Guest Blogger: Chuck Lee, New Mexico

There are dozens of small alpine lakes dotted throughout the Sangre De Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico. At the end of a hot summer in 2017, me and two friends, Craig and Eric, backpacked to one of these lakes to catch some fish. It was intended to be a celebration of sorts as Craig was recently married and Eric was moving out of state a few weeks later. I was just happy to be along for the ride.

We got advice about techniques and flies from the local fly shop and were all set. I even bought an inflatable raft; an advantageous piece of gear, I thought. We left before the sun came up and started on our 8 mile hike from the ski basin outside of Santa Fe. 

Craig managed the 25 pound raft rolled up like a sleeping pad on top of his already heavy pack. We used the aluminum paddles as walking sticks as we traversed the rugged mountain side. After several hours we finally reached the lake and found a campsite about 50 yards up from the lake. We all stood in awe of the beautiful setting and the high alpine rocky mountain lake. Cold, clear water surrounded by rocky cliffs.

We spent some time resting and getting camp set up, but were all eager to do some fly fishing! We took turns blowing up our inflatable raft, which took a while considering our already exhausted lungs. After about 30 minutes our little dinghy was lake worthy. We thought it would be a good idea to fit everyone in this tiny raft, which seemed smaller with 3 men and a dog inside.

Eric and I rowed while Craig sat in the middle with the dog. We slowly paddled up shore and took turns casting wooly buggers against the jagged shoreline. The lake was still and we had no strikes nor did we see any fish. I don’t remember what the weight limit was for the raft but we were definitely pushing that boundary. Any wind or waves would have surely capsized us. With this belated realization, we decided to paddle back and offload one of us and the dog to fish from shore.

We rotated people in and out of the raft and fishing from shore. As the afternoon progressed we had not hooked anything but were still hopeful. This was Craig’s first time fly fishing and Eric and I took turns teaching him the basics of casting. I’ve never cared for teaching others how to fly fish; I’d much rather be fishing myself. But after all, Craig had carried the raft and sat next to the dog on our perilous maiden voyage. And as a seasoned angler, I felt proud to teach him the ins and outs. Also as a seasoned veteran angler, I felt added pressure to at least catch a fish. As the afternoon yielded no fish, that pressure began to build.

The night continued with dinner, stories, jokes, and whiskey. We talked about fishing strategies for the next day. What to tie on, location, depths, weights, etc.–any formula that would give us a sense we knew what we were doing, but in reality none of us knew how to fish this lake.

Once we ran out of firewood and started to get cold we congregated in one of the very small tents to play card games (apparently we have a thing for cramming into confined spaces). We invented a new kind of poker-like game. I don’t remember who won, and with how much fun we had, it didn’t really matter. This happy realization softened the end of the trip.

The next morning we were set on trying all of our much-discussed strategies and techniques. There was nothing we tried that would hook into a fish. We started making external excuses for the lack of action (like any good fly angler; I hope Craig learned a few things about hyperbole). It’s a bad time of year, temperatures are off, not enough cloud cover, too much cloud cover, too windy, not windy enough, bad flies, bad line, bad luck, this goes on and on until we repaired our egos enough to march back to camp empty-handed.

We stayed another night filled with stories, games, jokes and more whiskey. Despite our lack of fish, we enjoyed our time together. None of us felt like fishing the last day but that was ok to us. We still talk about this trip fondly and it holds up to be one of my favorite fishing trips ever even though we didn’t even see a fish. Wish I could remember how to play that card game though.

Photo: From (Left to Right) Craig, Chuck, Eric

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