By Sam Larson
The trail to Zimmerman Lake was rough. Late-melting snow was piled thigh deep across the trail, and we were stuck post-holeing through long sections of water-logged slush. In the shady stretches the late spring pattern of melt, re-freeze, and melt left the snow with a thick crust of ice across the top. It would hold my weight for the first few steps but then crack, dropping me to my knees with my arms thrown out, trying to protect my fly rod.
Jeff and I trade places, each taking the lead for alternating stretches. Baxter respects no hierarchy, and jogged back and forth across the top of the snow, tail wagging, happily sniffing at the chipmunk and rabbit tracks that criss-crossed the snow. I crashed through the snowy crust again, splashing ice cold water up my legs. Here the trail existed in seasonal layers. Winter still held the high ground but spring, summer, and inevitable melt were working from below. A freshet, more than a trickle, less than a creek, ran beneath the snow. I could hear it chuckling and burbling away in the icy echo chambers it had carved below my feet. Another post-holed step through the snow ended in ankle-deep runoff and mud and I cursed loudly, envying Baxter’s all-terrain capabilities.
We didn’t come here to hike this trail, to sweat our way up to treeline and a hopefully iced out Zimmerman Lake. We came to Cameron Pass for grayling, in search of the spring spawning run up Zimmerman Creek. At the right time, in the right season, a visible tide of fish swims into the estuary and anglers line the banks, casting small dries and beadhead nymphs elbow to elbow. It was, so we had been told, something that we couldn’t and shouldn’t miss but our timing had been poor. An evening spent hip deep in near-freezing water getting spattered with wind-driven rain, and the following morning spent in even colder water with nine other anglers who had also made the trek to to the top of Cameron Pass, had left us with tired casting arms and empty nets instead grayling. So we piled into the Westy, with Baxter hanging his head from the windows in the still-cold morning air, and cruised back and forth on Highway 14 looking for something to do while we waited for the bright, high-altitude sun to warm the reservoir and hopefully lure some grayling up to the surface. That’s how we found ourselves walking up the trail to Zimmerman Lake.
The grayling actually came from Zimmerman Lake, transplanted there as part of a larger state-wide restocking program. But, nature being what it is, and our control over nature being insufficient in most regards, the grayling breached Zimmerman Lake and swan downstream to Joe Wright Reservoir, forming a naturally reproducing population that now provides the grayling eggs for further restocking efforts within Colorado. Since the grayling took so well and so quickly to Joe Wright they were killed off from the higher elevation Zimmerman Lake to make room for what was then thought to be pure-strain greenback cutthroat trout. Several mis-stockings later, and several rounds of rotenone into the bank, Zimmerman Lake is now stocked with what we’re assured is the purest strain of Colorado-native greenback cutthroat that can be found and fished for. Zimmerman Lake holds a breeding population used for greenback stocking efforts around the state and a large sign at the bottom of the trail warns all anglers who take the time to read it that strict catch and release is the rule of the day.
But right then the trail was getting the better of me. It was short but steep, heading towards treeline through thick stands of pine. We had set a hot pace from the trailhead so we could drop a family of hikers with spin rods and dogs, and it was starting to feel like a bad idea. The sun climbed higher and I started to regret the waders, hip pack, and layers I’d been wearing all day. The three groups of anglers we passed on their way down didn’t help. Our hellos, always offered with a wave of our fly rods, were met with slow head shakes and flat stares. “It’s beautiful up there,” one man said as he stomped past us through the mud and snow. “Perfect place to spend a morning casting at nothing.” Jeff and I traded some good natured jabs at the other angler’s supposed skills, wondering aloud whether they were telling us the truth or engaged in some kind of angling mind game, trying to scare us off from a favorite spot. Despite the fact that we hadn’t showcased our fishing abilities on this trip we supposed that we have a decent chance. It was later in the day, we said the water is warmer now. We have the right flies, the right attitude, and so on. Besides, I joked, we already spent most of the morning casting at nothing.
I was disappointed by my first sight of Zimmerman Lake. At the top of the trail we stood on a narrow embankment that edged the lake. A culvert flowed beneath us, its corrugated metal snout sticking out into the lake, channelling overflow into Zimmerman Creek. In its lower reaches it would become the local grayling population’s preferred spawning ground. All that aside Zimmerman looked like your average high-altitude glacial pothole. Stark buttes and cliffs faced us from across the water to the south, their caps well above treeline, and the ring of shaggy pines that surrounded the lake framed the deep blue, cloudless sky. The trees came right down to the bank preventing any kind of long-reaching backcast, and the shore itself dropped away quickly, so when we finally waded into the lake we were hip deep before walked five feet off the bank. Pollen and debris floated in a thick ring of scum around the banks and we swept clear paths through it as we waded. The eastern edge of the lake was thick with a rat’s nest of dead timber that clogged the water with branches sure to catch and hold fly line. And, in direct confirmation of what we had heard and what we knew, if only in the darkest, most honest corners of our hearts, there was not a single fish rising across the entirety of Zimmerman Lake.