June 26th, 2010- Hilton Lakes
8am to 4pm
My query about Hilton Lakes trail conditions set of a flurry of whys, where's and how's on the Rock Creek Lake Forum. Some good information was passed along by some guys in know but, I figured the lakes were old hat to these guys and, I was shocked to find out I was wrong.
The trail to Hilton Lakes is a crowded place. It seems like the most crowded place that I fish, which isn’t possible if you consider the Twenty Lakes basin, but even in the Twenty Lakes basin I seem to run into fewer folks on the trail.
I got into the lakes a full two weeks behind schedule. The snows this year have really done a number on the Sierra and some areas, like the Tioga- Sawmill area are still packed with snow above 10,000 feet even now. The trail was a slog as always- two and half hours of up and down and up and down.
Most of the folks I met on the trail were coming back from Davis Lake or Hilton Lake #2 but even up at #3 there was a crowd and late in the afternoon on #5 I was joined by a large group. I bypassed Hilton Lake #3; I planned to fish #5 for Goldens and then fish #3 on the way back to the car if I had time. The fish at #3 where in the shallows again, trying to spawn. The lake looked like it had just turned over and was cloudy from the silt that churned up off the bottom of the lake. If the lake had turned over it likely meant that it iced out during the week I had originally planned my trip. Not that I could have made it to the lake, the upper portion of trail was still covered with two feet of snow. Two weeks earlier the entire trail would have been covered.
There were day hikers at #3 and two groups of campers. Not that it mattered as I made my way past them along the faint trail to #5. The trail to #5 follows a chute that, I’ve read, is filled with running water during the early season. This year it was filled with snow, the crusty, unstable kind that holds your weight one minute and drop you into a hole the next. Snow on top, running water underneath, not a good combination. There was a group of people contemplating the accent as I approached.
“Planning on going to the next lake” one of the fellows asked.
“Yep” came my response.
“We’re thinking about it” said the man. “The trail is snowed in. Think it’s safe?”
“You never know until you try” I said as I continued past.
I had no plans to tackle the snow filled chute. I could see some bare granite and figured I’d simply keep to the bare areas and see how high I could get. Well, I got pretty high and in no time I was overlooking lakes #3, #2 and Davis with #4 off in the distance. I was glad the others were discouraged; I’d have the lake to myself…. at least for a little while.
Lake #5 was a magnificent sight. To my right was a small outlet that seemed to flow through some green grass or mossy tundra. The trail follows it down the chute to lake #4. The bank on this side was clear of snow, though a 15 feet wide slab of ice hovered just off the bank for about half its length. The left side of the lake was one long rock fall that ended in a snow bank on the far side of the lake. The snow bank was thick and hung over the lake, a large chunk had fallen off and bits of it were floating in the lake like icebergs.
When I arrived at the lake, there were fish rising a few feet from the rock fall. This prompted me to fish my way to and for a short while onto the rock fall. I could hear running water under the rocks and decided it wasn’t a safe bank to fish from. It gave me the willies for the five minutes that I fished from the fallen stones and as I made my way back to solid ground, a misplaced step dislodged a small stone and sent several larger stones careening into the lake. I couldn’t make my way off the rock fall fast enough.
I managed to LDR one fish on this side of the lake and when the fish started rising on the opposite bank, I moved there. I immediately found a fish actively rising and tossed a favorite fly in its direction. The fish was headed into deeper water so I had to guess at where to place the fly. The wait was agonizing and I had to fight the urge to pick up the fly and find another fish. It took a little longer than I would have liked but the fish sucked in the fly and when it turned its head I set the hook.
I landed a nice Brook Trout and then made my way down the bank to the long layer of ice drifting just 10 feet from shore. The brook trout surprised me, though it shouldn’t have. The beta on these lakes is sketchy at best.
I suspected there might be some fish using the ice shelf for cover so I changed to a soft hackle hares ear and made a cast to the outside edge of the ice. Strip, pause, pause, pause, strip, pause, pause, pause. It was cold and I figured anything in the lake would be moving very slowly and so should my fly. It didn’t take long for the strikes to come. I didn’t land the first several fish and one or two might have possibly been a Golden Trout. They were lighter than the rest and seemed to fight differently but they escaped just as I was bringing them shore to release.
I can only confirm that Hilton Lake 5 holds Brook Trout, healthy, not stunted Brook Trout. Confirmation of Golden Trout in this or the other lakes will have to wait for another trip.
On the way back to the trailhead I stopped and fished lake #3. In my mind when there are fish in the shallows trying to spawn, the key to avoiding spawning fish is to fish the deeper water and drop offs and that’s what I did. Visibility was tough but I was able to sight cast to several fish. I pulled out the same black fly pattern as two years ago and found it just as effective. The action was just as fast and furious as the last time, providing I could spot a fish to cast to. I even caught a fish that could genuinely be called a rainbow - golden hybrid. It was a pale yellow but will lots of small spots below the lateral line. Maybe lake #3 does hold Goldens after all......