Destination: Off the beaten path

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Lake fishing in our area is pretty good right now. Most of the popular lakes and reservoirs are producing good numbers of nice fish. Some places can get pretty crowded at times, though. If you are tired of the crowds yet want some good fishing, perhaps you need to find a lake that is off of the beaten path. Watch Lake near Randle might be what you are looking for. It might even be more than you're looking for!

Watch Lake is less than three miles, as the crow flies, northwest of the town of Randle. But anglers are for the most part neither crows nor able to fly, and must therefore find a different way to get there. That's where the trouble begins. I visited Watch Lake earlier this week and the trip is best described as something just short of an ordeal. Not all that short, really.

A private road that is owned and managed by West Fork Timber Co. goes to Watch Lake from the town of Mineral to the northwest. Access on that 15-mile stretch of road is strictly controlled and no general public entry is allowed.

Another private road from the south originating near Oliver Creek west of Randle connects into the West Fork system, but all motorized access on that road is also controlled.

At one time there was a Forest Service road from Randle to Watch Lake. For more than a decade, however, the last three or four miles have been washed out and overgrown. It is little more than a trail in many places, with several very narrow, rough spots.

I attempted to drive part of this steep, washed-out road last Sunday and made it about a mile in low-range, four-wheel drive. At that point a front tire blew out from a sharp rock puncturing the sidewall. I managed, with some difficulty, to put on the spare, get turned around, and return home safely. I wouldn't recommend that experience to anyone else.

A couple of days later, with a new tire, I decided to park at the beginning of the road and walk to the lake. It took more than two hours and a lot of huffing and puffing to get there. There is a 2000-foot elevation gain in the first couple of miles. Then the road traverses the hillside before dropping about 600 feet in elevation to the lake, which lies nestled under Watch Mountain at an elevation of 3,560 feet.

During the hike into the lake I met two people driving four-wheelers on their way out. That seems to me to be a much better way of getting to Watch Lake than walking. Although I didn't see them, the pair said they caught four nice trout during a morning's fishing.

Watch Lake is a little less than 15 acres. Most of the shoreline is reasonably accessible by working your way through the huckleberries and short brush that surrounds the lake. Fly-fishing from the shore is possible from many locations. A small inflatable raft or float tube brought in using a four-wheeler or trail bike would be even better. Bait or lures should work as well as flies. The limit is five fish with no minimum size.

Trout caught in the lake will likely be Montana blackspot, a sub-species of cutthroat. There may be other species of trout as well. As with most high-country lakes, the fishing might be a little hit and miss at times. You might catch a few small fish but you could catch some large fish. I have seen some very nice trout come out of Watch Lake.

To get to Watch Lake take Forest Road 75 east of Randle. It begins on Silverbrook Road about 0.2 miles east of White Pass High School. Road 75 is rough in places but passable with a high-clearance vehicle. Follow Road 75 for about six miles to the junction with Road 7561. There is no sign, but it goes uphill to the left. I would not recommend trying to drive past the first switchback on Road 7561. Instead, park near the beginning and walk or take a trail machine for about three and one-half miles to Watch Lake. There are a few other roads leading off from Road 7561 but the route to the lake is well-used and identifiable. Water is scarce along the route, so carry drinking water with you.