Flyfishing the Uncompahgre Wilderness
Elevation: 11,750 feet.
USGS Maps: Lake City.
DeLorme Maps: Page 67 7 D
National Forest/National Park/State Park: Uncompahgre National Forest.
Type of lake: Alpine moraine.
Species: Brook trout
Size and depth: 18 acres; 20 feet deep.
Accesses: There is a four mile trail to the lake. Hiking requires some steep elevation gain and you'll need to lay out 3-4 hours hiking time to get there. Horsepack trips are the best way to reach Crystal Lake, either through a guide service or on your own. Once on the lake, anglers have room to fish from the bank even though it's a tight fit against the west bank.
Seasons: Ices out late, usually in mid to late June, but sometimes in early to mid July; by November, it's too late.
Recommended equipment: If you can pack a float tube, do so. Crystal Lake is perfect for a belly boat to reach the island in the middle and paddle around to reach hard-to-get spots, especially the west side of the lake. An 8-9 foot, five-weight rod is ideal for the lake.
Hatches and food sources: Minimal hatches.
Best producing flies: Partridge & Orange, Partridge & Green, Royal Coachman, Royal Wulff, Damselfly, Bucktail streamer, Hare's Ear Nymph, Prince Nymph, Hornberg.
Directions: You will begin your hike at the cemetery north of town, but because the trail is not very well marked, I suggest buying a topo map and getting directions from a sporting goods store or map/book shop in Lake City.
Crystal Lake is a picture-perfect alpine lake, set in timberline against the backdrop of Crystal Peak. The trail (Crystal Lake Trail) is a 4-mile trail which often takes even hardy hikers nearly four hours to traverse. This trail is steep and has many switchbacks, and when it rains, footing becomes poor and muddy because part of the trail utilizes an old ditch. Slip-and-slide time. You might be surprised when you find other anglers who have braved this steep trail by foot or horse. There are often other anglers fanned out around the lake. Stick around, because the fishing is usually pretty good.
The lake usually ices out by the middle of June and productive fishing for squaretails usually lasts into October. The lake is subject to winterkill but consistently produces nice-sized brook trout. I have caught them up to 15 inches from the lake, usually on wet fly or nymph patterns. The larger brookies usually have a characteristic hook-jaw and fight ferociously.
Also typical of fishing Crystal Lake are the inevitable variables like the wind and rain and hail and snow. Bring an extra layer of clothes and a rain jacket because at that elevation, the inclement weather gets upon you in a hurry. Don't stop fishing if the weather turnsI have still caught trout with the wind whipping across the surface as the snow was falling.
The trout of Crystal Lake seem to respond to slowly stripped wet flies, such as Partridge and Green, Hornberg, and emerger caddis, as well as dropper flies under a big dry fly, such as Timberline Emergers and Hare's Ear nymph. The hatches are sparse on Crystal but the trout do rise to dry fly patterns, especially attractor patterns like Royal Wulff and House and Lot. (DeLorme Page 67 D6)
You will pass this small lake at 11,000 feet on the trail to Crystal Lake. Less than five feet deep and less than three acres, the brook trout are small. Not worth a destination trip but worth assessing on the way to Crystal. (DeLorme Page 67 D6)
At 12,082 feet, this 16-acre lake is in the true high country, above timberline, west of Lake City at the headwaters of Cataract Creek (Gulch). Anglers will enjoy the sweeping vistas and open bank fishing area. Because it is fairly deepup to 17 feetthe brook trout can get fairly large, up to 16 inches. The average brookie runs over 10 inches and is typically plump and athletic. Still, despite the depth, the hard winters sometimes cause winterkill so check with authorities before hiking up the four mile trail (TR 475). The hike generally takes around three hours and has several creek crossings. (DeLorme Page 77 B6)
Accessible by a 1-mile trail from American Basin (County Road 30 also called Cinnamon Pass Road), Sloan Lake is a crystal-clear 6-acre lake that was at one time stocked with small but colorful Colorado River cutthroat. The lake is the headwaters for Lake Fork Gunnison River.
Two beautiful manmade lakes northeast of Lake City holding populations of brook and rainbow trout. They are set amidst the green of the forests running up to the banks in places, at a little over 11,000 feet high. The larger lake is where the flyfisher should concentrate. The bigger Larson Lake is four acres large, ranging from eight to sixteen feet deep. Some of the trout can grow fairly large here, in the mid-teens. It takes a little over two hours to hike to Larson Lakes using the same trail from the cemetery mentioned in the Larson Creek coverage. The Crystal Lake trail connects with this trail, too. Check with local tackle shops for more specific directions. (DeLorme Page 67 D6)
A mile from the cemetery, just off the Larson Lakes trail, Thompson Lake is a small, shallow lake subject to winterkill. Both brook and rainbow trout swim in the six acres of Thompson Lake. (DeLorme Page 67 D6)
Set in a bowl above timberline, Cooper Lake's steep shoreline which gives the alpine lake its rugged beauty makes it tough on the angler. More than half of the bank is unfishable because of the steep slopes. Cooper sits at 12,750 feet, has depths up to forty feet, and has a strong brook trout population living in its ten acres. Cooper Lake can be reached by taking County Road 30 (Cinnamon Pass Road) then 4RD north nearly twenty miles. Park once you cross Cooper Creek (near ghost town of Whitecross), which has fair angling for brookies, and look for the trail leading to Cooper Lake. The four-mile hike does have two creek crossings and some steep sections. Ask locals for more specific directions. (DeLorme Page 77 A6)
Small, remote lake of three acres set at 12,400 feet lying in the Snare Basin southwest of Lake City. This alpine tarn is the largest of six such lakes in the basin and the most productive. If you are up for a long and difficult hike, check with local flyshops and sporting goods stores for hiking directions to Snare Lake. The trail begins at the end of a 4WD road up Cottonwood Creek off of County Road 30, west of Lake City. The upside of Snare is that few anglers ever take the trouble to reach the shallow lake and its brook trout; the downside is that the shallow lake occasionally suffers from winterkill. (DeLorme Page 77 A5)
Tough three-hour hike from Lake City to reach this eightacre lake set at 11,160 feet. Waterdog Lake is east of Lake City. Holds brook trout to fourteen inches. (DeLorme Page 67 D7)
One of the more difficult lakes to reach by car or foot, Heart Lake sits high in the mountains near the Continental Divide south of Lake Fork Gunnison at 10,550 feet. The lake can be reached from the east (Pearl Lakes between Continental and Rio Grande Reservoirs) or from the north, a tough 4WD road off of County Road 30, then County Road 36, a road better suited to mountain goats. Heart Lake is the headwaters for Clear Creek and has about 17 acres of fair-angling for fair-sized brook trout. If you are up for a 4WD adventure or a long hike, then look into driving/trekking to Heart Lake. (DeLorme Page 77 B7; USGS Topo Map: Finger Mesa)
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication