn’t end up at the ER.

My experience of catching no fish at the lake and then finding a place where I was catching a fish on every cast reminds me of John 21 in the New Testament. The disciples had fished all night and caught nothing. But then they see a stranger on the shore and he said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and you shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.”

I think that my Heavenly Father was watching over me that day in more ways than one. He protected me, and I didn’t end up with any serious injury. When I was lost, he helped me remember that I had a new device on me that, if I learned how to use it properly, could help me get out of the woods and find my way back to the trail. He saw me discouraged and angry with the howling wind and dark clouds and answered my prayer with a “multitude of fishes” of my own.