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Red Eagle Lake

Adventure fishing in Glacier Park

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o what is a fishing article doing in the adventure section, you may ask. Adventure fishing? I mean, come on…. Well, I have never subscribed to the idea that adventure activities should be restricted to the young and wealthy who still think they are immortal. I think a trip into Red Eagle Lake in Glacier National Park offers a perfect example of a memorable adventure available to anyone able to shoulder a backpack and headRed Eagle.jpg (15906 bytes) down the trail. My idea of an adventure is any sort of memorable activity that not everybody gets to do, with the chance for an uncommonly gratifying reward (tangible or otherwise), usually taking place on the path less traveled, and by definition involving a degree of risk. Anytime you are messing around water, I suppose there is always a remote chance of drowning, although I think driving a weighted hook into a tender portion of your anatomy with an errant cast is probably the most prevalent risk associated with fishing. That is certainly inadequate to qualify as adventurous in itself, but when you are fishing in prime grizzly bear habitat, the knowledge that there are large carnivores out there that can and do inflict serious harm on the careless or just unlucky adds a whole ‘nuther aspect to a normally somewhat sedate activity.

I have had a fascination with Red Eagle Lake for a long time now, ever since noticing that the state record Westslope Cutthroat trout was taken out of there, a hefty sixteen pounder. Of course, that happened back in 1955, two years before I was born, but no matter. Backcountry lakes in Glacier or anywhere, for that matter, usually don’t get a whole lot of fishing pressure. Unless they suffer a freezeout or some other catastrophic fish kill (which a lake capable of producing a record fish probably wouldn’t be susceptible to anyway), if they were good then they’re probably still good now. I first visited Red Eagle somewhere around 1983, shortly after I was married and in our pre-children days. My wife and I rode horses into the lake, noticing an inordinate amount of extremely fresh bear sign along the trail. Kim suffers from a debilitating fear of bears, the result of too many scary stories told by sadistic relatives around the campfire in her childhood. After passing a couple of near-steaming piles of bear scat along the trail just before the lake, she was in a state approaching terror by the time we got there and all but refused to get off her horse. Being a sensitive kind of guy, I decided I’d better not fish too long, but just couldn’t bring myself to leave without wetting a line. Definitely a Mars-Venus sort of scenario, but we’re still married so I guess she must have got over it. Anyway, I waded out by the inlet and let the current carry a wooly bugger out into the lake. In rapid succession, I caught the two biggest cutthroats I have ever tied into, not sixteen pounders but darn respectable twenty plus inchers. Most reluctantly tearing myself away, we departed.

A return trip has been on my agenda ever since, but I always have a long wish list of Montana places to visit, and for various reasons Red Eagle Lake kept getting shuffled down the list. Finally, during the summer of 1999 I decided that it was time, past time, for a return and that this time there had to be more than 15 minutes of fishing involved. Since it’s eight miles to the lake, an overnight trip was in order. Not surprisingly, Kim refused to even consider the idea, but our son is now old enough, as well as much enamored with fishing, so we packed up and hit the trail.

Red Eagle Lake lies along the east side of Glacier National Park a couple of miles south of Upper Saint Mary Lake. There are a few possible routes to the lake, but the most commonly used one begins just outside Saint Mary. Shortly before the Visitor Center, a road departs to the south, indicated by signs for the Red Eagle trailhead and 1913 Ranger Station, both of which lie at the end of the road about a quarter mile away. As mentioned, the distance to the lake is about eight miles, but it is an exceptionally easy trail, with an elevation gain of only about 300 feet. The first portion of it is on an abandoned road that used to go to a fire lookout on the ridge south of Upper Saint Mary Lake. As you near Red Eagle Mountain the trail descends to Red Eagle Creek, and two creek crossings are facilitated by suspension pack bridges.Bridge.jpg (24177 bytes) Shortly before the lake you climb a glacial moraine; a natural dam that forms the lake. There are two backcountry campgrounds, with four campsites in each, one at each end of the lake. As with all backcountry camping in Glacier, you need to register and have a campsite reserved ahead of time. This can be done months in advance for an additional fee, or at the area Ranger Station or Visitor Center the day before you wish to camp. Half the sites in a given campground are available for advance reservation, with the other half reserved for those who register the day before. Additional details about Glacier’s backcountry camping policies, as well as many other things pertinent to Glacier, is available at

It is possible to cut the distance to Red Eagle Lake by just under half, if you have a boat. You can put in by the boat docks at Rising Sun on the north side of Upper Saint Mary Lake and head directly across to Silver Dollar Beach. The lake narrows at that point, making for a crossing of about three quarters of a mile, but caution is advised. Like all of the east front of the Rockies, this area is subject to violent winds, but this spot is particularly bad since the lake is squeezed between high mountains at this point, creating a venturi effect that adds even more power to the gusts. Storms can come up very quickly in Glacier, and you definitely don’t want to be out on the lake, especially in a canoe or other small craft when the wind kicks up. Assuming you make it safely across, you can head east along the trail following the south side of the lake, which shortly crosses a low ridge and intersects the trail previously described along Red Eagle Creek.

A longer, although exceptionally scenic route is to skirt around the west end of Upper Saint Mary Lake on a trail accessed from either the Baring Falls trail at Sunrift Gorge or another slightly obscure trailhead just west of there. Watch for a stock unloading ramp about three quarters of a mile west of Sunrift Gorge. After crossing the St. Mary River and Virginia Creek just below awesome Virginia Falls, the trail follows the mountainside above the lake, eventually intersecting with the Red Eagle Creek trail as described above. Total distance to Red Eagle Lake is about 10.5 miles.

Most visitors will probably want to use the trail from Saint Mary. This is one backpacking route that doesn’t require abs of steel. We have encountered backpackers along this trail that bordered on both elderly and flabby, and they appeared to be having a good time. I think it’s great to see people like that out on the trail enjoying themselves, and hope that I can continue these adventures well into my senior years.

When my son and I packed into Red Eagle Lake, I was not surprised to find out that a bear alert posting had been issued for the trail. I would say that there are probably always bears in the vicinity, but I was pleased and relieved to encounter no fresh bear sign whatsoever. There were a couple of rotten stumps that had been dug apart and rocks turned over in search of grubs in the lower reaches of the trail, but this activity did not appear to be recent. We didn’t see any bear scat or tracks, and slept like theDucks.jpg (11725 bytes) proverbial babies. The huckleberry crop is exceptionally poor this year, and I suspect the bears were probably at high elevation feeding on moth larva, a favored seasonal food source. I don’t want to overstate or understate the likelihood of having bear problems. Virtually all of Glacier is prime bear habitat, but if you follow normal precautions such as making plenty of noise along the trail, minimizing food odors and keeping your food and cooking equipment suspended from the cable provided at the campgrounds for that purpose, and generally being aware of your surroundings (all fundamental backcountry skills), your odds of having a problem are very slight. Just for perspective, I have spent a great deal of time in Glacier, can still count the grizzlies I’ve seen on my digits (including toes), and have never had a close encounter. Given warning, most grizzlies will avoid humans if possible. In most cases, it’s those surprise encounters that result in maulings. Of course, they are unpredictable creatures and there are no guarantees, but just knowing you are in country wild enough to support a healthy population of grizzlies adds immeasurably to the whole experience in my estimation.

I wish I could report that the fishing was sensational and that we caught truckloads of trophy trout (all carefully released, of course), but that was not to be. The fishing, as well as the weather, is notoriously fickle at high mountain lakes, and our timing seemed a little off in both regards. We had no more than arrived, got our tent up and a tarp suspended over the cooking area when a violent thunderstorm pounded the area. A low pressure area was passing through, which usually screws up the fishing in my experience, although I have also found the fishing can be fabulous just after a rainstorm. We had packed a float tube and small raft along, and when the storm abated we eagerly hit the water. By the time darkness fell about three hours later, we had been blessed with precisely no bites. Not even a nibble. A handful of small fish were rising for a short time, but apparently even they thought better of it in short order.

The next morning we continued our efforts, with similar results, although even the small fish we had seen the evening before were nowhere in evidence. My son, the rabid fisherman, had grown bored and was splashing about near camp while I paddled around in the float tube, trying every fly in my box and trick in my repertoire to entice a bite. While big game hunting I can spend days without seeing game and consider the experience eminently satisfactory, but when I am fishing I want to catch fish, doggone it. The setting was stunning, though, and since as they say, time spent fishing is not deducted from your allotted time on earth, I wasn’t too troubled, although I was plotting how I could write a humorous and ironic article about unfulfilled dreams and trout. I had decided to take one last circuit around the bay in front of camp, when suddenly, my rod jerked down as a trout hit my fly like the proverbial ton of bricks. For what it’sRed Eagle Rainbow.jpg (21950 bytes) worth, at the time I had on a Muddler Minnow with a Beadhead Prince Nymph on a dropper, and the trout hit the Muddler. The fish had been viewing that same fly, as well as everything else I had tried, with obvious disdain for several hours previous though, so I’m not sure if that’s a particularly relevant detail. Alignment of celestial bodies is probably an equally plausible explanation, and I think it was just my time. After a brisk battle, a beautiful 23" rainbow was in the net, and my son had waded into camera range to preserve the moment. As I am fond of saying, hunting and fishing is a metaphor for life, and once again it just goes to show how quickly your fortunes can change. Yes, that was the only fish we caught, but I still consider the trip a success.

People we talked to who had camped there a couple of days previous reported seeing lots of large fish rising, so it appears we caught things at an off moment. It’s apparent that there are still good fish in Red Eagle Lake, though, and maybe you’ll have better, or at least more, luck than we did.

Those with the time and fortitude for a considerably longer trip might want to consider continuing past Red Eagle Lake up Hudson Bay Creek to Triple Divide Pass and then back down to the Cut Bank trailhead, an additional fifteen miles with close to 2500’ elevation gain. That trip is on my list, and will report on it here afterwards. Hopefully next summer; it sounds like a good trip for the new millenium.

See you on the trail.


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