I’m currently looking out my window and watching a late May snowstorm turn everything white yet again. Runoff has brought fishing to a halt in many of the nearby rivers, yet even as I am watching the falling snow, I know that ice is starting to come off of lakes at higher and higher elevations. I smile knowing that my absolute favorite game in fishing is about to begin. I think back to a trip late last summer. Watching a dark shape rise from the deep, morphing into a 20 inch cutthroat just below my fly. With the confidence of an old fish, the jaws slowly open and surround the hopper pattern. I can’t tell you how many times I have pulled the fly out of these open mouths, their take is just that slow. This time I have the nerve to wait until I see the big jaws close. I set the hook, and my rod doubles over as the fight begins.
These are the memories that get me through the winter.
High lakes have been a major attraction for me since I first started fly fishing. The combination of loving to hike into places less crowded, combined with the enigma of stunning fish that can in a matter of minutes go from being ridiculous easy to catch to completely indifferent to every offering, calls to me like nothing else. Every lake is different. They range from being full of small but hungry fish to sparsely populated with selective giants, and every grade in between. Some are so clear you can see the bottom 50 feet down, and some are murky, hiding what lies beneath. Maybe they are in gentle forested hills, or maybe cliffs go straight up from the shoreline to stunning alpine peaks. I can drive my truck up to some of them, yet others require hours of hiking. This is one of those classic examples where the thrill is most definitely in the journey, but the fishing can be pretty darn good as well.
Speaking of the journey, if you are going to have a good trip to a high lake, you need to start by preparing for the back country. Pack with care to stay dry and warm regardless of the weather. I have seen snow in every month of summer in some of these places, even when the day starts out in the 70’s. If you are hiking in, make sure you know how to use a map and compass, and bring appropriate food and water. These things may sound obvious, but I am always astounded by how many times I have run into people in various states of distress or even danger because they didn’t bother to prepare for where they were going. Learn to respect lightning. It’s the most dangerous thing you will likely encounter, and it kills people every year. Same thing for bears. In Montana, grizzly bears are showing up in new areas, and most lakes worth fishing bring some chance of an encounter. Carry bear spray, and know how to use it. It has no value if its in the bottom of your pack. Research makes it pretty clear that it works far better (on bears) than a firearm, but you have to be able to get to it quickly. Because of what my wife and I do, we probably see more bears than most (literally five grizzlies and a black bear in just the last week), but anyone who spends time in the mountains will eventually run across one. Yes, to say be prepared may sound a little over dramatic, but this is a place where it can really make a difference in your day.
When it comes to the fishing part, these lakes can be all over the map. Even two lakes close together in the same drainage can have different biology and provide very different experiences. In my early days, I used to think that high lakes were either on or off. If they were on, you could cast most any fly onto the water and catch fish. If they were off, well, it just didn’t matter what you did. The reality is far more complex than that, and one of the beauties of high lakes is that if you break down the biology correctly, you can almost always find and catch fish. If you are serious about getting into the details of how these lakes work, I highly recommend that you get a copy of the book by the late Gary LaFontaine titled Fly Fishing the Mountain Lakes. It’s a relatively old book, but he does a great job describing the process of how to figure out what is happening in a lake, and how to use that information to catch more fish. I got to see that process at work first hand on many trips with my friend and fellow high lake addict Stuart Andrews (also a guide), who along with his fishing dog Trevor, spends every free moment doing research up at one high lake or another. He meticulously records water temps and weather factors every time he visits a lake. He keeps track of where he is finding fish, what they are eating and how that changes over the course of a day. Over the years he has built up an understanding of high lake dynamics that goes beyond LaFontaine’s work, and it helps him catch fish at any point in the season. I have a hunch that his black lab Trevor has probably inspected more large cutthroats than most humans will see in their lifetime. If Stuart ever writes a book on high lakes, buy it!
For those of you that are ready to just go now, there are a few things that I can suggest to get you off to a good start. It begins with taking some time to really observe the lake. Even at a lake I know well, I will spend some time just watching and looking for fish before I rig up. If it’s a new lake, I might take as much as an hour walking around the place to see what I can learn. Fish will often congregate in small areas of the lake, and finding them before you start fishing will help. This is especially true for large fish. I once had a conversation with someone who had a cabin near one of my favorite lakes. He said that he fished it all the time, but never caught anything over 12 inches. This was a little surprising to me, as it was a go to location for me when I had guests who wanted to catch big fish. It turns out that my acquaintance would always hike up to the lake, and start casting to the first rising fish he saw. By not taking time to really look around, he never spotted the pods of larger fish that I could often find. These pods weren’t always in the same location, but knowing they would be somewhere, I would generally look until I found them. Look very carefully at the shallows. I have seen very large cutthroats slowly cruising the shoreline looking for bugs (often ants) falling out of overhanging bushes. While not every lake has big fish, if they are there, they can often be found if you take the time to look.
If the lake is calm, rising fish will tell you that there is some surface feeding. Sometimes they will be spread out uniformly, but sometimes you will be able to see patterns. Are the rises all over a shallow shelf, or on a drop off? Sometimes these rising fish may all be small, but larger fish may be feeding subsurface either in the same area, or just a little deeper. Even when I see rising fish, I almost always drop a nymph below the dry, and it often gets more takes. If I don’t see much surface action, I go straight to two nymphs. If I am not seeing fish in the shallows, I look for drop offs, sections of steep shoreline, or talus areas. The fewer fish I see, the deeper I set my nymphs. Usually starting at three or four feet, I have found that at times going down as much as nine or ten feet can make all the difference in the world.
Flies can be pretty simple. A nymph selection of midges, bead head hares ears and pheasant tails in various sizes are often all you need. Add in some caddis dries, high floating terrestrials, and a couple of small leeches and you can catch fish in most places. I of course carry a lot more when I am guiding, but if fishing by myself I often go light with one fly box in a small chest pack. There will always be local favorites, and a quick stop at a local fly shop will set you up. My favorite rod for hiking is a 4 weight with a very light reel, but when I know there is a chance for larger fish I sometimes carry a five weight.
I have said this before, but it really is important up here. The wind is your friend! Unless you have a great hatch, dead calm is the toughest time to fish these lakes. A small breeze animates your nymphs, and really increases the number of strikes. A heavy wind is even better! Crazy as it sounds, fish in high lakes get a substantial amount of food from terrestrials blown in on the wind. Gary LaFontaine goes into great detail about this in his book, but suffice it to say that a strong summer wind means hopper time! Or, for that matter, just about any other terrestrial that can be found in the area. I like hoppers because they are easy for me to see, and I have watched many large fish come up to grab one. As a variant, try suspending a small leech under your hopper when it’s windy. I recall one day on a lake that had mostly brook trout. Fishing was slow but steady in the morning when it was fairly calm. When the wind came up in the afternoon, I tied on a hopper and leech combo. Not only was I getting rapid action and savage strikes from the brookies, I also started catching a few modest lake trout on the leech! This was a total surprise to me as I didn’t know that lakers were in this location, and I most definitely didn’t expect them to feed up near the surface. Even though they may have been small for lake trout, at 16-18 inches, they made for quite a fun day!
One final thought about wind, is what happens when it stops. On another fine day I had a good wind, and was getting great action with large fish on a chubby chernobyl, a “good enough” hopper pattern. Then the wind died down. There were fish all over picking stuff up from the surface, but they completely ignored my chubby. Seeing several beetles along the shoreline, I switched to a smallish beetle pattern. The magic was back on! I landed 9 fish in the next 10 casts. Essentially every fish that saw the fly came over and took it. Not the hard savage strikes I was getting while it was windy, but slow deliberate, “I got this bug” kind of takes. I finally had to leave and start the hike out before I ran out of daylight, but it sure was a memorable day.
Speaking of the hike out, it is something to keep in mind. The good thing is that often the best fishing at a high lake is from ten to about three. Fish in these cold waters often get more active with the warming of the sun. Somedays closing time is defined by the arrival of a thunderstorm and a race to get out of the lightning zone. But there will be those days when the fishing just gets better as the afternoon goes on. Unless you are already planning to spend the night, getting started on the hike home is something you have to remember to do, unless you want to stumble out in the dark. Because it’s possible that this may have happened to me more than once, I now carry a headlamp in my backpack for just such occasions. I still try to avoid night hikes (remember my comments on bears?) but it’s nice to have a light if you need it.
Perhaps the best thing about fishing the high lakes is that there is almost no end to the possibilities or locations you can go. While there is something special about getting to know a favorite piece of water, the never ending adventure of heading up to a new lake has its draw. I love watching wildlife, and the variety of what you might see is astounding. My wife Lea has no interest in catching fish, but loves to go with me because she always finds something interesting for her camera. While we have had a few encounters that were closer than we like (picture moose standing up out of a bush next to the trail) for the most part we have generally felt safe. The best part is that we have always been amazed at how much we find. Heres to fun adventures and great fishing!
By Scot Bealer
Scot first started guiding in the 1980’s, and has fished extensively through the rocky mountain west and many other parts of the world. When not on the water, he is typically out working with his wife, Lea Frye, doing wildlife photography. See their work at https://www.leaf-images.com, or follow them on Instagram @lea.f_images