High Country Cutthroat
The fabled rivers of Montana hold sway in the minds of fisherman the world over. Look the states over and you would be hard pressed to find a more ideal line up of flowing water to toss feather and fur to eagerly awaiting wild trout. Winding their way back and forth, hemmed in by stunning mountain ranges on both sides, the cottonwood filled river bottoms are the stuff of dreams. There is another Montana though; in nearly every cirque, through vast basins, and precariously perched on rugged plateaus there lays the high mountain lakes. While angry brown trout and football shaped rainbows have taken over the main stem rivers, high up in these rugged wilderness areas, the true native Cutthroat trout runs the roost.
Locked up beneath ice for more months than not, these lakes and their inhabitants survive on the fringes. A barren and bleak winter-scape springs to life when the snow recedes. A circus of wildflowers and game animals rush to utilize the short growing season. Cutthroat trout, having sat dormant for many months, feed with reckless abandon, bum rushing the tributary creeks in a furious attempt to spawn and bring about their next generation. The original native fish’s last stronghold, they survive in the high alpine lakes in the margins. Their riotous red cheeks and vibrant yellow hues look barley real. Cold and clean water is their lifeblood, these Cutthroat have been pushed all the way to where granite and ice thrust skyward. Where aquamarine waters pool beneath talus slopes just far enough away from the long reach of man.
Spectacles to behold no doubt, high Alpine lakes are a photographers delight, and a fisherman’s nirvana. As with anything worth chasing it never comes easy. Heavy loads up daunting switchbacks keep the masses at bay. Ten thousand feet in the Northern Rockies can bring fearsome cold, and soaking thunderstorms. Every bump in the night brings frightful thoughts that a rogue Grizzly bear wit, mayhem on her mind may stalk just beyond the reach of your headlamp. The duality of splendor and suffering is what keeps these places for the few.
No matter how many times you look at it on a map or on Google earth, arriving to your destination brings that sense of discovery and awe. While the work is hard and the fish most likely small, I always set aside a few weeks to escape into the wild. To mindlessly throw flies at cruising fish, to see the thick band of the Milky Way painted across the sky, to cavort around with the picas and Mule Deer, and just to get away.