Salty sweat streamed down my forehead, stinging as it reached my eyes as I hurriedly loaded my gear into the back of the truck. It was a typical August day on the prairies — sweltering, scorching, and anything but hospitable.
Soon, I had the truck pointed west on I-80 towards more welcoming climes; the air conditioner set on “max” and the cruise set on 80. The cool breeze felt good on my sweat-soaked T-shirt and short-clad legs. It wasn’t long before I reached Cheyenne and I noticed the temperature had dropped 15 degrees. I cut the air back to normal. By Laramie, I was getting a little chilled and shut off the air conditioning entirely and opened the windows to let in the rapidly cooling atmosphere.
As I exited I-80 and joined Wyoming Highway 130 and headed towards the town of Centennial, the thermometer plummeted and I was wishing I had worn long pants and my Polar-Tec sweatshirt. The scorching summer skies in Nebraska had given way to sullen gray clouds and it was starting to sprinkle. Closer to the rendezvous point, it began raining with more intensity. As I turned into the entrance of Sugarloaf Campground, I cranked up the heat now to keep my knees from knocking together. The thermometer in the truck now read 34 degrees, a far cry from the 90-plus it had registered just a few hours earlier. I was considering making a run for the back of the truck to retrieve my warm clothes when I noticed the rain suddenly had a different consistency to it. The icy splatters on the windshield persisted for several minutes before quickly turning to giant, wet snowflakes. Talk about a change!
The precipitation abated for a moment and decided to make a break for it. I threw down a floor mat to stand on, grabbed my warm clothes and was in mid-change when friends Sam and Wes pulled in behind me. They caught me with my pants down — literally.
COOL FISHING, EVEN IN SUMMER
Winter never really loosens its grip on Wyoming’s Snowy Range. There’s just a short period when it doesn’t get as cold or snow as much and adventurers get to experience this pristine wilderness. But you should never go here unprepared.
“Not much changes over time in the Snowy Range,” commented Wyoming Game & Fish Fisheries Supervisor Mike Snigg. Indeed. Summer is fleeting at best, but during the interim, hikers, naturalists and anglers can enjoy some spectacular scenery and great fishing if they’re prepared and willing to work for it.
“There are more than 100 lakes in the Snowy Range,” said Snigg. “Of those, about 75 are legitimate fisheries and of those, 60 are brook trout lakes.” The brook trout in the Snowy Range lakes are naturally reproducing. Even though the trout have a short growing season and rather limited food sources, they are very prolific. Snigg encourages anglers to keep fish, especially brook trout, which can become over-populated and stunted if their numbers are not kept in check. Anyone that has tasted fresh brook trout will attest that their flesh is sweet, bright orange and delicious. If you make a hike back into the Snowy Range lakes, be sure to bring along some aluminum foil, seasonings and a lemon to sample this delicacy.
Brook trout aren’t the only trout found in the Snowy Range lakes. “The state-record splake came out of Libby Lake a few years back,” offered Snigg. Lakes that are accessible get regular plants of the brook trout/lake trout hybrids and they grow to good size. The splake are aggressive and are introduced to keep the numbers of small brook trout and suckers in these lakes in check.
A few of the Snowy Range lakes were once known for their golden trout. The goldens disappeared when a viable stocking source couldn’t be found, but that has changed in recent years. “We’ve put golden trout in Shelf Lakes 1 & 2 and Bear Lake the last couple of stockings,” explained Snigg. “Previously, we stocked cutthroats in those lakes so there’s probably still a few of those around.” Snigg said that grayling, procured from a lake near Pinedale, are now being stocked in Dipper Lake. The grayling add even more variety to the wilderness cornucopia. The lakes that are off the beaten path in the Snowy Range are stocked via helicopter in alternating years.
Because the growing season is so short, fish in the Snowy Range lakes are aggressive and ravenous, but they’re still not pushovers. Stop and fish where the trail ends at the water and chances are that you won’t catch much. Those places have seen plenty of anglers in just a few short months and the trout there either wise up or end up in someone’s campfire. Get off the beaten path, though, and you’ll find the trout quite cooperative.
“The best time to visit the Snowies would be August,” suggested Snigg. “The bugs should be down then and the weather should be cooperative.” Even then, visitors need to be prepared.
The Snowy Range is located in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest approximately 30 miles west of Laramie and 20 miles east of Saratoga, in south-central Wyoming. The area can be reached via Wyoming Highway 130, which is called the Snowy Range Highway or Scenic Byway, and is open from Memorial Day though October, weather permitting. Two Visitor Information Centers are available to assist tourists and recreational users. One is located just west of the town of Centennial and at the Brush Creek Work Center, 20 miles east of Saratoga.
Evidence of glacial formations and influence abound when traveling on the diverse and scenic Snowy Range Highway. Steep valleys, moraines, exposed and polished bedrock and drumlins are signatures of very different times that once shaped the lands. Intermittent melting and freezing and eventual retreat of the glaciers left kettle ponds and larger lakes that provide the outstanding fishing opportunities today. Most of the lakes can be found at elevations in excess of 10,000 feet.
Though short and sweet, the plant community takes advantage of the abbreviated growing season with an explosion of lush green vegetation, mountain meadows and spectacular wild flower blooms. Herbivores, like elk, moose and mule deer, capitalize on the bounty and are frequent sights in the Snowy Range. Some of the most prolific and lush areas in the Snowy Range are meadows where old beaver dams once existed. As sediments filled the beaver ponds, the open areas provided unfiltered sunlight that causes the meadows to explode with verdant flora that flourishes during the abbreviated window of opportunity.
Because these alpine and sub-alpine ecosystems are so fragile, visitors need to use care. Motorized vehicles are strictly prohibited in much of the Snowy Range. The shallow, moist soils and short growing season means the environs are extremely frail and damage may be severe and impossible to repair. Some of the USFS lands adjacent to the Snowy Range have fewer restrictions on motorized travel. It’s there where other motorized recreational zealots can have their fun.
There are several permanent campgrounds in the Snowy Range where visitors can camp for a fee. The sites are generally not available before early July and reservations can be made at North Fork, Libby Creek, Brooklyn Lake and Sugarloaf. Campground reservations can be made by calling (800) 280-2267. Other USFS campgrounds are available on a first-come, first-served basis. For current fees and availability, contact the nearest USFS office or the Visitor Information Center.
Dispersed camping is allowed in much of the Snowy Range’s backcountry. Camping within 100 feet of streams or lakes is prohibited. Check with the nearest USFS office for additional information regarding dispersed camping rules and regulations.
There are several picnic areas in the Snowy Range available for daily use. The developed picnic areas have toilets, tables, drinking water and fire grills. Some also have fishing, hiking and trail access. To obtain hiking, trail and additional information, contact the Forest Supervisor’s Office at 2468 Jackson Street, Laramie, WY 82070, (307) 745-2300 or e-mail email@example.com
The rain let up just long enough for Sam, Wes and I to get my tent set up. The Sugarloaf campground was full so we found an unimproved site across the road on the Libby Flats. The wind made things difficult, even in the lee of several big fir trees and we quickly stashed our gear inside to prevent it from getting wet and to hold the tent down.
The next morning broke clear and cool, especially for August, and no one was in a hurry to leave the warmth of their sleeping bag. Others apparently were undaunted by the cold as the parking lot at Lewis Lake was packed. We readied our gear and struck out on the trail leading to the Shelf Lakes, some three-miles distant.
The first portion was relatively easy and allowed one to take in the sights without paying too much attention to the trail. The mountain air was crisp, cold, invigorating and pungent. The rising sun shown like a beacon on Libby and Lewis lakes and the still snow-capped peaks. Now I knew what people referred to when they mentioned God’s Country.
The trail became less defined; more demanding. The trail traversed a rocky slide between South and North Gap lakes that featured jagged rocks and irregular, ankle-busting boulders. We cautiously picked our way along the faint trail often marked only by rock pylons. The thin air and uphill climb predicated several stops to catch our breath. A steep rock field between North Gap Lake and the Self Lakes required us to pick our way to the water’s edge and straddle and jump over boulders to reach the divide between the lakes.
One of Sam’s favorite camp spots was between the lakes, but someone was already there when we arrived. As luck would have it, the leader of the group said “We were just leaving.” So Sam and Wes set about putting up their tents and readying their tackle. I had planned on hiking back out by dark so I wasn’t occupied by such details and hurried to wet a line. Friends Mike Rowland and Kathy Pilney came slogging up the trail about the same time to join us.
Shelf Lake No. 1 is crystal clear and pristine like all the Snowy Range lakes. I began by flipping a small spinner out into the crystalline depths and I was sure at any second a remnant cutthroat would pounce on the bait. But 20 casts didn’t produce a single strike. I moved farther down the shoreline and fan cast the area again. Nothing. The water looked beautiful and practically screamed “Trout!” but there were no takers.
Since North Gap Lake was just over the rise, I thought I’d try there. Mike joined me and grabbed my spinning rod while I strung up my fly rod. We worked along the shoreline where the path and overhanging brush allowed us to get to the water. Switching between dries and unweighted nymphs, I roll cast the flies out beyond the drop-off. Nothing. “How could there not be any trout in such beautiful water,” I asked myself. “If they’re not shallow, they must be deeper,” I reasoned.
I replaced the unweighted flies with a Pheasant Tail tungsten, bead-head nymph. I again roll cast the line out beyond the drop-off and let the fly sink. The bead head sunk like a stone and I watched as the long leader quickly disappeared below the surface. Just as the tip of the fly line was beginning to sink, I saw it shoot forward a few inches and I instinctively raised the rod high to set the hook. The rod doubled over under the heft of a spunky trout and I hoisted a 10-inch brook trout to shore. I tossed him in the bushes where my Lab, Keifer, pounced on him like a cat.
The next cast was a repeat of the previous one. Just when the tip of the fly line started to sink, it shot forward again and I set the hook. The second trout was even bigger than the first and it joined its brethren flopping in the greenery. I waved for Mike to come down to where I was. Six more casts produced six more trout.
I told Mike he could do the same thing with the spinning rod that I was doing with the fly tackle. We traded rods and I cast the small jig and twister tail out to the dark water. I told Mike to watch the belly created in the monofilament by the wind. I let the jig sink and after a few seconds the belly in the line suddenly went taunt. “That’s how you do it,” I explained as I reeled in another fat brookie.
Three hours went by in blink of an eye. I hated to quit fishing, but I figured I’d better hit the trail if I was going to be back at the truck by dark. I said goodbye to everyone, wished them luck and told them to enjoy the trout dinner.
The trail seemed much easier, this time headed downhill, and I reached the parking lot in less than two hours. The sun was just slipping behind the mountains surrounding Libby Lake. It had been an exciting and invigorating day. And the best part was, I’d only sampled the tip of the iceberg.