Monday, July 9, 2018

Cowbone and Darkhorse Lakes

For a couple of summers solid, I completely focused on fishing mountain lakes. But in the summers since, life's other obligations and summertime joys have been our foci.
But last weekend we made it up to a couple of lakes in the distant Beaverhead Mountains near Salmon, Idaho. We booked the a forest service cabin and had a few days to poke around. Two of the lakes were Cowbone and Darkhorse Lakes. Here's the report I wrote up for the a updated edition of my book:

Cowbone Lake

A pretty westslope cutthroat caught and photographed by Liz at Cowbone Lake.
Although less scenic than Darkhorse, Cowbone Lake boasts larger trout in my experience. Liz and I landed eager 2-year-old 8- to 10-inch cutts quickly on a beadhead brown Bugger, and also a big and beautiful 16- or 17-inch 6-year-old. Fish were rising sporadically to no known hatch on the windy early July day we visited. It's mostly tree-lined with a few spots where a backcast is easy. There are a few noticeable dropoffs where anglers might want to toss their flies. I couldn't find an inlet but did find a few small springs around the lake. The outlet heads Cowbone Creek. I don't believe there is natural reproduction here.

Darkhorse Lake

Darkhorse Lake.
Darkhorse is up there with the most beautiful lakes I've been to with its deep silty aquamarine water beneath the talus slope and granite ridgeline that makes up the Continental Divide. It's peanut shaped with the eastern end being shallow and the western side deep. We did best fishing the narrows and the deep end. It also appears to be spring-fed and sans inlet, but the out flow comprises Darkhorse Creek which provides the bulk of the Big Hole River where it exits Skinner Lake. 
We caught small 2-year-old westslope cutts and small wild rainbow trout. If the rainbows can spawn, I don't know why the cutts couldn't but we couldn't find evidence that they do. We didn't find many risers when we were there, but the fish would eat Buggers and little pink stuff. There is a wide open spot on the north west end adjacent to some scree that hosts a beautiful spring waterfall and ample room to cast and eat a sandwich. 

Alpine Lake

Alpine Lake seemed shallow and I don't believe it holds fish.

Getting there 

Most lakes in the Beaverheads are a long way from anywhere, and these two are no exception. From Dillon, head south on I-15 for about 20 miles. Take the exit for Clark Canyon Dam and head west which puts you on Montana Highway 324. Take this for about 20 miles until you get to Bloody Dick Road (sorry for the profanity). Turn right and stay on this as the road gets progressively bumpier and becomes FR 181, past Reservoir Lake to a left onto FR 7330 where you'll see a primitive road sign. FR 7330 was not as good of a road as we'd been told, even up to the creek crossing northeast of Cowbone Lake. There were many downed trees across this road and it was very wet in places. We had it on three wheels at one point and were quite jostled; I'd classify it as a Class II Jeep trail. We drove about 1.5 miles up the road in our Explorer before we parked. From there, we followed the road up to the creek crossing nearest Cowbone and hoofed it off-trail the very steep half-mile to Cowbone Lake. If you're in moderately decent shape, I'd recommend this avenue (with the aid of Avenza Maps). From there, we followed the CDT to Alpine and Darkhorse lakes, and on to the Darkhorse Mine. We took the authorized trail back to the Explorer, which was still fairly steep and much longer. Your distance depends on how far you drive up FR 7330.
Access is also possible by taking Skinner Meadows Road out of Jackson, Montana.
The nearest gas and/or groceries are about 60 miles away, at the truck stop at Barretts on I-15.

For more reports like this, and maps, check out the Flyfisher's Guide to Southwest Montana's Mountain Lakes! Look me up on Facebook to order a copy direct from me.


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