Rocky Mountain National Park - Dream & Fern Lakes
Rocky Mountain National Park
Location: A little over an hour's drive northwest of Denver and less than that west of Boulder or Ft. Collins toward Estes Park, an excellent fishery lies hidden in plain view in Rocky Mountain National Park. Dream Lake and Fern Lake are two of the great lakes located in the high country of the Park.
The High Country Lakes of Rocky Mountain National Park
Les and Kimball Beery
Over 3 million people visit Rocky Mountain National Park each year. Most folks bring only a camera to hike the trails to the high lakes and crystal clear streams. Not many fish these waters populated by wild rainbow, brook and brown trout, the legacy of fish stocked decades ago. But the real prizes are the 20 populations of threatened native greenback cutthroats, plus some Colorado River cutthroats and an isolated population of Yellowstone cutthroat trout in one deep lake.
Many of these cutthroat populations are located at the end of a 10 mile hike one way at elevations approaching
feet. Some require overnight camping if you want any time to fish once you
arrive. But, for now we would like to tell you about two of our day tripper favorites.
Neither of these lakes requires an overnight stay nor do they require Olympic
conditioning to hike in and out for a day of great fishing, and scenery, in
pursuit of the threatened greenback cutthroat trout.
Dream Lake is an easy one to start with. It is one of the most visited and photographed lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park. This beautiful lake lies between the towering granite cliffs of Flattop Mountain and Hallet Peak. The population of Colorado's state fish, the threatened greenback cutthroat trout, introduced here in 1998, continues to thrive. During spawning this trout is quite striking. The male is deep red on his ventral surface and has bright red gill slashes with dense spots near its tail. Due to Dream Lake's proximity to the crowds at Bear Lake [1.1 mile trail], this lake receives a lot of pressure from visitors. Few visitors bring fishing gear and those that do usually don't understand the regulations and techniques required to be successful in the crystalline waters of Dream Lake.
These ultra-clear waters make presentation and stealth a prerequisite for success. The greenbacks here can be easily seen from the trail on the north side of the lake. Seeing them, however, is far easier than catching them. They will often be feeding on the surface yet act like your fly is invisible or something to avoid. It can be frustrating to watch them sip insects an inch away from your offering. Often, matching the tiny insects they are after is impossible and you are better off switching to a larger terrestrial pattern.
Keep in mind that greenback cutthroat trout are a threatened species and can only be legally caught using barbless, artificial lures or flies. All greenback trout must be released unharmed immediately. Stomach samples of greenbacks confirm their diet is mostly insects. Lures that resemble baitfish are seldom used. If you do use a lure with a treble hook, it can only have one treble and all 3 barbs on that hook must be removed or crushed. Anglers also need a Colorado fishing license if they are more than 15 years of age. Children may use bait in some areas of RMNP but not in greenback waters. The park rangers patrol Dream Lake frequently to protect this population of threatened greenbacks.
Tips from your guide: Dream lake offers two really good ways to catch [and release] greenbacks here. Fly fishers can use a 5 wt. rod to sight fish shoreline cruisers with terrestrial patterns. Concentrate your efforts on the drop off a short cast from the rocky points but keep a sharp eye out for cruising fish right along the shore. These cruisers are feeding on beetles and ants and will readily take an imitation. This is sight fishing at its best; just make sure you have access to the water so the greenback can be gently released without injury. These fish generally patrol a specific area of shoreline, repeatedly checking for new luncheon arrivals. When you locate one, get stealthy and place your offering in their territory. Even if they ignore it at first, they will almost certainly come back and discover your fly. The anticipation when a big greenback closes in on your fly then opens his mouth to slurp it off the surface can be too intense, leading to premature strikes that jerk the fly away from an excited fish. Our advice: wait until they close their mouth and then strike...easier said than done.
Anglers can also use the same spinning gear they would use anywhere for smaller freshwater fish. With a fly and a bubble rig, you can cast from the rocky outcrops along the trail on the north side of the lake. These rocks give you 180� access to the shoreline without trees getting in the way. You can also cast to the deeper channel in the center of the lake. Check to see what insects are floating on the surface near the shore. If nothing stands out, start with a Parachute Adams or Orange Asher. If there is no surface activity try a small Bead Head Pheasant Tail or Bead Head Prince Nymph. Near the inlet the trail borders the lake and the shallow water here offers some challenging sight fishing opportunities. We recommend a fly rod as the splash of the bubble rig may scare these fish in this shallow water. If you want to use a fly and bubble, let most of the water out of the bubble for a quieter presentation.
By crossing the inlet stream and carefully working your way along the south shore, you will be able to fish a less accessible area. This rugged shoreline is best explored by carefully wading around the slippery rocks and casting ahead with a fly rod.
Editor's Note: Scientists from the University of Colorado along with State and Federal biologists have been studying the greenback to determine if various populations are pure or mixed genetically with other cutthroat populations. As of the moment, the science suggests that almost all greenback populations contain some genetic markers of other cutthroat populations. It appears that there is only one pure greenback population still in existence which is in Bear Creek in the Arkansas River drainage. None of the populations in RMNP appear to be pure greenbacks but they are classified as being of greenback lineage. The studies are still ongoing so what this means for greenback recovery is up in the air. In the meantime, enjoy catching and releasing the rare native cutthroats in the Park. An excellent article detailing the results of the genetic studies can be found in Colorado Outdoors (September/October, 2012.)
An Alternative to the Fly Rod
Instead of wading in a lake, try a "Fly and a Bubble" rig. Start with a small pack rod that breaks into 4-6 pieces. A 2 piece rod will work but won't fit in your back pack. The spinning reel should be a small, lightweight version featuring a smooth drag and only needs to hold about 100 yards of line. Drag adjustment is critical when fishing light line and leaders. The best reels adjust the drag gradually from light to heavy.
Braided line in 10 lb. strength is our choice. These lines have the same diameter as 2 lb. monofilament and will cast a mile. Use a 4 lb. fluorocarbon leader for maximum stealth in these ultra clear waters. Start with a leader about as long as your rod.
Many lakes here have either a soft bottom or deep water near the shoreline that makes wading difficult. Waders are heavy when it comes to packing them up and down the trail and must be disinfected before use in these pristine waters. By using the "Fly and Bubble" you can fish a fly, wet or dry, from the comfort of the shoreline with your spinning rod.
How to rig the "Fly
Fishing the "Fly and Bubble"
When casting this rig remember to gently palm the line before the bubble hits the water. This will slow the bubble and allow the leader to extend so the fly will land farther from the bubble. This will keep the fly and leader from tangling around the line. When the bubble hits the water, quickly move the bubble away from the fly to straighten the leader. Many strikes occur when a trout comes to investigate the splash, which may sound like another fish striking. If they see your fly in the area, the strike may come immediately...be ready.
Now, begin a slow retrieve. The speed will vary; generally the calmer the conditions the slower the retrieve. The bubble should not leave a wake. Try to cast upwind, if possible. This allows you to retrieve the fly downwind as though it's being blown along with other insects. When wind is a problem, lower your rod tip. When fishing a dry fly, a little silicone fly floatant will help keep the fly on the surface. This silicone must be re-applied after each fish landed.
While we all enjoy watching a trout rise to a dry fly, try not to strike when you see a splash near your fly. These trout may just nose a fly or miscalculate their first strike. They may strike several times before they succeed in catching the fly. If you strike too soon, before you feel the fish, you may pull the fly out of the trout's visual range and miss an excited fish. Enjoy the scenery until you feel the fish. This will result in a better hookup without really striking at all.
When you do strike, make it a gentle lift that will not break your light leader on a heavy fish. Keep the rod tip
high and put steady pressure on the fish with your drag set for about 1/2 the weight of your leader. This will wear the trout down quickly and result in a better chance for a successful release. Some trout begin feeding just minutes after a gentle release though they will be a bit wiser and may refuse to strike the same fly.
There are hundreds of fly patterns that catch trout in Rocky. The park includes streams and lakes between 8,000 and 11,500 feet of elevation so traditional hatch timing depends on your elevation more than the time of year. None the less, there are a few "go to" flies that produce year after year in virtually all waters around here. One of the biggest adjustments most folks have to make when they begin fishing Rocky is to think small. At this altitude, small insects are the rule. We primarily use flies from size 16 to 20. Some anglers use even smaller flies but the hook up and landing ratio falls off dramatically with these tiny sizes. If you take along a few Parachute Adams, some ants and beetles, a couple of elk hair caddis and some Orange Ashers you should be okay. If there is no surface activity, switch to pheasant tail nymphs or prince nymphs with bead heads.
Now for a destination a little further off the beaten track. We'd like to talk about Fern Lake which sits at the base of three towering 10,000 foot mountains, Mount Wuh, Joe Mills Mountain and The Gable. In the 1800's Fern Lake was a popular destination year around. Folks would hike or ride horses to the lake and stay at the Fern Lake Lodge where they'd fish in the summer and ski in the winter. The lodge has since been naturalized but there remains an active ranger cabin on the north shore. Fern Lake has been known as a quality fishery for decades. The Fern Creek drainage contains the largest concentration of greenback cutthroat trout in Rocky Mountain National Park. Fern Lake, along with three other lakes in this area, Odessa Lake, Spruce Lake and Loomis Lake, were all restored to the native greenbacks beginning in 1982.
Fern Lake can be accessed from either the Fern Lake Trailhead [3.8 miles] in Moraine Park or from Bear Lake [4.7 miles]. The trail from Moraine Park is shorter but has more elevation gain than the trail from Bear Lake. Our favorite route is to start at Bear Lake, fish Fern, then continue out to the Fern Lake trailhead in Moraine Park. We recommend this route if you have two vehicles or you can take the shuttle system. Leave your car at Moraine Park and catch the shuttle to Bear Lake early and then hike to Fern and continue down to your vehicle in Moraine Park. The views are spectacular. The only drawback to this circle route is that a lot of it is downhill, which is less aerobic but harder on the knees.
Tips from your guide: The most accessible shoreline to fish at Fern Lake is on the northeast corner, along the trail near the outlet, and along the northwest shore at the inlet. The best area for wading is the gravel bar at the inlet. Fly casting from the shore can be an issue due to the dense forest surrounding the lake but is possible in these areas.
We like to use Parachute Adams, or caddis flies when casting to rising fish out in the lake with a fly and bubble rig. The shoreline cruisers are easily taken with ant or beetle flies using a fly rod. Be sure and check the outlet stream under the bridge in midsummer to see these spawning greenback cutthroat trout in the shallow water there. The males appear deep red when spawning. Please do not cast to the spawning fish.
After 40 years of hiking and fishing together in Rocky Mountain National Park, and answering these same questions for decades, we decided to write Angler's Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park a waterproof, pocket sized, field guide for visiting anglers. Visitors need a "cut to the chase" guide without a lot of tedious detail and the need to spend a fortune on gear just to enjoy a day with the trout in Rocky Mountain National Park.
The detailed information in our book, right down to which rock to stand on, will be like having a guide right with you. We're betting that the average angler, enlightened enough to use barbless flies and artificial lures in the pursuit of catch and release fishing, will realize the value of the resource in their hands when they land their first wild trout. We have many more favorite lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park that we share with you in our book. We hope our book will help you take advantage of the angling opportunities in this area. To purchase Angler's Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park for yourself or for an excellent gift, visit www.anglersguidermnp.com or stop in at most area fly shops and book stores.
Gear and Techniques: A 4 or 5 wt fly rod of 4 or more pieces will work well and be easy to carry on the trail. A light 4 piece spinning rod is great for this fishing using a fly and bubble. All hooks must have the barbs crushed. Dry flies and wet flies will work.
Access: During the summer, the Park runs shuttle busses to the two trailheads mentioned in this article. Park at the central bus terminal and take the bus to the trailhead. The terminal is a short drive from Estes Park. Take plenty of water for your hike.
Size: Dream Lake: 5.5 acres, 1.1 miles from the trail head.
Trail head GPS 40 18 43.88N 105 38 47.14W
Lake GPS 40 18 36.66N 105 39 32,01W
Fern Lake: 9.2 acres, 3.8 miles from the trail head.
Trail head GPS 40 21 17.12N 105 37 50.41W
Lake40 20 16.75N 105 40 04.99W
Weather: Spring comes late to these high country lakes. Ice out may not come before May. Summer weather is usually pleasant with temperatures in the low 60s with cold nighttime temps. Thunder storms are common in the afternoons.
Seasons and Regulations: There is no closed season but weather will limit access in spring and fall. Fishing in greenback waters such as these requires barbless hooks and immediate release of any greenback caught. You will need a Colorado fishing license.