Paddling Ross Lake

“How deep is the water we’re on right now?” I asked the dude driving the water taxi from the landing to the resort.

“Oh, about 500 feet,” he answered.

My interest was piqued.

Ross Lake is a lake because of a dam. The Skagit River was dammed for hydroelectric power in 1949. With that, 24 miles of river valley was flooded, from Diablo to the Canadian border. Ross has two main access points for boats, a launch just above the dam and another in Canada.

On a telephone pole at the landing above the dam, a phone is attached beneath a streetlight. We dialed a three-digit number to speak with a woman a half mile away across the lake at Ross Lake resort. To get to the resort, you can embark on a three-mile hike or arrange a water taxi for $2/person plus tip. Before we knew it, we were speeding across the lake toward the resort.

The plan was to canoe for a couple hours before heading down highway 20 to catch cutthroat on the fly. Ross Lake Resort is a magical place. Its headquarters, eight rentable units and two utility buildings float atop 60-year-old cedar timbers. The valley banks are too steep for structures and the ever-fluctuating water level from hydroelectric demands require a floating resort. Mountains towered around us. Emerald water shimmered in the July sun.

While we were reserving a canoe at the resort front desk, a fly rod was hanging from the rafters. Just as I asked if the lake was fishable, the resort’s owner Tom walked through the door. He seemed happy to hear that I was interested in fly fishing Ross Lake. He told me of the rainbows and bulls that swam the waters. He rigged me up a 7wt rod and reel with full-sink line and a silver spoon. Trolling, he said, is the most effective method of catching trout in the lake.

With two hours of time to spend on the water, we paddled to a reef due west of the resort. When the river was flooded to make way for the dam, mountain ridges were submerged and transformed into reefs. This is where fish reside.

Ross gets quite windy in summer afternoons. We were geared for 30 mph sustained winds, but were met with gentle breezes. The view alone made it difficult to maintain a straight line. Our wake curved and bent like the mountains on the horizon. The anything-but-straight route took us to the reef. I wasted no time in wetting my line and starting to paddle.

“When a trout hits, it will hit hard,” Tom told me. “If you don’t hold your rod, you’ll lose it.”

We paddle SW along the shore, staying about 50 yards out. Looking into the water, you can see where the water drops off. I let my spoon dangle about 100 feet behind the stern of our canoe. This was the first time I’ve trolled with a fly rod. Trolling for northerns is commonplace at my family’s Wisconsin cabin with crankbaits and spinning reels. Trolling with a fly rod in a canoe is a different story altogether.

My straight rod suddenly arced. Fish on.

We would battle for a couple minutes, then nothing. Twice we went through this cycle and twice I feared I lost the fish. After 10 minutes, a brilliant chrome rainbow was in the net. It was the biggest trout I’d ever caught. Its 18 inches of muscle was covered in silver scales that reflected my green shirt. What a beautiful fish.

Our time together was short. Within a minute or two after I landed the rainbow, it was back in the lake swimming to its home and we were on our way back to the resort, then back to the hiking trail. I’ll never forget that fish.

If you find yourself in the North Cascades, take some time to visit Ross Lake. Enjoy the lookout on highway 20 or venture down to the water and across the lake to the resort. Coming from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, there is nothing like Ross Lake.