Classic Photo Essay: An Expedition into Colorado’s West Elk Mountains

Written by: Charlie Parr, Head Guide at Lillard Fly Fishing Expeditions

Ethan caught this glorious cutthroat on a Stimulator.
All photos by Charlie Parr

Editor’s Note: We occasionally repost great stories for those who may be new to the blog or who may have simply missed them. Here’s a great photo essay from 2014 about a trip into the mountains with a group of young fly fishers.

The snow-capped, 14,000 foot mountains and high alpine valleys of the West Elk Mountains surround the tiny mountain town of Crested Butte, Colorado, and provided the backdrop for a Lillard Fly Fishing expedition for a group of intrepid teen last July. After three days of fly-fishing school at our front-country campsite, we headed into the backcountry high-alpine lakes and streams of the Gunnison River Drainage. With its abundance of brilliantly colored wild cutthroat, rainbow, and brook trout, this area is one of our favorites for good reason.

Teddy is hooked up!

This year, the trip was an absolute success. I am very proud to report that, for the first time in LFFE history, every single member of the trip completed the coveted LFFE Triple Crown, which consists of summiting a 14er (14,000 ft mountain), catching a 15-inch cutthroat, and landing an Arctic grayling. Every single guy on the trip achieved this feat, with many of the guys completing the fishing portion of the Crown multiple times!

The colors on Jackson’s fish were incredible.

With the help of pack horses carrying some of our heavier supplies, our first day of hiking up the creek saw us complete the seven-mile hike in great time. Most of the guys were able to hit up the creek for plentiful brook trout before an afternoon thunderstorm forced us to retire to our tents for a much-needed nap. After the storm abated, we were able to enjoy a great sunset with dinner and were even able to enjoy some fresh brook from the overpopulated beaver ponds near our camp.

The snow and lack of trees behind Teddy indicate the altitude.

Day Two saw us move to the high alpine, where the action was really good. We camped just below the treeline along the upper portion of the creek, which is home to numerous, but small cutthroats. We spent all day catching these magnificent fish, and then hit the hay early in anticipation of our summit attempt of a nearby 14er.

Stephen’s fine cutthroat featured lots of red.

Waking up at 3:00 a.m. at 11,500 feet was no easy task. It was very cold outside (near freezing), and the sleeping bag was so warm. But, with hot oatmeal and a healthy dose of excitement, we managed to crawl out of our tents and prepare for our biggest day. The hike started at 4:30 a.m. and saw us climb out of the trees and reach the high alpine for a glorious Colorado sunrise. I’m happy to report that this crew are all excellent hikers, and we managed to summit in great time: four hours on the dot. The feeling of being on top of such a high mountain before most people have woken up and gone to work is nearly indescribable.

It’s a good day when you’re at 14,000 feet by lunchtime.

We did not hesitate on the summit for too long, because we knew what awaited us elsewhere: monster cutthroats eager to rise to the fly. So we headed off across a large alpine basin to the lakes we had been eyeing since before reaching the summit. Once we reached the lakes, we settled down for lunch and fishing. We were not disappointed We hit the first lake at about 12:30 p.m., and for the next four hours we were absolutely killing it. Monster fish after monster fish kept crushing our flies. These were some of the finest trout I have ever seen, and will no doubt haunt the dreams of these fine fishermen for years to come, if not for life. After such a long day, we headed back to camp for an early dinner and an early bedtime.

Robert’s 14-inch grayling sported quite a dorsal fin.

The next morning, we got a considerably later start on our way up to an even higher and more isolated lake, which lies high near 13,00 feet. After the arduous climb up to the lake, we immediately set about fishing. It was not long before we were rewarded with our first call of “Fish on!” Sure enough, it was the elusive Arctic grayling, a fish that is rare here in Colorado. Lucky for us, fortune was shining, and the lake was absolutely on fire! Everybody was hauling in grayling and cutthroats so fast that I could barely keep up with running around the lake to snap photos. An early afternoon thunderstorm forced us down to camp where we packed up and began the long hike out.

Every participant landed at least one grayling.

Will Lillard operates Lillard Fly Fishing Expeditions based in North Carolina and Colorado.

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