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Running On The Fly: 28.3 Miles, 11,000 Feet and High Alpine Tenkara Fishing

Running On The Fly: 28.3 Miles, 11,000 Feet and High Alpine Tenkara Fishing

Tenkara Community Submission Written by Sean Jansen

I’ve been fascinated by the combination of activities. Just picking up my fly rod and going down to the local lake or river doesn’t excite me anymore. But combine a 5-mile hike into the wilderness to an unfished stretch of stream and the bags are packed. I’ve been fortunate to backpack and fly fish, hike, cast, stand-up paddle to remote shores, and even use a bicycle to cruise the local highway to access remote stretches of river. But one sport I haven’t been able to combine with fishing is trail running. I run daily after work, on the weekends, and between casts. It’s my therapy. Never did it occur to me to combine it with fly fishing, until now.

I purposefully run trails near fishable water, loving the chance to view a rising trout or spot one cruising a clear mountain stream. Through running near these trout streams, the idea sprung to go high alpine tenkara fishing, and longer runs in my life began. 20 miles atop a ridgeline for fun, a 15 miler to tag a peak for sunset, and with the advent of running packs and the tenkara collapsible fishing rods, an 11-miler to a high alpine lake.

Before, it was the rod that hindered me the most. Weight, collapsibility, and gear needed for a successful run seemed cumbersome. But with the lightweight system of tenkara, a mountain trail in central Montana beckoned for a single day, 28.3-mile run along the most incredible lakes and streams in the state. Boasting native cutthroat trout that frequently break the ruler stick with colors so vibrant your camera’s RGB system will have trouble contrasting its vibrancy. And just for fun, I roped my girlfriend in to join.

The trail began by crossing a gorging river through a thick patch of forest. A rickety old bridge marks the start and we cross while slowly warming up our muscles and bones from the mid-30-degree air and the cool shade of the forest in the dawn of the morning. The morning light of the sunrise slowly began to peer over the 12,000-foot peaks of the range and down onto the wooded trail, creating god beams of light through the canopy and branches of the lodgepole pine forest. The first three miles of the trail were thickened by a forest of pine with little to no elevation gain. This was worrisome as the trailhead elevation was only 8,000 feet and our highpoint, a mere nine miles into the trail, is at nearly 11,000. So a climb was to be as abrupt as the mosquitoes and horse flies given each break for food or bathroom we took.

We slowly began to climb and the trail of winding flat dirt through trees turned rocky as we cairn followed the trail through wide-open vistas. A creek was our guide to the first lake six miles in. The lake and the creek named the same, boasted fish rising, rippling the surface in the early morning light. In fact for the weather, we got extremely lucky. The night previous granted several hours of thunder and rain, gifting us clear blue skies for the run. Most importantly, it boasted a smokeless atmosphere for epic clear viewing of vistas and health for our lungs on this ultra-marathon of a fishing experiment.

With three more miles until the high point of the day, my salivation got the best of me and I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to cast a few. I knew the struggle of wanting to fish everything would be impossible due to the trail miles that needed to be completed in order to get to our car at the end before dark. So I had to map out certain fisheries I wanted to hit while mildly weeping at others that needed passing. But with a quick setup of the Hane, and a small grasshopper pattern tied on, by 830 in the morning I had three small brook trout in five casts. With my girlfriend setting a ten-minute alarm for fishing, I wrapped the line around the rod, hooked the hook onto the cork, and collapsed it, slipping it into the shoulder strap of my running pack and began running alongside the alpine flowers and other small streams and ponds of this elevated beauty.

With the elevation steadily rising, my lungs were ill affected. Even at 10,000 feet, I wondered if the sheer beauty of granite, water, and flowers took over the pain sensors and replaced them with dopamine-filled creativity of casts and shutter releases.

I annoyed my girlfriend at times stopping to shoot photos of the kaleidoscope of color the flowers painted on the landscape. With rare clear blue skies and Indian Paintbrush in bright pink coloring the landscape, we averaged a 30-minute pace for that particular mile.

We tried our best to average a 20-minute mile. A fit person can easily hike that speed but we wanted to consist that with stopping and fishing. In the end, we somehow managed to stay within that realm, but with the variety of shots and fishable water abundant, I wish I could have stayed forever. The high point came and went and with a 20-mile slow descent through some of the most delicious alpine fishing environments in the state, my running and fishing wanderlust took over and the fun run of casts down to our car began.

Ask any runner and the sheer bliss of the downhill racetrack on the trail is likely the reason many run and dream about when approaching new trails. The uphill is the hardest, testing your strength and endurance while mentally challenging you to stay on course. Because of that, many runners will power hike up a steep portion of the trail and then run the flats and down hills. For our long run, we agreed to run the mild up hills and flats and down hills, but walked the steeper, harder sections. We wanted our energy to last to the car and by no means were we out to set a trail running, “FKT.”

An FKT in the running world stands for Fastest Known Time. Meaning if you set an FKT on a trail, you hold the fastest time to run it. We weren’t out to set one of those. In fact, we joked about setting an FKT as the “Fishiest Known Time.” That was the point of our run, to enjoy the mental bliss of trail running coupled with the sheer beauty of Montana’s high country through some of the greatest alpine trout fishing in the lower 48.

Our smiles ripped across our faces while hop-scotching our way down the trail from one lake to the next. Finding our footing was arguably the hardest part of the run as all we wanted to do was look up and take in the beauty. Yet the large stones on the trail begged our attention and luckily neither of us finished the trail with any serious injury. A few small trips and a couple sections walked through but aside from that, the only injury I endured was personal.

I passed and ran through some sections in order to get to one particular drainage. A massive waterfall marked the halfway point of our day and once the timing was figured out, fishing gave way to more of our time. With the tenkara rod easily set up once again, the casting began at the mouths of the creeks flowing into the lakes.

The lakes nearby the trail are quite large for alpine. So to fish properly, one would arguably need a belly boat or collapsible packable raft to explore its shores that are often too steep to walk. But on the trail, the only real fishing access points were at the creek mouths. The cold and cascading water into the lakes offered a literal conveyor belt for insects to flush into the lakes and many of the trout sit at these mouths and filter through insects of choice. My weapon of choice all day was the grasshopper, and before long, the drift floated right on the edge of the current when the explosion happened.

All I remembered was color. The explosion of the water and the flash of a bright yellow engulfed my senses and dulled my reaction. But because of the large nature of the grasshopper, the dulled reaction was a blessing. Many of the takes I got on this trip were missed. With tenkara, there is no drag, no excess line, and hardly any room to mend, therefore the type of fishing you do closely resembles Euro-style nymphing. The takes are quick and abrupt, stirring confusion and frustration with each miss, but this explosion however was one to remember.

I almost didn’t want to believe that a 20-inch fish could live near 10,000 feet. But with the hook set, the drag-less tenkara battle with a large Yellowstone cutthroat trout began. Each time the fish attempted to run, I had to run out into the water to give it all the line it needed. With no drag, the fight was equally battled and endured on both ends. A dozen or so times the fish came close enough for capture, yet at the last minute, while reaching for the tippet, the fish would run again. Finally, after a long battle, my whispers of prayers and begs to hold the barbless grasshopper in its jaws failed and the fish swam off as if we’d never met.

Throughout the rest of the day, many of the scenarios were similar to this but I did of course land a few that were well worthy of the trip. The bright red slash under their gills was their most revered paint, with the added deep hews of camouflage of their tan backs. Their gill plates had everything from bright reds to vibrant browns and stunning yellow mixed with spots. The bodies were as if an artist dipped each bristle in a different color and then waved their brush on the canvas, letting the colors fly to wherever they land. One drainage, in particular, had a fish that I am certain nowhere in the U.S. has.

Many of the lakes themselves have a healthy population of the gorgeous Yellowstone cutthroat trout, but one, in particular, had a waterfall cascading down from a separate drainage. And the lake water that cascades down has a population of golden trout. So the fish in this particular lake has populations of Yellowstone cutthroat/golden trout hybrids. And the colors matched to prove it. Like the paintbrush artist described but adding the color to a canvas already painted with the gorgeous hews of a sunrise on a cloudless day.

In total, I lost count of the fish caught but remembered the variety. I started the day with a few brook trout then at midday got into the Yellowstone cutthroat at altitude. Down the backside, the cutthroat faded to the Yellowstone golden hybrid then onto rainbows and Yellowstone cutthroat rainbow hybrids to the car.

The scenery throughout was stunning. Whether it be the landscape we ran through, lakes stopped at, or the trout showing off their beauty, each step was worth every ounce of effort to complete the trail. It took us 28.3 miles up to 11,000 feet and through one of the most beautiful mountain ranges I’ve ever fished.

The trail made such an impression on me that I went back to one of the lakes just a few days later to cast out to a few more. I am grateful for the opportunity for my body to hold up for such a long amount of time and to take the 65,000 steps needed to finish. This is the first of many endeavors to be made via running to access remote stretches of water. Shortly after the run, the maps were instantly pulled out, and we’re already looking for other drainages and trails to pursue for a full day’s venture in the mountains chasing high alpine trout.

Check out the video recap from the day below:

Article and photos from Sean Jansen, an avid runner, angler, and writer based in Bozeman, Montana.
Follow along with his adventures on Instagram at @jansen_journals.

Tenkara Rod: HANE™ 10ft10in (330cm)