Sky-High Trout

If your quest for trophy trout waters yields only run-of-the-mill results, it might be time to look upward. Mountain lakes have long been treasured as quality fisheries by the few who visit them.

By Kevin Miller

You don't find much written about high-mountain trout fishing, mainly because high-lakers are a tight-lipped group of sportsmen. While ordinary fishing secrets leak out and soon become common knowledge, high-lakers take their silence to the grave.

It's always puzzled me how guys can trek for days into such high and wild country and come home with nary a story to tell. But deep down, we all know what's going on: These guys are loading up on trophy-size trout and keeping it to themselves!

Can you elbow in, and take part in some of the action? Yes, you can, and it's probably not as difficult as some insiders would have you think. Before you take a stab at it, however, ask yourself a few key questions: Are you willing to dish out the effort it takes to poke into rugged terrain at air-thin elevations? Can you ignore clouds of bugs and challenging weather conditions? Would you be able to dismiss sore muscles, three-day-old socks and snoring tent partners? If you've answered yes to these questions, you have the makings to become a high-laker trout bum.

When Dr. Gary Schillhammer moved west from Vermont in the 1980s, he practiced medicine during the week and hiked the towering mountains near his home by weekend. A few years of this and he suddenly realized he'd encountered hundreds of lakes between 7,000 and 10,000 feet without ever having dropped a lure into one of them.

High-country angler Al Wesson probes the waters for hungry trout in a lake that's more than a mile above sea level. Photo by Greg Newberry

He had the gear and skills to get into some particularly isolated lakes, and when he started targeting them as fishing destinations, he discovered the thrill of catching fat trout. Nowadays, Schillhammer and his three children seldom venture upward without fishing gear.

"My all-time favorite lure is my Shirley Special," says Schillhammer. "It was named after my mom. Let's say you lost your tackle box. You just take a bare No. 8 hook and tie on the entrails of trout. Then you tie on some grandfather's beard, you know, the yellow moss that grows on trees. Then you need a few wraps of red yarn off your shirt, or your underwear - wherever - and drag the whole thing along. They'll bite 'em!"

High-lake fishing has become a Schillhammer family tradition. "It's good to mix fishing in with our mountaineering trips," says his eldest son, Carl. "It's a real quality fishing experience."

Carl's favorite high-lake weapons are small spinners, especially Rooster Tails. If the water is shallow along the edges of a lake, he attaches lead to get distance and into deeper water, where the bigger fish lie. Otherwise, he flings them free and light. "I caught one fish over 16 inches long last summer on a black Rooster Tail, along with another nice 14-incher. I swear by the black ones."

The Schillhammers hook up with a mountaineering neighbor, Greg Newberry, to journey cross-country into some of the highest and most remote lakes in the West. Newberry, who shares these adventures with his teenage sons, doesn't mind the extra effort it takes to go off the beaten path. "It really helps to go higher and farther, where other guys won't go." Greg claims. "Ten years ago, maybe it didn't matter, but nowadays, I think it does."

Sky-High Packsack

The best way to pack for entry into the highest country is smart and light.


The most important item is a quality three-season tent with a full rain fly. Bring snow stakes for extreme elevations.


Your sleeping bag - down or synthetic - must carry a 20-degree rating and come with a ground pad.


Other essentials include a space blanket, first-aid kit, knife, headlamp or lightweight flashlight (extra batteries), pack stove, layered clothing, waterproof clothing, stocking cap, extra food, toiletries, waterproofed matches and backup lighter.


For skilled cross-country navigation, it's important to have accurate maps, an altimeter and a compass. GPS units can be used to accurately pinpoint current locations and waypoints when landmarks aren't visible. Whichever system you use, you must be able to depend on it while navigating in a pea-soup fog. Practice will prepare you for times when it really matters. -- Kevin Miller


Greg's philosophy has paid off handsomely, but to consistently score mountain fish that exceed 20 inches and weigh anywhere from 3 to 5 pounds takes the patience of Job - and a small inflatable.

"I bought a green nylon raft that only weighs about a pound and a half. I de-accessorized it to make it that light, and I blow it up with my mouth. I don't bring the complete set of oars - just the paddles, which I drilled holes in so I can attach them to the boat with parachute cord. From the raft I can see cover - submerged logs and boulders - where the lunkers lie."

Newberry's favorite weapons are slow-trolled flies. "I'll troll a Muddler Minnow and paddle with both hands. I've gotten good at setting the hook real quick with my knees."

Black ants are Greg's favorite late-summer pattern. He trolls ants slowly, giving them an occasional twitch. Other tools of his trade include Krocodile spoons, a worm/spinner combination, the size 70 frog-pattern Hotshot and Rooster Tails.

Some might consider Paul Kaminski a fly-fishing radical. Anyone who returns home from one of these trips with a collection of insect specimens to match at his tying bench could be accused of that.

"Forget those small little dry flies," Paul says. "They hit damsel nymphs like a ton of bricks. I think a lot of people use anything that looks buggy on the surfac

e, but bigger fish are after protein." Paul regularly catches fish in the 2- to 3-pound class on his hand ties fished on 4x and 5x tippets. "You've got to be gentle. It can take you quite a few minutes to bring one close."

Damselflies with four to five wraps of lead wire get Paul's offerings down, and a twitching motion seems to draw large fish. "You have to play with different retrieves, and you really have to match what's out there," he says. "They get really finicky on size."

Putting together a trip takes planning. Not only do these guys know their maps but they also spend hours mulling over potential trips. They all agree: The more grueling the journey, the better the fishing will be. "The farther the better," Newberry agrees. "No trail? Even better! There will be much better potential for bigger fish."

Most high-elevation lakes in the West were fishless until pioneers, miners and loggers transported fry into them more than 100 years ago. These days scheduled stockings take place by state game departments in lakes where natural reproduction doesn't take place. The lakes vary in elevation from 2,500 feet to over 10,000 feet.

Trout species vary with those elevations. At the lowest, to mid-elevation alpine lakes, one might find eastern brook trout or a mix of brookies, rainbows and cutthroat trout. At mid- to high-elevation lakes different strains of cutts and 'bows are common. Golden trout are deposited mostly at the highest elevations.

You'll know you've discovered the mother lode of mountain trout when you begin gauging them with a scale instead of a ruler. I'll never forget my first trout taken from a mountain lake. It was 14 inches long and weighed no more than 2 pounds. I soaked my hind end in a snow bank all day for just one fish; but that stout little rainbow will always be a trophy in my mind.

For others, the bar is somewhat higher. As a general rule, rainbows, cutts and brook trout over 3 pounds and taken from a wild environment are adequate rewards. Goldens are typically smaller than that; a 3-pounder is a world-class fish. At around 20 inches, high-lake trout start putting on pounds instead of additional length. You can find torpedoes in that class that weigh anywhere from 3 to 5 pounds.

How can you find fish like that? Biologist Mike Haynie of the California Department of Fish and Game says the first step is finding a suitable body of water. "In a healthy lake, a fish in the wild could take two years to reach 12 inches," he said. "Things that affect the size of trout include water temperature, species, the amount of feed available, fishing pressure and the types of organisms in the water. A 16-inch fish from one of our mountain lakes is a nice fish. Contact your local fish and game region and ask for the names of lakes that produce these larger trout."

Jim Byrd, angler education coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, agrees with Haynie. "Each region has a number of field fish biologists assigned to different counties. That's the best source of information on what's producing well," he said. "Some lakes are planted for trophy potential, some are planted to maximize recreation."

Lakes must provide the right combination of features to be considered potential trophy producers. "You want adequate depth, so you won't get any winter kill or summer kill," Jim explains. "Summer kill results when all the inlets dry up, and the lake gets too low. Winter kill can occur when a shallow lake freezes."

Discover a lake with good cover, adequate water circulation and plentiful insect life, and the result could be an exceptional fishing opportunity with consistent numbers of heavy-grade mountain trout.

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