Hiking the Uinta Mountains - Off the Trail

If you do much hiking in Utah's deserts or canyons or mountains you know that a trail is your friend. We had that concept reaffirmed recently when we "bushwhacked" into a couple lakes in the High Uintas, looking for big, wild cutthroats. It was a great outing, strenuous, scenic and fun.

And the fishing? It was a bit slower than expected. Still, we caught a lot of fish — wild cutthroats which were highly colored and as pretty as any trout I've ever seen. And we saw rugged country which people who aren't willing to push through the bushes will never have a chance to see. It was fun.

We met at Spirit Lake, on the NE side of the mountains, on Thursday, August 18, and started our trek the next morning. We hiked via the old Burnt Fork Trail from Spirit Lake 6.1 miles to Burnt Fork Lake, where we made base camp and fished. Burnt Fork usually offers good fishing, but we found it pretty slow. We picked up a few pan sized cutts casting lures around the shoreline, and everyone who tried caught several fish casting flies into the moving water near the inlet.

On Saturday we pushed upstream to Boxer and then across to Crystal, both small, shallow lakes which are not accessible by trail. Both are within a mile of Burnt Fork, and easy to find. It rained hard every day we were there, and both these lakes were muddy, with very poor fishing.

Our luck changed when we fished Burnt Fork stream down below the confluence with the creek which comes out of Crystal. The stream winds through beautiful meadows and offers a good number of riffles and pools. There are fish everywhere in that stream. We caught 6-10 inch cutthroats out of every hole — often two or three fish from bigger pools. We caught them on small spinners, nymphs and little dry flies. We caught so many that we lost count of the number.

It was raining hard when we started fishing the stream, and the action stayed hot until the rain stopped. Then it seemed to slow a bit, but was still good.

It's easy to find lakes in the Uintas where fishing is fast for stunted, overpopulated brook trout. But we wanted more than that. We specifically chose lakes which are not stocked, where wild cutthroats reproduce naturally, knowing the fishing would not be as fast but hoping we could catch larger fish.

Lakes in the Uintas often produce hot fishing one minute and slow the next. You have to expect that and plan for it. Give yourself enough time to wait for the lake's mood to change. And if one lake is slow, usually another close by will be good.

These are good concepts, which usually work — but not for us on this trip. We tried Burnt Fork on three different days and it was never good. Boxer and Crystal were muddy the whole time we were there, and so they didn't really have a fair chance, action was very slow. It was disappointing.

In frustration we pushed farther from the trail, over to Snow Lake. Snow is pretty easy to get to from Island Lake, but it was difficult finding it from Burnt Fork. It was also rugged going, through brush and up steep slopes.

By the time we found the lake it was late Saturday afternoon, and we had to get back to Burnt Fork before dark, so we never had time to really fish it. Still, I caught a 12-inch cutthroat there — my biggest fish of the trip.

I'd like to get into that area again, this time making base camp at Island and pushing over to Round, Snow and other lakes in the area. I'm betting Round and Snow have some bigger fish.

Island has offered good fishing in past years, but has been just average lately.

The Burnt Fork Trail system has been abandoned by the Forest Service. Deadfall hasn't been cleared for years. Several spots are very rocky. People bring horses over the trail but it's rough going. The trail is faint in spots — it can be difficult to follow.