​Offgrid Backpack Fishing

Posted by Kevin Estela on Aug 16th 2023

“Gone Fishin’”. You’ve probably heard someone say this and perhaps that expression invokes thoughts of a guy in a row boat with a bucket hat dangling a line over the side. Perhaps that expression makes you think of some drunken buddies using it as an excuse to get liquored up with the fishing part as cover for action. For me, when I fish, I practically become a different person. I live for it and whenever the opportunity arises, I’m going to throw a line. Earlier this year, my friends Orion and Justen reached out to me to do a backpacking and fishing trip in Colorado. Orion knew the area and the three of us hadn’t all been together since 2017. We discussed location, compiled a plan, and at 6:05pm on August 8th, we left the trailhead in the Holy Cross Wilderness for the Lost Lakes chain. The trip turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever been on.

The Plan

Justen and I had to fly in from out of state with his flight originating in Atlanta and mine in Raleigh. Orion picked us up at Denver International Airport, we picked up last minute provisions, and we started the drive to the trailhead. When we hit the ground, we were already over 10,000’ in elevation and under heavy packs, the thin air proved challenging to Justen and me. We didn’t have far to hike but we needed to break trail and bushwhack most of the trip. The woods became dark about ½ way and the possibility of injury increased as we crossed boulder fields and downfall. We all agreed we would take the boulders over the trees any chance we could get. We made it to just outside of legal camping distance from the first lake and our plan was to spend one night there before moving camp to the second lake. From there on, we had 3 nights in the wilderness to catch fish, bushcraft, and catch up on old times.

The Gear

All three of us carried Kifaru Packs with assorted equipment. Justen and I slept in our Litefighter Recondo hammocks while Orion used a lightweight bivy and tarp. We all planned on carrying a combination of spinning and fly rods as well as assorted tackle and nets. Water treatment was handled by Sawyer squeeze filters and Grayl water bottles. While Justen and Orion stuck with traditional freeze-dried foods, I carried heavier Keto meals with the idea my pack would feel lighter on the way out (and it did!). We utilized folding knives like the Benchmade Adamas and Bugout along with Silky Saws and all of us carried some sort of fixed blade as our primary knife. I used a Gossman Polaris, Orion a Cohutta Puuko, and Justen a Mangiafico Baby Brookie. We all carried a trekking pole or set of hiking poles and we brought some critical clothing items like Chaco sandals for wet wading and puffy jackets for warming up when we left the water.

The Fishing

From the first cast to the last, the fishing was absolutely intense. Combined, the three of us caught somewhere between 50 and 75 fish. We used Mepps and Panther Martin Spinners as well as Kastmasters. We used fly and float rigs and just about anything we threw out saw some action. Fishing was best about 15’ from shore where the bottom dropped off to incredible depths. Both Orion and I made our way around the lake to try our luck and we found no change in the aggressiveness of the cutthroat, rainbows, and cutbows. When the daily winds picked up, the fishing was better subsurface. When the winds died down, the fish started rising and were feeding particularly on ants that landed on the water. We limited out each day and we saved the best fish for the fire that evening. All throughout the day, the fishing did not let up and we were uninterrupted by additional guests that would have brought increased pressure on the lake. We contemplated hiking to the next highest lake in the chain but opted out since we could not believe the action we had in front of us.

Lessons Shared

Plenty of people throughout history learned to catch fish. Not all those people learned how to preserve those fish for times when food became scarce. Perhaps one of the most fun lessons to share with Justen and Orion was how to construct a fish smoker. We built a tripod and square lashed the 3 sides with branches before covering the unit with evergreen boughs from a nearby downed tree. We suspended filets of fish and built a small but smokey fire underneath guarding the smoke from the wind with built up rocks. For hours, we tended to the small fire and kept the flare ups from ruining our project. We were rewarded with truly smoked fish that rivaled what could be found in the finest restaurants a few towns over in Vail. We ate well throughout the entire trip and tried our hands at different ways to process fish and cooked it over the fire. Many whole fish were cooked up directly over the flames on a Purcell Trench backpacker grill with nothing more than lemon, salt/pepper, and a bit of avocado oil. Orion packed whole cloves of garlic that ended up roasting over the fire adding an incredible flavor to our wild-caught meal.

Catch and Release

The idea of a backcountry trip with friends drew me in and the obligation of flying out to UT for mobility experience pulled me from the wilderness heaven we discovered. The majority of the fish we caught were released and we too were released from the temporary escape of social media notifications, business emails, and other distractions found on our phones. This type of trip is one that can’t be found with a simple drive-up destination. It is the type of trip that has to be earned. The uphill and mostly dark trek in was replaced with an easy hike out that took less than half the time. We paused to take in the views and the conversation on the way out included discussion about the next trip we take. We may head to UT or we may do some sort of float trip on a river next time. This trip was a great reset for all of us but we know that satisfaction won’t last forever. Soon enough, we’ll be brought back together by some epic trip to the wilderness where it will catch and release us like it did this time.