Colorado's Remote Legendary Greenback's

By Sean Magill of Skunked Productions

         Every year as the ice recedes and temperatures begin to warm, it’s time to break out the hiking boots. Colorado is home to an endless supply of remote, wild, Roadless lakes. Many of these lakes sit miles above the timberline and miles from any given trailhead. On top of being difficult to travel to, most lakes that sit above 12000’ don’t begin to ice off until June/July and ice starts forming by mid-September, making for a short season. As I write this, on 8/26/20 Independence Pass Colorado received its first snowfall at 12,095 feet above sea level…


   Although it’s easier to backpack into these remote lakes, with Colorado’s growing population, pulling backcountry permits remains extremely difficult. Rocky Mountain National Park permits open March 1st, if you are interested in a multi-day backpacking trip you better get your permit on March 1st.

After a couple of tense moments with some fellow fish-heads, reaffirming that “it’s not that bad of a hike (22miles roundtrip)” the location and day is set in stone, cutthroat here we come.  I am a firm believer these trips should be completed with someone. There are far too many risk factors, so if you’re considering doing a trip like this, please go with a friend for your own safety.

            After a late night of packing and a restless night, the alarm goes off at 2:30 am. A quick cup of coffee, double checking essentials, and we’re off. After an hour drive and a quick breakfast we arrive at the trailhead around 4:20 am. 

            Our trip is centered around the famous Colorado cutthroat (greenbacks). To get a sense of a typical hike to reach trophy greenbacks, imagine 10+ miles just to get to the lake, an elevation gain of 3500-7500’, with deep snow fields throughout, especially at ice-out. An arduous task, but what angler hasn’t pushed their physical limits to hold a trophy fish? In Colorado, animal encounters remain low, but risk of falls and dehydration are always present.

           After our expedition, we arrive at the lake (8/01/2020) and the fishing begins. Trophy greenbacks in these lakes range anywhere from 16-26 inches. They are big for two reasons: The overall population of fish remains relatively small, which in turn decreases competition for food and the endless buffet of forage. You’d think because these fish receive little pressure, they’d be easy to catch, but you’d be wrong. On top of being difficult to trick, some of these lakes are quite large, so finding fish is not easy. Contrary to popular belief, many of the large fish are not cruising shallow flats such as lakes in the drainages with smaller cutthroats. If you can find fish in the inlets and outlets you will have ample opportunity to sight fish these large fish. To find fish I always target three areas of the lake. Inlets, outlets, and drop offs. Almost all of these lakes do not have inlets as they are the source of streams and creeks. In late June you will find many areas of these lakes with runoff coming down from snow fields and creating swampy snowy conditions. Not all of these have fish.  

After locating a deep drop off it’s time to rig up. A 4-piece 9ft 5wt fast action rod is my weapon of choice. Fast action is essential during casting as these lakes are often very windy. I run a 9-foot 3x leader down to a barrel swivel, 10 inches of 4x tippet to an orange scud and another 10 inches of 4x tippet to a balanced leech. My indicator is positioned 4-8 feet above my swivel and is adjusted a foot at a time depending on success. The swivel helps line tension as my indicator bobs on the windy waves. Now the fly…What fly to choose…


   The method of fishing for these trout is no secret. 90% of these fish’s diets are chironomids. Every high alpine angler should have a variety of sizes and colors as fish can be quite selective even in remote locations. Outside of chironomids, orange scuds, leeches, beetles, spruce moths, mice and eggs are extremely important patterns. Orange scuds have accounted for majority of my trophy Greenback catches.


An important aspect for an angler thinking of attempting this day trip, is a race against the clock. In June and July severe thunderstorms are a daily occurrence. These storms move very quickly and hold a tremendous amount of rain, sleet, hail and snow. By far the most dangerous part of these storms is lightning. Colorado averages 2 fatalities and 12 injuries a year from lightning. We usually get pushed off these lakes by 1030 am. I can’t stress how dangerous this situation can be as these lakes leave you with miles of exposure before you can make it safely back to timberline. Exhaustion and altitude start to take their toll so it’s important to leave early at the sign of building thunderstorms. 


            However, when everything comes together the fishing can be dreamy. Fish seem to feed heavy during dusk, dawn, as well as midday when the water is its warmest. After scouting during midday, we were able to locate a large group of fishing patrolling a steep drop off. We cast, eagerly awaiting, laser focus on our indicators. Every now and then our indicators would ever so slightly twitch, a set of the hook, and all of our efforts were rewarded.  23 inch Greenbacks come to hand, exhausted and elated, a fly fisherman’s utopia. However, this day was extremely frustrating as when we arrived the lake was windless. Unusual to wish for wind, but when fishing indicators, wind is your best friend. The natural motion of the flies going up and down causes these large fish to lose all caution and start to gorge.

Alpine fishing seasons are short, so fish do feed heavy at certain times of the day. Dusk and dawn are key as well as midday when the water is at its warmest. 2 hours later the wind shifted, and we caught a handful of fish. Not just any fish, the trophies we were after. True specimens of the Alpine. After some admiration, just like normal, a large thunderstorm sent us running back to timberline.

After a quick but treacherous down hike, a lumbering marmot greeted us as we sat down for a quick lunch. 20 minutes later, the sun began to peak from the ominous dark clouds and the wind began to die. Changing our approach, we eagerly began to re rig our fly rods with foam hoppers trailed by black ants. Not less than 5 minutes later a few decent cutthroats began to rise all over the surface of the lake.  Although we weren’t able to land any more trophies, fish without hesitation exploded on our hoppers for the remainder of the afternoon. You can only imagine what that feels like…


Alpine fishing seasons are short, the conditions are unrelenting, and the exhaustion is real. These hikes aren’t for everyone, but if you’re in pursuit of pushing your boundaries and want to target large Trophy Greenback Cutthroats, it’s time to start looking at far remote lakes!


Maine Fly Guys
Latest posts by Maine Fly Guys (see all)
Your Cart