Outdoor Short Stories

Fishing the Clearwater Wilderness

13 Mins read

“I think this is it,” I said as I turned my wife’s vehicle on the forest road off of Highway 410 into the Clearwater Wilderness. It had been a little while since I’d been in the mountains, and while I was excited to finally be back in the serene silence of the woods, I was a little foggy on where to go. I knew we turned off 410, but when you don’t go someplace regularly, then it can be difficult to recall exactly how to get there.

“You’re right,” Cait said reassuringly as she broke conversation with her seatmate, Mel, Jeff’s wife. Jeff had been attempting to learn how to fly fish for months and had never directly asked for help. However, he had a pile of questions. I figured the easiest way to answer all his questions was to simply take him fishing. I enjoyed teaching people how to fish and loved to see them become successful. The excitement on a new hunter or fisherman’s face is truly addicting. It also opened the door for an opportunity for our wives to get together and share in a part of the adventure.

Fly fishing is deceptively easy. The outsider sees this large production every time a cast is made and views it as a high art form. They feel the intimidation of the beautiful curves of the line in the air and truly believe it’s something that cannot be easily learned. Nothing could be further from the truth. In under half an hour, any decent fly fisherman can teach a first-timer how to cast.

Fishing on the other hand is a lifelong art. 80 percent of fishing is pretty basic, and once you learn it, you can be deadly. It’s the other 20 percent that truly separates the professional from the amateur. Learning how to read a new species and/or a new body of water is a skill that requires repeat and frequent failures. This isn’t something you can teach someone in a short amount of time. That’s why we were headed into the Clearwater Wilderness.

Lonesome Lake sits high in the mountains of the Clearwater Wilderness at 4,781 feet, just outside of the boundary of Mt. Rainier National Park. It provides a unique opportunity to the junior fisherman due to the surrounding geography, its remote nature, and its overabundance of fish. It sits in a bowl created by the surrounding peaks and is fed by runoff throughout the spring and summer melt. This bowl-like surrounding largely shields the fisherman from wind which can be very detrimental to the novice fly fisherman. Nothing will aggravate a professional more than attempting to make a presentation to drift and having the wind prevail against them; let alone a novice.

A bonus was that it is virtually impossible not to catch a fish in Lonesome Lake provided you fish with a small enough fly that is yellow. It is ridiculously easy fishing. This ease is perfect for the person that is learning how to fish as it will reward their sincere efforts with actually landing a fish for the first time.

“So, this isn’t manmade?” Jeff, riding shotgun with a look of cool anticipation, asked. “No, its all-natural. Supposedly, two lovers found it and came regularly to it. Then something went south between them, and the guy kept coming up. Since he was alone, he called it Lonesome Lake and it stuck.” I responded like a tour guide. I rolled my eyes at myself for being so informed as if I had a deep knowledge of the area, but I had simply read the sign posted on the lakeshore.

“Think we’ll catch anything?” he continued to inquire as we drove inches away from a drop that was well over 100 feet. I watched Cait reach back and dig her nails into the car door. She hates heights and my driving. I’m a consummate old man driver and very cool and cavalier by nature toward risks that I should otherwise take more seriously. Those two very different personality traits had more than once resulted in marital strife. I pulled the car as far away from the edge as possible and leaned on the gas. It sounds counterintuitive, but she would rather me do 100 MPH away from the cliff than slow down and be safe. I learned this technique from a countless number of scoldings over the years.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cait’s grip soften on the door as we re-entered the treeline and the specter of falling to death faded away. She resumed talking to Mel about some random subject they had been on about since we left our house an hour ago. “Oh yeah, this is some of the easiest fishing in the world up here and very few people know about it outside of the locals”, I finally responded to Jeff knowing that Cait had relaxed.

“If nothing else, this place is worth the views,” I pointed out as we passed by an incredible view of Mt Rainier. It was incredibly refreshing to be out in the woods again. Working six days a week, sometimes twelve-hour days, was conducive to debt reduction and building a retirement that would help me get out here, but it was robbing me of the very thing I loved. In my mind, I scolded myself for working so much. In the past, I had made sure I prioritized being out here, but this summer it had been hard to break away for some reason. That needed to be fixed, and today was a step in that direction.

The car fell silent as we passed the towering ivory icon of the Northwest. Fishing even seemed secondary to marveling at the incredible glory of the mountain that looked over the valley we had come to live in. Its silence and appearance commanded respect and something akin to fear of the power that it exuded over our small vehicle.

The road was getting rougher. We passed logging equipment that had been brought up to farm the trees that grow in this corner of the Clearwater Wilderness. Logging was a big industry and there was a healthy debate on if it was good for the wildlife here or not. No matter how anyone felt, you couldn’t argue that it was good for the roads. They would eventually fix them, but for now, the heavy trucks and machines had started a slight washboard that our little SUV was feeling as we sped along to Lonesome Lake.

“That’s the turn,” Jeff said looking down at my phone. I dropped a pin on an app I use to navigate while hunting and Jeff was attempting to navigate on the bumpy road; no small feat. I made the hairpin turn faster than I probably should have, but most seasoned fishermen will tell you when you get close, the excitement starts to set in. That excitement was translating to some cavalier driving and my wife was letting me know about it.

I slowed down as we navigated the near washed-out roads, rocks, turns, and beautiful country on either side of the car. As we ascended, the trees shrunk before our eyes and we punched through layers of light, wispy thin clouds. Washington is an amazing place to live, fish, and hunt. On one side you have a real-life rainforest. While on the other side of the state lies a hot, dry desert. In between stand some of the most beautiful, rugged, and untamed mountains in the world. In those mountains, at least for today, you would find a fly fisherman who was overjoyed to be standing there.

It was hard to believe that there were fish this high up. “How did they even get here?” I wondered. The lake was just runoff from the peaks that surrounded it and the only creek that ran into it came off the surrounding glaciers. It made no sense how the trout had made it into this bowl. There was no evidence of an ancient connection to the river below. Nor was there any historical evidence of the lake being stocked by anyone until modern times.

Yet, the story was clear. People had been coming to the mountains long before the first hatcheries were established, and catching fish out of this lake. Somehow or another, these beautiful, brightly colored, hard fighting works of art from God’s hand had made it into this little-known, secluded lake high in the alpine country of Washington state.

What surprised everyone the most when we arrived was how well established the area was. Despite being over an hour’s drive from the nearest gas station, there was a pavilion, picnic tables, and an outhouse built in the parking lot that was no more than a very wide section of the road. While the old man that had originally found the lake and started to clear out the area around it was long gone, the forest service picked up the cause and pressed on with deeper pockets and more manpower. Today, Lonesome Lake is an ad-hoc park in the remote wilds of the southern Cascades.

Our dogs knew we had arrived. Grunts, moans, and a quiet, low howl erupted from the cargo area of our little SUV as they recognized the terrain and the slowness of my driving as I picked a place to park. We had been up to the lake a few times before and being border collies, they were intelligent enough to realize we were there again.

“Calm down guys,” I called out to my four-legged passengers as I fielded random questions from the others. I could hear jumping and tail wagging getting more intense as our journey drew to a close. I pulled next to a truck that had beaten us there and put the car in park. Everyone, ready to stretch their legs from the journey, simultaneously opened their doors. We had arrived.

I stepped out and the cold, sharp mountain air entered my nostrils and gave me a surprising but welcome jolt. As I relaxed and stretched, I felt the tension of everyday life leave my body as the base of my neck relaxed. I was home. I had always felt that way about being in the woods. There was an unwelcome complexity about being in the city. The traffic, the social status, the plethora of rules and regulations, all of it was unwanted and unwelcome to me. It was tolerated because I am an adult with responsibilities. However, with each passing day, I have come to realize where I belong was out here, away from the madness.

The relaxed sensation didn’t last long. I immediately switched to “guide mode.” It was a side of me that I had only recently discovered. I loved to teach, instruct, and see people grow. However, I was too much of a soldier to be completely left-brained about it. There would be order and discipline in our gear and schedule. I looked at the three passengers and began to assign random tasks that would get us on the water as soon as possible.

Packrafts are the best way to fish small mountain lakes that require you to pack in.

“Jeff, if you want to get your gear and the green packraft, it’s smaller and easier to handle. Cait, if you will handle the dogs and take Mel down to the lake, you can pick a spot for us to set up”, I diplomatically suggested as I gathered my fishing gear and pack raft out of the car.

The gear setup was very simple. A small yellow dry fly on a 5 weight fly rod and budget reel was all that was needed. Barbless hooks made us legal but presented a challenge to keep tension on the fish and not let him jump. We would fish from shore some, but mainly we would fish out of the Alpaca Packrafts I had invested in over the years.

The packraft is an essential piece of kit if you enjoy hunting and fishing in the remote wilds. Useful for transportation, hunting (I talk about that here) and fishing, they are expensive, but a cornerstone to my strategies for access. They can compress down to be put into a backpack, but with the use of an inflation bag, expanded to the size of a small kayak or canoe. The largest and most cumbersome part of the entire thing is the paddles which typically get strapped to the sides of a pack.

Our troop of four, plus two black and white dogs, made our way down a set of log steps that wind down to the lake. Over the years various groups have ascended to the lake and made small improvements. The steps fell into this category. They were helpful and saved the hillside from erosion, which validated their presence, but they also stole away some of the rugged wildness of the area. It was a small critique that I had, but one that was easily overlooked by the display of absolute beauty that unfolded before us.

The lake is a few acres large, crystal clear, deep in some places, and with a rocky bottom. We could see various insects flying just above the still, glass-like water as the fish broke the surface to devour the weak, lazy ones that landed on the surface. Occasionally, one would breach the surface like a nuclear submarine blowing its ballast and launch itself into the air to nail an unsuspecting bug. No matter their approach to eating, it was sheer excitement and encouragement to us as we set our gear down and began to assemble our rods and inflate the rafts.

On the other side of the lake, there was a young couple. Too loud for my taste but enjoying the beauty of the lake the same as us. They had camped on the shore and left a fire smoldering that we passed on our way in. That was a no-no in a state that is perpetually plagued with wildfires. However, in this area, it was less of a concern due to the sheer amount of rain and snow that it received. Yet, it irked me, nonetheless.

Grace could not be content to stay onshore and kept swimming out to me disrupting the fishing.

We positioned ourselves to be away from the couple as Cait policed the dogs so they wouldn’t interfere with the loud couple. I gave Jeff a quick block of instruction on how to use the inflation bag to air up the raft and within minutes we were ready to put in.

“How’s your casting?” I asked Jeff as he gave his rod a couple of flicks. “Could be better I guess,” he responded sheepishly. I gave him a few pointers and a lot of encouragement. 75 percent of fishing is just showing up. Most people get hung up on technique, gear, looks, and things of that nature. The reality of it is, there are tons of terrible fishermen that catch fish every day simply because they decided to get on the water. Jeff had made that decision and was almost all the way there.

“Just make sure you load your rod. Let the fly pass your head, then give it a half second and cast forward. If you don’t do that it will just end up as a big pile on the water. You will know you did it right when it lays down flat and pretty.” I coached by pointing out everyone’s beginner mistake. I had taught myself and struggled with that miscalculation for years until I fished with an older gentleman who told me the same.

That’s a beautiful aspect of fishing. It’s a great conduit for mentorship and relationships. I didn’t come by most of the knowledge I had gathered on my own. Many different people had contributed small building blocks of wisdom over thirty years. Any success I have today is largely owed to them. To stand before someone and proclaim that I was a great fisherman and had gotten there all on my own would be like the Pyramids of Giza proclaiming to the world that they had built themselves. It’s just not true.

After a few practice casts and lots of encouragement, we set off on a micro voyage for trout. The pack raft silently slid onto the glassy lake disturbed only by the fish beneath us and the flies we had presented to them. Now came the waiting.

When I was younger, I would play a game in my head. I would specifically try to put my fishing on autopilot and think about something completely unrelated. I was under the impression that I was “thinking away” the fish by concentrating everything I had on what I was doing. If I could relax my brain, then I would catch a fish. It seemed to work at the time, but now as a more mature fisherman, I can just enjoy the process and the small details that a younger self would have overlooked.

I loved the warmth of the packraft on my skin, with the coolness of the air, and the unadulterated silence of the woods. I didn’t have to not think about what I was doing, because I was completely happy with what I was doing. Catching a fish or not was inconsequential to the pleasure of the process.

Jeff was doing well. He would paddle, get himself into a position he liked, cast, and slowly retrieve. I watched him cast, again and again, each time offering little bits of encouragement. Learning something new is always difficult and encouragement is the lubrication on grinding gears. People need to know that they are doing well because they are trying. Once the effort is present, the skill will slowly develop.

I was so focused on Jeff’s fishing, that I had nearly forgotten that I was fishing as well. However, the sudden tug of my line indicated a fish had taken my fly while I concentrated on Jeff’s efforts. I quickly picked up my rod and set the hook with a light flick of my wrist. I was careful not to overdo it due to the small size of the trout that inhabited Lonesome Lake. It responded with a well-fought run but was no match for the strength of my finger that held the line against the handle of my rod.

The size may be lacking but the splendid beauty of the trout at high elevations is incredible.

“Here’s one!” I called out to Jeff as I began to strip in the line. The little trout fought with everything he had not to meet the fate he had earned by seeking an easy meal. I kept my rod low to the water to stop him from coming to the top and throwing my fly. As he approached the packraft I slowly lifted it and eventually swung the tiny trout into my free hand.

“See, they aren’t big but they are fun to catch,” I called out to Jeff presenting the small, yet beautifully colored trout to him from a distance. The barbless hook was simple to remove, and I returned the trout to his home waters. He darted away as if he were running from the devil himself. A moniker I am sure that I earned in his mind.

Jeff looked more determined than ever. He set his face like a stone on the task at hand and offered the abyss another cast. He was feeling all too familiar emotions that I knew well. You get all amped up to fish, do everything right, and then watch someone else be successful while you seem to get nothing. It’s a sinking feeling that you have missed something, peppered with the anxiety of not knowing what that something is. He fished on furiously, not letting the emotion that he grappled with affect his efforts. That was a solid trait in a fisherman; resiliency.

It wasn’t long until his efforts were rewarded with a fish. His excitement was nearly uncontainable despite his efforts to appear to be in control. “Got one,” he stated very plainly. So plainly in fact that it gave him away. He was giddy to have successfully fly-fished and caught something. His small trout gave about the same fight and was landed with the same ease that mine was. It was a very simple process all in all.

They weren’t the Moby Dick-like fighters the salmon were down below. However, they were the perfect beginner fish. They are easy to catch, easy to land, and can be done in great quantities. Once these little fish had planted the seed of success and the qualities of the fisherman had started growing, it would be time to challenge Jeff in a different place with a different species. However, for today Jeff had met his match and was growing by leaps and bounds as a fisherman.

I had accomplished my goal.

B.B. Sanders is a freelance outdoors writer located in Washington State.

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