Family Fishing and Backpacking at Alligator Lake

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Here's what might be a tough question: Does fishing add to, or detract from, your family life?

All avid anglers ought to ask themselves that question once in a while. Fishing is a healthy hobby or avocation that has far more admirable qualities than many other hobbies like, say, gambling or going to the ballet (obviously).

But, if a fellow works hard all week and fishes all weekend, his family can become downright neglected. How many fishing widows (or widowers) are out there? How many children don't see much of their fishing father? It's fun to go fishing alone, or with a couple of buddies.

But we all need to do more with our families, right? We need to spend quality time with our kids, teach them the lessons of life and the ways of nature — and find a way to get them from wanting to spend so much time with TV, and at Lagoon and "the mall."

I was able to think these lofty thoughts and contemplate the meaning of life while lounging on the shores of Alligator Lake in the Henrys Fork drainage of the High Uintas. And I had my family with me, at least most of them.

I wanted to introduce my kids to the high country and get them started in backpacking. Alligator Lake is the perfect family backpacking destination, especially if you have very young children.

Some kinds of fishing lend themselves to family participation better than others, although you can involve the family in pretty much all types of fishing. I see a lot of families out trolling in boats. And I see quite a few bank fishing at reservoirs and lakes.

Fly fishermen tend to be more solitary in their fishing. It's hard to get small children involved. But it can be done.

It's also hard to get youngsters involved in backpacking in the high country, but we decided to try. We chose Alligator Lake because it's within kids' hiking distance from the Henry's Fork trailhead and the hike is on a good trail, not very steep. (There's some confusion as to just how far from the trailhead the lake is. The Division of Wildlife Resources booklet says it's 2.5 miles, while it appears to be only about 1.5 miles on USGS quadrangle 7.5 minute series topogaphic maps.)

We talked about the coming trip for a few weeks in advance, getting the kids excited, but warning them that the hike might be a little difficult and that each would be expected to carry something. We had to buy a couple of new sleeping bags and a water filter. I had my big backpack and we had some smaller ones for the kids. We didn't have enough backpacking tents for everyone, so we took a large swath of black plastic in case of rain.

My wife and I were even going to take our 16-month old baby, but at the last minute the baby got strep throat and so I embarked on the Uinta trip alone with five of our own kids, ranging from 5 to 14, plus a cousin (age 12) and a friend (age 15).

It's about a 3-hour drive from the Salt Lake area to the Henry's Fork trailhead, traveling through Evanston, Foft Bridger and Mountain View (all in Wyoming) before getting back in Utah. All the travel is on good roads, although the last 25 miles or so are dirt and the road has a lot of washboards. It's fun to drive through mile after mile of thick forests as you get deep into the back country. Wildlife, especially deer, is plentiful.

We arrived at Henry's Fork trailhead (which, by the way, is the trailhead for the hike to King's Peak, the highest point in Utah) about 7:45 p.m. on July 5. We quickly loaded on our packs and headed up the trail. Even the youngest kids were excited and enthusiastic.

Alligator Lake is about a half mile off the main trail, so you have to watch for a fork (that is not marked) quite carefully after you've hiked in between one and two miles. The USGS Gilbert Peak NE 7.5 minute quadrangle topographic map is helpful.

Some of the older kids hiked ahead, while I prodded our five-year-old and eight-year-old who had developed a stomach ache.

We arrived all in good shape and with still enough light to set up camp. The older boys immediately began fishing with flies and bubbles on spinning gear, using mostly black gnat and mosquito patterns. They got some hits and saw plenty of fish rising and jumping, but didn't bring anything back to camp before darkness fell.

I was kept busy getting six little girls situated for the night. Your own personal fishing time is obviously one of the casualties if you try something like this.

The sky was absolutely clear and it was not very cold, so we didn't worry about putting up the one tent we had. Everyone slept under the stars.

Next morning, the boys were up early and out fishing. They had quick success. Alligator is not such a big lake that you can't walk all the way around it in a relatively short time. It is a good fish producing lake because it is a little lower (10,100 feet) than some of the lakes on up the trail and it has a lot of shallow, water with good aquatic growth. It appeared to be quite fertile and we saw fish that would likely go up to two pounds.

Alligator is about 15 acres in size, with a maximum depth of 30 feet and average depth of 13 feet, according to the DWR brochure. Dense conifers surround the lake and it is quite picturesque. There's a nice meadow at the southern end of the lake and good fly fishing in the shallows in the mornings and evenings.

We saw a big cow moose and her calf in the meadow as we fished the lake. My son walked within 50 yards of the moose, which might not have been a very smart thing to do. The cow eyed him warily and ambled slowly away, obviously not much afraid. We also saw beaver swimming in the lake.

Alligator has brook and cutthroat trout. The cutts are stocked. We caught only cutthroat, ranging up to 13 inches. I think there are bigger fish in the reservoir. We saw them cruising the shallows. Fishing was never extremely fast, but it was fast enough to keep it interesting.

Because thick trees grow right up to the water's edge, it was somewhat difficult to fish with a fly rod except in the meadow area. I tangled a lot of tippets in trees. The kids had better success with flies and bubbles. The fish also liked the black Panther Martin my son used until he lost it.

I caught fish on a black ant imitation and black gnat, and mosquitos seemed to do well dragged behind a bubble.

The kids, or course, had to try to build a raft out of the many logs around the lake. They got plenty wet and by early afternoon were ready to head home.

After spending a day and a half in the cool high country it seemed awfully hot back in town.

There are several other lakes on up the trail from Alligator. Bear, Sawmill, Grass, Island, Dollar, Henry's Fork, Castle, Blanchard and Cliff lakes are all in the Henry's Fork drainage. It's a pretty good hike to most of them, however.

I enjoyed taking the kids, even the small ones, backpacking. It's fun collecting the gear for small ones to use. It's all worth the trouble if I can instill an outdoor ethic and love of nature in my children.