If there were an award show recognizing the most beautiful places in the world to fish, Rainy Lake would be a nominee. This place is heaven. A high alpine lake deep in the North Cascades. You can find it on the Pacific Crest Trail, just east of North Cascades National Park. The water is clear and blue from glacial melting. Trees line the eastern shore, while a jagged ridge of glaciers, snow fields and two waterfalls line the other three sides of the oval lake. I’m still not even sure why I left.
I fished Rainy Lake a couple days into a camping trip in the mountains. The previous day was spent on a hike through alpine meadows of blooming wildflowers to Lake Ann. We were welcomed to Lake Ann with a mayfly hatch. I didn’t think any fish could find their way up to that elevation, so I didn’t bother bringing my fly fishing gear. You could imagine my surprise to see cutthroat leap out of the water for a bug. One after the other after the other. It was constant fish rising. Lake Ann is a bit smaller than Rainy Lake–about half the size–and about one mile away over a ridge. My fishing gear was in the rental car at the trailhead, two miles and 1,600 feet in elevation below. Reluctantly, I relaxed (or tried to) next to the water and enjoyed the sights of our hike like a normal person.
I made it a point to find my way back to the area the next day with my fly rod. I knew Lake Ann held trout, but Rainy Lake was closer to the trailhead and time was of the essence. This was a bit of a gamble. It was also 97 degrees that day. We hiked to the lake and I diverged from the trail to skirt the tree-lined side of the lake opposite of the mountain. If fish were on the tree side of Lake Ann, I was hoping the same would hold true for Rainy Lake. After five minutes of surveying the water, I didn’t see any activity. I turned my back to find the trail. Two steps later, I found myself facing the lake again on my way around a tree. Rather than standing on sand or rocks, downed trees lined the shore. It wasn’t the safest place to stand, but it was the only way to access the water. Then I saw a rise. A cutthroat snatched a mayfly from the surface. It was on.
I rigged up a dry fly and went to work. On my second cast, I watched a cutthroat emerge from sunken timber, swim six feet to the surface of the water, then take my fly. It was incredible. I’m used to fishing Driftless rivers with stained water where you only see the trout when it hits your fly. Watching cutthroat swim six feet to the surface to take a fly was like nothing I’d ever seen. I watched fish after fish after fish after fish do the same thing. It was incredible. I was catching more trout than I ever have. My pace was 15 fish/hour. I kept track. Every one of them was beautiful.
We stayed until the shadows got long and it was time for dinner. To say it was difficult to leave this place was an understatement. Rainy Lake, man. I’ll be back. I’ll return to fish in heaven once again.