September 15, 2020
We had scouted the old river channel the day before. For the most part, the water was low and clear in this high-mountain reservoir. But here and there we found deeper and darker water, narrow in places and widening out to sunken pools.
Among the branches of drowned timber along the shore, torpedo shapes hovered—some with dark spots, some with light speckles on dark green backs. Rainbow trout. Cutthroats. Brook trout.
I bumped my one-man pontoon boat into a stump and stood up to cast. Off to my right, my teenaged nephew was already fighting the first trout of the afternoon on a spinning setup.
My line lay stretched out before me on the still water. Nine feet off the end of it, on a gossamer tippet, a foam ant tempted a brook trout. The fish sipped, there was a swirl and the line straightened out with a 14-inch brookie on the business end.
Although this was a drive-to lake in the Cascade Mountains only two hours from a major city, we had the whole thing to ourselves. That can happen in August and September.
Up in the Rockies, high in the Cascades and way back in California’s Sierras and Siskiyous, thousands of mountain lakes offer good fishing for cutthroats, rainbows and brook trout in late summer. Some lakes are small and shallow while others are big, blue, dark and deep.
Many are timbered to the water’s edge and might not be wadeable. Often, they are best fished from a boat. Both the terrain and the length of the trail from the road to the lake dictate the best way to approach these still waters.
In heavily forested mountains, many of the lakes were formed by glaciers gouging out bowl-shaped depressions in the side or base of a peak. These lakes usually share a number of characteristics, including a rockslide area coming off the ridge or peak, brushy shorelines, bowl-shaped sides and a small outlet creek.
Some lakes are blessed with shallows where bug life thrives in the spring and the growing season may be extended. Most, though, especially those at the highest elevations, have very short growing seasons and fish must do the lion’s share of their feeding in the summer and early fall.
At the end of the hike to a lake, pause and look for clues about how the fish are using the lake. Typically, many trails approach the water above the lake itself, presenting you with a chance to look down at the water and get a sense of which parts are shallow. Rising fish show likely feeding patterns, but look for the better fish to be cruising along a shoreline shelf. A good pair of polarized glasses can really come in handy to spot cruising trout.
When a feeding trout is spotted, let it go by and be ready to put a bait or fly in its feeding lane when it cruises past again. Find an elevated position with good footing, like a stable log or a rock, and try to present your bait or fly at the same depth at which the fish is feeding.
A good bait for mountain lakes is a piece of a nightcrawler on a No. 8 to 12 red egg hook. In lakes with a nearby meadow, cold-stunned grasshoppers have been falling into the lake every morning for most of the summer, and trout love to eat grasshoppers. Anglers who catch grasshoppers on the hike in can be rewarded with eagerly feeding trout.
Fly fishing can be an even better play than bait in backcountry lakes. Most trout here feed opportunistically much of the time, and if what you present looks like something they are used to eating, they will go for it.
On most lakes, if you fish from shore you’ll spend part of your time wishing you could cast farther out. Instead of using split shot or a bullet sinker for distance casting, use a floating casting bubble (see below). If the hike in isn’t terribly tough, consider packing in a float tube or rubber raft to use to get away from the bank.
As you might imagine, lakes that are away from the road see less pressure than those you can drive to. Many remote lakes can be hiked to, fished and hiked out of in a day. If time allows, block out two or three days and move among several lakes in an area, camping as you go. A good multi-day plan can allow for stops at up to a half-dozen fishable lakes and ponds.
Use a good topographic map to scout for loop hiking trails that allow you to start and finish at one trailhead. Another option is to thru-hike from one trailhead to another, hitting the best stops along the way. On any multi-day hike-and-fish trip in the high mountains, carry a good paper map with you. Before you go, study the lakes’ characteristics from above with Google Earth.
When planning a loop hike, consider the length of each leg of the hike. One or more of the waters might have a reputation for bigger fish. Try to hit those locations before 10:30 a.m. or after
4 p.m., when the sun may be going off the water. Use the slow period of midday to hike from one lake to another.
Hiking in isn’t the only way to reach backcountry lakes. A lot of the best fishing is reachable by car or truck, often along a rutted dirt or rocky road. With a car-topper boat or canoe, every section of shoreline can be explored on a 40-acre lake. In much of the West, such places are stocked by hatchery trucks once or twice a year (see map on page 42).
If there is one best time of year for fishing high-mountain lakes, it’s August through September, when nights grow longer. There are still good hatches of insects, but the trout, sensing the shortening of the season and a growing scarcity of food, are even easier to catch. An overnight frost or two (common even in August) can also decrease the number of annoying mosquitoes.
A Forest Service topographic map is a good reference when looking for the best fishing. Start by finding a few of the well-known fishing resorts in an area, then trace a finger down a backcountry track. In many parts of the West, it’s possible to find a family-friendly campground on a well-known destination lake—and some more remote fishing just a few miles down a nearby gravel road.
Rigging for Backcountry Trout
Backcountry lakes look perfect for long-rod fly fishing. In the mind’s eye, big, looping casts delicately present dry flies to the noses of surface-slurping trout as majestic peaks rise in the background. That might be the case on some bodies of water, but the terrain and shoreside timber on most require a different approach.
Sometimes the best option is to use a spinning rod with a fly (or flies) and a casting bubble. With a spinning rod, the fly and bubble can be launched twice as far as the longest fly rod cast.
Any spinning rod will work, but a reel optimized for long casts paired with a 6 1/2- to 7 1/2-foot rod with a fast action, medium backbone and light tip is an ideal combination. Line weight ratings of 4- to 10-pound-test will do the trick, though you might opt for 6 to 12 pounds when bigger trout are the target. Load the reel with 6-pound fluorocarbon or, even better, 10-pound-test braid. The sensitivity of the light, strong rod will pay off with precise casts and better bite detection.
Casting bubbles are designed to be filled with water. A piece of surgical tubing or a hollow, tapered peg attaches to plugs at either end of the bubble. Pull one plug out and fill the bobber with water, then feed the fishing line through the center. Tie a swivel to the end of the line and add a 36- to 48-inch section of leader with a fly on the end.
What flies to use? Watch the surface, insects and fish for clues. When the fish are feeding on one food source, try to match that. More often, they are feeding opportunistically. Great backcountry patterns include the Rubber Leg Stimulator (No. 12), Chubby Chernobyl Ant (No. 12), Red Tag Black Woolly Worm (No. 10), Mack’s Lure Smile Blade Fly (white), Tungsten Hare’s Ear Wet (No. 12), Beadhead Prince Nymph (No. 14) and the CJ Rufus (No. 10).
Bombing the float and fly (or lure) out where the fish are rising can cause tangles. For an immediate presentation with fewer line snarls, stop the cast before the line hits the water. By halting the line coming off the spool, the float stops and the fly splashes down in line. The fly is fishing the moment it touches the water.
Crankbaits and Stick Baits
Another option is to throw a 2-inch crankbait, like a Rapala DT in dark brown crawdad that dives to four feet. Or imitate a fingerling rainbow trout with a neutral-buoyant DUO Realis Spinbait and a steady, slow retrieve.
Beyond the Crowd
There are lakes the crowd has never heard of. Pull out a map or punch it up on Google Earth. Mountain ranges are dotted with little blue gems full of possibility. Call fisheries biologists or check state fish and wildlife agency websites to see which lakes are stocked, even if only every other year.
Locate a lake or a chain of still waters in some backcountry basin and you’ll have found some of the best trout fishing in the West. Best of all, you could have it to yourself for years to come.