Updated: Dec 26, 2021
Fly fishing for the Colorado Greenback Cutthroat Trout
My recent fishing trip to Colorado started in Fairplay, but then continued to Estes Park, within the Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). Most of our fishing on this leg would be focused on the Big Thompson River (‘Big T’), but we bifurcated those excursions with a day to pursue the greenback cutthroat at Loch Vale. According to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website, the greenback cutthroat was thought to be extinct in 1937, but then populations were discovered in various waters in the 1950s. In 1996, the species was designated as the Colorado state fish.
Fishing for trout at Loch Vale
The hike to Loch Vale is mildly challenging. If you can park at the Bear Lake trail head (get there early), it is a 3-mile excursion that is considered to be a moderate climb of about 1,000 feet in elevation. The trail is deceiving in that the first half mile is downhill, but then reverts to a strenuous uphill climb for 2.5 miles. Along the way there is a thundering 30-foot waterfall at Alberta Falls (at about the 1-mile mark) and fabulous mountain views.
Once at The Loch, as Loch Vale is better known, the subalpine lake is surrounded by beautiful pines and majestic peaks – Taylor Peak, Taylor Glacier and Thatchtop Mountain appear as sentries guarding the precious waters of The Loch. A variety of wildlife can be spotted here as well, including moose, elk, deer and various bird species. But our main reason for making the trek was to catch a greenback cutthroat.
Where to find the Greenback Cutthroat Trout in Rocky Mountain National Park
There are a handful of waters in the RMNP where greenback cutthroats can be found, including the North Fork of the Thompson River and a variety of lakes (according to coloradofishing.net). We chose The Loch because of the entertainment value of the long hike up and the sheer number of fish in that habitat. Sure enough, as we approached the east end of the lake, dozens of fish could be seen cruising the two small and shallow inlets that welcome you as you reach The Loch.
Sight fishing for Greenback Cutthroat Trout
Sighting fish and presenting a fly in its path increases the prospects for a strike, so we opted to spend most of our time fishing these two inlets, and we were not disappointed. These greenbacks were constantly on the move and we did our best to get delicately placed dry flies on the water just in front of these moving fish. We stuck with size 18/20 dries to begin with, using ant patterns and elk hair caddis. When the fish stopped rising, we fished a small pheasant tail nymph on a slow retrieve with similar success.
Best spots on Loch Vale to find Greenback Cutthroat Trout
We did try our luck on the larger lake but, without being able to see the fish, it was considerably more challenging. There were occasional rises, but casting to these was made difficult by not being able to backcast due to numerous trees on the banks. My roll cast was just not robust enough to get any distance out onto the lake. A guide who we fished with the next day suggested that on the next visit we try fishing the streams that feed and flow out of the lake – Icy Brook to the west and Loch Creek to the east. According to him, dry flies lightly presented in pocket water leading into and out of The Loch will produce mighty strikes from greenback cutthroats – much like the technique for brookie fishing in the Shenandoah National Park.
Fishing for trout at Sky Pond
If you want a real adventure, the continuing trail from The Loch to Sky Pond is supposed to be even more challenging and the fishing even more exciting at Sky Pond. But that meant an additional 3 miles of even more strenuous climbing (and another 1,000 or so feet of elevation gain) tacked on to the 6 miles out and back to The Loch. I would need a fitter version of myself to attempt that!