According to the trail description on the Web, this lake was “one of the Mount Hood National Forest's best-kept secrets.” In the latest edition of “Fishing in Oregon,” which has just found its way into my library, the description reads, “The fish here don't get large, averaging 8 inches.”
We began to believe the first description after making two wrong turns that amounted to 15 more miles on washboard roads than originally budgeted. If we could just find our road, we could fact-check the length measurements.
Packing the truck, I forgot to include my BaseImage atlas. That was the mistake that cost us the extra diesel.
Over the state gazetteer, we huddled in the cab of the Ford and tried to make sense of a spiderweb of roads and canyons. Eleven-year-old Isaac and his dad, James Flaherty, and my daughter, Jennifer, offered their observations and teams began to align. Isaac and I found ourselves in agreement, while Jennifer and James brought derision upon our decisions.
“It is probably our next left turn,” I said with all the authority I could muster. I had said the same thing twice before.
Every other year, if in the budget, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife stocks over 400 backcountry lakes with fingerlings dropped in by helicopter or transported there by hiker, horseback and llama.
Some of these waters are small and shallow while others are deep and cold. Every one is special in its own way, each a precious jewel. Some are well-kept secrets and others are well-used, even abused.
We located our road about an hour after we had planned to find it, and about six miles up the canyon we found the trailhead with six cars there ahead of us.
The path led up the slope alongside a fast-running creek into a forest of old-growth fir, a half-mile from the trailhead to the water's edge.
A few campsites were scattered among the silvered firs. At the shoreline, the water was light green and darkened toward the middle. Talus slides entered the water on the south bank and high on the cliff clung stands of aspen.
If this was supposed to be a secret, this 20-acre lake on the east slope of Mount Hood, I was going to keep it.
Isaac, armed with a spinning rod, a float and fly, managed a 30-foot cast over a submerged log. A trout streaked up out of the shadow and missed the grab. On the second try, the fish and the boy connected. Isaac reeled in his first brookie, a speckled 8-inch former fingerling with a large head.
Rises dimpled the surface, most out of fly rod casting range. Shoreside trees are the biggest obstacle to distance. Even waded out hip-deep in the warm water, my back cast tickled the hemlock.
I guessed the fish were feeding on midges and caddis. One fish grabbed my olive caddis pupa, but that was it. I switched to a green chironomid pupa, but still the hungry fish shunned my offering.
A brown fly with tented wings landed on my sleeve so I dug through my box and located a brown tied-down caddis. Bingo. The brookies climbed all over it. Along the lakeshore, Isaac, Jennifer and James had connected the dots in a different way and each had tangled with multiple brook trout. We released close to a dozen and kept four for the fire.
Hundreds of lakes in the Cascades offer good fishing for cutthroats, rainbows and brook trout. Some of these lakes are small and shallow while others are big, blue, dark and deep. Each has its own character and few of them can support much angling pressure.
On the lake we fished, the char were stunted from too much competition and a scarcity of food. There was probably a trout there that would have topped 10 inches, but we didn't see it.
Deeper lakes with a long shallow shoreline are better bets for bigger fish. It takes a certain flexibility to unlock a backcountry lake's secrets.
Watch the surface, the bugs and the trout for cues. A lot of these lakes are timbered right to the water's edge and many are not wadable. One of the best rigs for a hike-in fishery is a float-and-fly combination. With a spinning rod, the fly and bubble can be launched twice as far as the longest fly cast.
With the right fur and feather creation on the end of the line, an angler can bring a lot of fish to the bank. Find a lake or a chain of stillwaters in some remote basin and you have found a jewel to keep or share with a friend or two over the years. It will be your best-kept secret in the Cascades.