The Fishing Guide to 800 High Lakes in Colorado
STILLWATERS NEAR THE RABBIT EARS
Visible from Highway 40 near Rabbit Ears Pass, the Rabbit Ears formation resembles two ears protruding prominently from a bunny's head. The ears have always intrigued me because of their prominence, standing seemingly like sentinels guarding the pass from the north. In reality, they are just the eroded remains of an inanimate hunk of pyroclastic debris ejected from a long dormant volcano. I hiked to them, skied to them and marveled at their geology for over 40 years. I also fished a little around them in years past. However, two years ago I decided to fish there more and discovered 15 lakes and reservoirs teeming with trout.
The area around "the Ears" lies within the Routt National Forest and is bound by the Mount Zirkel Wilderness on the north, Highway 40 on the south and the forest boundaries on the east and west. Elevations are lower than in other Colorado mountains—between 8,500 and 10,600 feet. The rolling topography is covered with forests of lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, Engelmann spruce and aspen interrupted by montane parks with lush grasses and lovely wildflowers. Nestled within the forest are natural lakes and reservoirs stocked with rainbows, cutthroats, cutbows and brookies. Most reservoirs are accessible by road, but lakes require short hikes.
Because many of the stillwaters are at lower elevations, they fish best early season before rising temperatures push fish offshore into cooler waters, rendering a fly rod ineffective from shore. But don't think that early season means an early calendar date. The nearby Steamboat Springs Ski Area receives about 300 inches of snow per year, and snow persists longer in these more northerly mountains. Drive-up reservoirs can be accessed in June, but in mid-July of 2019 following a winter of average snowfall, we ran into snowdrifts at 10,000 feet. Hence, gaiters and post-holing may be on the backcountry agenda. Early season tactics include belly boating in reservoirs and dragging Woolly Buggers, black Marabou Leeches or wet flies on full-sinking lines. During the summer, I successfully fished dry flies such as the Humpy, Black Gnat, Elk-hair Caddis, Parachute Adams and Royal Wulff. Waders can help shore anglers. Here are directions to stillwaters near "the Ears" and their fishing conditions based on my experiences, observations in the excellent book Fishing from the 'Boat by Peter Parsons and Scott L. Ford (2019, Streamside Publications) and recent stocking data provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
RABBIT EARS PASS: From the intersection of Highways 40 and 14, drive 0.5 miles west on Highway 40 to the pull-off on the right for Muddy Pass Lake, an 11-acre, 10-foot-deep impoundment whose waters are not as unappealing as its name suggests. Muddy Pass Lake is stocked each year with thousands of 9- to 10-inch rainbows and is worth a quick stop for an hour or two of fishing. I had no trouble fly-rod fishing from shore to rainbows taking caddis, and I hooked a large fish, but it escaped. Continue west on Highway 40 for another 3.9 miles and turn right toward Dumont Lake. Drive 1.1 miles, while looking for moose in the willows, and turn left toward the Dumont Picnic Area and Dumont Lake. Go about 500 yards to Dumont Lake, a 35-acre reservoir with a maximum depth of 20 feet. In years past, Dumont produced some nice brook trout, but now it holds primarily catchable rainbows—3,000 of which Colorado Parks and Wildlife stocks each year. Some trout overwinter despite a tendency for the lake to winterkill. Belly-boat fishing is best.
From the turnoff to Dumont Lake, drive 0.2 miles east to Forest Road 311. Take a left on the gently rolling road that becomes bumpy, rutted and narrow in its upper reaches and has some steep drop-offs and nowhere to pass oncoming vehicles. I suggest a vehicle with medium ground clearance. Drive 4.2 miles to Base Camp at 10,000 feet and parking for the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (Trail 1101). Hike 0.5 miles northwest and downhill about 300 feet to Fishhook Creek and then head north on the trail for 1 mile to Fishhook Lake, gaining 150 feet. This 15-acre lake is shallow enough to see most of its bottom and its 6- to 8-inch brookies dimpling the surface. Fly-rod fishing from shore is difficult due to a broad and shallow shelf, so hike just past the lake and take the 0.2-mile spur (Trail 1133) on the right to Lost Lake. Although nestled in the trees, the 15-acre lake is hardly lost. There are some drop-offs along shore, but waders are helpful to fish off the broad, shallow shelf on its eastern shore. A former producer of fat brookies, I only saw one—a nice 15 incher. Instead, I caught 14-to 16-inch cutthroats on dry flies. One mile north of Fishhook Lake on Trail 1101 lies the 10-acre Lake Elmo. At a maximum depth of only 8 feet and with a bottom of soft, iron-stained mud and decaying mats of vegetation, it was difficult to fish for its 5- to 9-inch brookies. Watch for pipits and snipe nearby. Continue another mile north on Trail 1101 to Round Lake and Lake Percy or reach them from the east as described on page 55.
GRIZZLY CREEK GUARD STATION: From its intersection with Highway 40, drive northeast on Highway 14 for 20.6 miles and go left on County Road 24. In 7 miles the road is dirt. It then forks left and passes the 100-year-old Grizzly Creek Guard Station in 3.5 more miles. One can rent it from the Forest Service (970-723-8204). The campground once here was removed. Continue 0.2 miles on this road, which becomes Forest Road 60, and take a right on Forest Road 615. Travel 2 miles to a wide spot on the right shoulder where a decommissioned, overgrown and unmarked forest road is blocked by large boulders. A half-mile hike leads to Burns Reservoir—a shallow, weed-choked, muddy pond where I caught no fish.
About 0.2 miles farther north on the right side of Forest Road 615 is Forest Road 619, leading a short distance to the lily pad-choked, 9-acre Tiago Reservoir. A belly boat is needed to fish for its catchable rainbows and tiger trout. About 0.6 miles farther north is 16-acre Teal Lake (a fee area) with catchable rainbows and some cutbows. I found a belly boat useful. Drive 2.6 miles more to the end of the road and parking for the Grizzly-Helena Trail (Trail 1126). In 100 yards, ford Beaver Creek and hike 1 mile to an old road grade on the left. Hike this for 2 miles, climbing about feet to Agua Fria Lake—a 28-acre reservoir at 10,000 feet with fluctuating water levels, small brookies and small lakers.
Backtrack on Forest Road 615 to its intersection with Forest Road 60. Take a right (west) on Forest Road 60 and drive 0.8 miles. Bear left towards Hidden Lakes Campground while turning on Forest Road 20. Drive 3.4 miles to Forest Road 20.IJ, a steep, rutted 4WD road on the left that descends 400 yards to 10-acre Stambaugh Reservoir. The reservoir is partially on private land so don't trespass. A belly boat is needed to catch its 9-inch rainbows and cutbows. Continue 0.8 miles south on Forest Road 20 to Hidden Lakes Campground on the left and day parking. The 10-acre Hidden Lake is stocked with cutbows and catchable rainbows averaging 9 inches. Some fish are much bigger. Bushwhack 150 yards southeast through dense timber to Ross Reservoir for cutthroats, but it can be drawn down substantially at times.
Continue 3.2 miles south on Forest Road 20 to the Lake Percy Trailhead (Trail 1134) on the right. Hike 2.5 miles west, climbing 1,000 feet to 17-acre Lake Percy and 0.4 miles farther to 16-acre Round Lake with minimal elevation gain. I caught 9- to 11-inch brookies in both lakes, but broad, shallow shelves and adjacent trees made fishing difficult from shore with a fly rod. Continue 0.3 miles west and intersect the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, which heads south to Lake Elmo and Lost Lake (discussed on page 53) or continue west for 1 mile, dropping 200 feet to Long Lake—a 30-acre reservoir where I caught 7- to 10-inch brookies. The better fishing is along the northwest shore closer to the dam.
BUFFALO PASS: Follow directions to Buffalo Pass on p. 46 and take Forest Road 310 south. Go 3.2 miles on this rough road to an unmarked trail on the right between a culvert and rock outcrop. Hike 1 mile to Lake Dinosaur, climbing 100 feet. I caught plenty of 9- to 12-inch brookies on dry flies. Continue on the road for 0.8 miles to the 79-acre Fish Creek Reservoir and pay a day-use fee. I caught 8- to 9-inch brookies. Belly boats help. From the southeast corner of the reservoir, hike 1.5 miles south on the gated road to Long Lake or access it from the Percy Trailhead.
All the hiking trails in this section are open to mechanized travel, including ATVs, dirt bikes and mountain bikes. I saw no motorized vehicles but did encounter mountain bikers. Being a mountain biker myself, I saw the allure of these trails—rolling single tracks, fresh air and great scenery. Those I met were a courteous bunch, and I chatted with one at Lost Lake. Being an angler and hearing of my success, he vowed to bring his rod next time. However, when I offered to swap the use of my fly rod for the use of his bike, he gave me a blank, wide-mouth stare. He didn't know what he was missing.