Fishing on Top of the World

Andrew McKean Avatar

Road Trip Trout Adventure – Day 1


After a late start from Red Lodge–our departure delayed by the acquisition of fishing licenses, lunch fixings and bear spray–photographer Troy Batzler and I turned our Ford Flex south, up the winding, switch-backed Beartooth Highway.

This road is known on atlases as U.S. Highway 212, but no numeric designation can do justice to this monument to humans’ timeless battle with gravity. This highway bends and claws its way to nearly 11,000 feet above sea level, to a sterile, fragile landscape that’s at least partially covered by snow 12 months a year.

We get out of the car at an overlook, and immediately catch our breath in the thin air, the chilly wind. Also taking our breath are the views, which stretch deep into Wyoming to the south, across Yellowstone National Park to the west and across the alpine Absaroka-Beartooth Plateau in Montana to the north.

We are here to fish the constellation of trout lakes on this plateau, and as we consult the map Troy and I are like Little Leaguers at a Yankees game. We are drooling with anticipation. Dozens of lakes dot the landscape, and most of them have trout. Some are stunted brookies, others trophy cutthroats. There are even rare golden trout in a few of these lakes.

We opt to fish Island Lake, on the Wyoming side of the plateau, and as we grind down toward the lake we discuss how to fish it. I’m sticking with my original plan to cast dry flies, figuring that every trout in these cold, clear waters is looking up to feed for the coming winter.


Island Lake is probably the most accessible alpine lake on the plateau, just a half mile off Highway 212. It’s a great place to bring a family. The fish have a reputation as abundant and gullible, but I’ve never been clear what species inhabits this big, rock-strewn lake. We aim to inventory it.

Troy and I park, gulp down a lunch and pack our fishing and photography gear. It’s a late start, but the alpine air is clear and we have a full moon to guide us back to the car this evening.

After a gentle half-mile hike, we pick a boulder jutting into the azure lake to start our fishing. I rig my rod–a 4-weight, 4-piece G. Loomis Whisper Creek GLX pack rod–and tie on a rubber-legged Chernobyl Ant, a black foam pattern with a bright pink patch on its back that I can see from a long distance on the choppy surface.

On my second cast, a silver rocket surges out of the deep, right for my fly. I get anxious and jerk the line, taking the hook right away from the eager fish. I’m not proud to say that I behaved the same way for the next six or seven rises before finally I hook a fish.

Troy gets his camera ready as the tranquil surface splashes and roils with the fighting trout. It’s a rainbow, slashing and flashing through the shallows. The 8-1/2-foot rod bends with the tension, but I can tell through the clear water that it’s a modest-sized fish. Finally I bring it to hand: a 10-inch rainbow, bright as a diamond in the brilliant alpine air. I admire the fish, then slip it back into Island Lake.

I caught another dozen rainbows, missed just as many takes, and am getting my rhythm with the rod. I tied on a Copper John nymph below the hopper imitation to appeal to trout that might be too bashful to take a dry fly and catch another handful of small rainbows on the bottom pattern.


After a couple hours, Troy and I opt to pull stakes and move to the next lake in the chain, Night Lake. We hike a mile over boulders and marshes, and while Troy sets up for a wide scenic shot I find a huge boulder on the shore of the lake and make a few fruitless casts. I’m wondering where the fish are when my Parachute Hopper disappears, and I set the hook. It feels like a substantial fish, and burns line off my reel.

I finally wrangle the fish in to shallow water and get a look at it. It’s a bright brook trout, a good 13 inches long and surly as a hungry wrestler.

We get photos of the fish and I catch another handful of brookies, all starting to color up for their fall spawn. Our light is fading, and I aim to reach Snyder Lake up the trail by dark. My sources have told me that Snyder holds golden trout, but it’s clear after a mile that we don’t have the time or the light to get that far.

So we opt to fish a shallow marsh that’s almost boiling with rising fish. I tie on a tiny, size 18, Mosquito and cast to the fish. I miss my first three fish, then hook a hand-sized brookie. It’s the first of 10 fish in as many casts, the best kids’ fishing hole in the world, located at the top of the world.

Troy and I hike out under the rising full moon, tired, happy and not quite ready for the 30-mile drive to Cooke City, where we’ll bunk at the Elkhorn Lodge, eat at the legendary Beartooth Cafe, and prepare for tomorrow’s trip to Yellowstone Park’s Slough Creek.

It’s been a satisfying day. We’ve been in to trout on almost every cast in the most stunning scenery you can imagine. Can the rest of the trip live up to this opening? Stay tuned to find out.