Two things I love are sea kayaking and fly-fishing. There have been a few rare occasions when I got to indulge in both activities on the same trip, but typically one takes a backseat to the other. One exception was sea kayaking last October between Yellowstone National Park's Lewis and Shoshone Lakes in search of lunker brown trout. The fish lurking in these waters are legendary. So, when the aspens near my Colorado home turned yellow and Canada geese were migrating south, I decided it was time to head to Yellowstone.
"Right about now the brown trout start moving up the Lewis Lake channel," explained Steve Koning as he organized gear in his Jackson, Wyoming, store. "With the first cold weather, they move into the channel to spawn. The males follow the females upstream and eat their eggs. Those are the fish we want to catch."
Koning is co-owner of Snake River Kayak and Canoe, a guiding outfit and retail store that caters to the large summer influx of tourists visiting the Tetons and Yellowstone. He's the classic Jackson outdoor type: athletically built, partially bearded, and nicely tanned; an expert in multiple outdoor sports, he moves with purpose. Outdoor guides are swamped tending to clients' needs, with no time to idle; efficiency of movement is a result. Koning provided the sea kayaks and gear we needed to paddle across Lewis Lake and up the channel to Shoshone Lake, where we planned to camp overnight.
At dawn the next morning we hitched up the trailer and drove into Yellowstone, stopping to get fishing licenses at the Flagg Ranch entrance before arriving at our Lewis Lake put-in.
"Do you ever have any trouble paddling these lakes?" I asked as we unloaded our kayaks on the rocky shore of Lewis Lake.
"You can get some really strong winds and big waves, especially on Shoshone Lake, and the water temperature is in the 40s," he replied, "but if you hug the lee shore you should be okay."
We quickly packed up and started paddling. Three other avid fishermen-Sean, Dylan, and Kina-made up the rest of our crew. We all had one thing on our minds: big trout.
After a calm flatwater paddle across Lewis Lake, we entered the channel leading to Shoshone Lake. Yellowstone in October is serenely quiet and empty. No noisy RVs or loud tourists, just the occasional squeak of a mountain chickadee or drumming of a flicker. We didn't see any other people on the lake or as we paddled against the channel's gentle current. The shores were lined with dense lodgepole pine forests where bald eagles roosted, congregating for the same reason we were, abundant trout.
After about a mile of paddling up the channel, the current became too strong, so we rigged tow ropes and lined our boats upstream. Our chest waders made it practical to walk straight up the middle of the channel through the cold, knee-deep water.
"Wow! Check out the trout!" Sean suddenly hollered. About a half mile from Shoshone Lake we started seeing more and more spawning brown trout in the shallows. We hauled our boats ashore and started fishing. Within a few casts, Kina hooked into a lunker. The feisty fish made a series of wild runs upstream and down, bending Kina's fly rod like a pretzel. After a worthy battle, he landed a beautiful 20-inch brown trout.
The fishing was good for everyone. Dylan worked a hole from which he pulled one big trout after another. Yellow and pink egg-patterned flies, size 14, worked best. We had agreed earlier that whoever caught the most fish in our first session would be treated to a bottle of Jim Beam by the others. Dylan won the bet, catching nine trout in about three hours, the biggest being 25 inches long.
We camped on Shoshone Lake, and snowflakes started falling as we crawled into our tents. A strong wind howled across the lake. Standing dead trees, remnants of the 1988 Yellowstone wildfires, snapped in the biggest gusts and crashed to the forest floor. The temperature plummeted, and I wondered if winter was arriving.
The next day dawned cold and clear, with a light dusting of snow. The beauty of Shoshone Lake in transition from fall to winter was sublime. The lake was glassy, its mirror reflection of puffy cumulus clouds broken only by the wake of a cruising merganser. After a quick breakfast, we packed up our boats and paddled back to the channel, where we pulled ashore for more first-class fishing.
The process of approaching trout can be almost Zenlike. Chapters have been written about the best stalking techniques. Polarized sunglasses are required to cut the glare off the water and see the fish beneath the surface. Once a fish is spotted, you crouch and, with great stealth, slowly creep into position, much like a cat preparing to pounce on a mouse. Next, you must expertly cast your fly just upstream of your target, so it drifts directly in front of the trout's mouth. Then, wham! Hang on for the ride.
Dylan and Sean were in a fly fisherman's zone, casting into quarter-sized spots with laserlike precision. Both caught several big browns. Sean landed another 25-inch fish, matching Dylan's from the day before as biggest of our short trip.
With aching arms and receding daylight, we reluctantly got back in our kayaks and drifted downstream. The fishing had been incredible, and the kayaking serene. While paddling back to Lewis Lake we encountered some other fishermen pulling their canoes upriver.
"How was the fishing?" one eagerly asked.
I didn't have the heart to tell him about all the trophy trout we had landed, or the 27-inch monster we saw in a deep pool. "Not too bad," I replied. "We caught a few."
I knew his look of disappointment wouldn't last much longer.
Getting there: The quickest way to Lewis Lake is flying into Jackson Hole south of Yellowstone National Park. Many major airlines serve Jackson including Delta, Frontier and United. You can get a shuttle into town or rent a car. For more on travel and accommodations in Jackson, go to www.jacksonholetraveler.com.
Permits: You will need to get a fly fishing license and reserve a campsite on Shoshone Lake. Fishing licenses can be obtained at the Flagg Ranch entrance station on the way in.
You will need a backcountry campsite reservation to camp on Shoshone Lake. These sites can be reserved in advance by mail or in person, although in October there generally are campsites available. Go to www.nps.gov/yell/home.htm for information on camping and Yellowstone in general.
Kayak Rentals/Outfitters: Snake River Kayak and Canoe offers fully guided and outfitted trips to the Lewis Lake channel every year. They have all the gear you will need, as well as the fly fishing expertise to help you land a monster brown trout. Contact them at (800) 529-2501; www.snakeriverkayak.com.
Weather: Generally the first few weeks in October is the best time for fishing. Ideally after a cold snap but before the snow starts to accumulate. Plan on a winter camping trip.