Alpine Trout

As the Lowland Lake fishing starts to cool off, head for the hills for some hot summer action.

A gorgeous mountain rainbow trout that Michael T. Williams found as it cruised along weedbeds looking for scuds and damsel nymphs. Photo by David Williams.

Is your favorite lake filled with water-skiers and annoying personal watercraft? Is there a fisherman perched on every rock along every well-known trout stream? Do you long for solitude and clear mountain water filled with trout that rarely see a hook? If so, lace up your boots, grab your rod, shoulder your pack and hit the trail for some high-altitude adventure this summer.

You have myriad choices for a day trip, a weekend overnighter that allows deeper access into the wilds, or a weeklong backpacking trip where you can sample different lakes and streams. California boasts 14 million acres of wilderness. Oregon has 37 wilderness areas. Washington lists 2,600 lakes in the Cascades alone. You could spend a lifetime exploring gorgeous country and never fish the same water twice.

With so many choices, narrowing the options may seem daunting. The good news is there are plenty of hiking and fishing guidebooks that target specific areas. Dave Shorett has written three guides focusing on Washington alpine waters, and Terry Rudnick penned a statewide guide. Chris Shaffer has written a similar series covering California waters. And Madelynne Diness Sheehan wrote a fishing guidebook for Oregon. Go to your local library or Google these authors to find their books.

Clubs like the Washington Hi-Lakers and Trailblazers whose purpose is to preserve, protect and enhance the alpine fishing experience, are wonderful sources of information, but plan on pitching in to help. A Google search will uncover clubs in your area.

Someone once said that the best time to go fishing is when you can. That certainly applies to mountain fishing. Look for lower-elevation lakes, since they lose their winter snow first. Topographic maps tell much about when a lake will be fishable. The ice on a lake with an open shoreline at 5,000 feet may melt sooner than a lower lake sitting in a bowl with limited sun exposure. As the season progresses and the snow level moves higher, you can set your sights on more and more lakes.


High lakes offer rainbow, coastal cutthroat, West Slope cutthroat, eastern brook, brown, mackinaw, Dolly Varden and the fisher's prize, golden trout. Originally stocked in the early 1900s by individuals carrying milk buckets filled with hundreds of fry, many large, heavily used lakes are now planted via air drops from planes or helicopters carrying thousands of fry. Smaller or inaccessible lakes still get stocked the old-fashioned way: by someone -- usually a volunteer -- grunting and sweating up steep trails with fish tied to their back or on a horse.

Stocking cycles affect the size of fish you catch. A self-sustaining lake will have fish of all age-classes. In stocked lakes, particularly remote or inaccessible ones, you may have one or two age-classes. You may hit the big-fish bonanza if your visit coincides when fish numbers have been reduced by predation and the survivors have pigged out on the resulting abundant food supply. As in all things, proper timing can result in catching beautifully colored trophy-sized fish.

Brookies and West Slope cutthroat readily adapt to mountain life and are most likely to reproduce, since they don't require flowing water to spawn, as do rainbows. The bad news is that their ability to reproduce may soon exceed their food supply, resulting in stunted fish. Exceptions exist, and only through time and dedicated effort will you identify them.

Lakes rarely have the necessary spawning habitat to produce self-sustaining rainbow populations, so they need periodic restocking of fry to repopulate. If the lake has a gravel-bottom inlet or outlet stream, then mountain rainbows will do as Mother Nature intended.

Golden trout are rare mountain treats for backpacking anglers, especially the father north you go. Its scientific name, O. mykiss aguabonita, speaks of beauty. Goldens sparkle when the sunlight dances off their dark green back, crimson lateral line, gold body and white-tipped fins. Natives of the Kern Plateau of the Sierra Nevada, goldens have been successfully stocked in cold, clear mountain lakes in places like Oregon's Eagle Cap Wilderness and Washington's Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

Most people assume that mountain lakes and streams hold only small fish. Don't believe it. While not every lake or stream gives up a lunker on every cast, most will grow big fish if they're allowed to mature. The Sierra and Cascades produce West Slope cutthroat, rainbows and eastern brooks over 6 pounds. The Oregon golden trout record approaches 8 pounds, while the 11-pound world record was caught in Wyoming's Wind River Range.


Fishing in pristine mountain environments is good for the soul. But protecting these fragile places requires special etiquette to minimize your impact.

With a few simple guidelines, pristine places can remain pristine and a joy to visit, time after time:

'¢ All users must protect fragile alpine meadows and shorelines.

'¢ Avoid beating a trail around a lake.

'¢ Don't camp in meadows or within 200 feet of a lake.

'¢ If you bring stock, tether them away from water sources and clean up after them.

'¢ Check with the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service for brochures and other information detailing these and other simple steps for no-trace hiking and camping.

Alpine fish populations are often fragile as well. Consider practicing catch-and-release fishing, perhaps keeping just enough smaller fish for that evening's meal.

If you hook a lunker, land it as quickly as possible, leave it in the water while you snap a few quick photos, then release it after ensuring that it can maintain its equilibrium. Any lake with more than one size-class of fish generally indicates a self-sustaining population. Releasing the biggest fish contributes to the gene pool. Exceptions to the release rule are those lakes, usually populated by brook trout, in which you catch skinny fish with big heads. That's a sign of stunted growth due to overpopulation. Taking those fish will help adjust their population to match the available food.


Spinning rods have the advantage over fly rods under certain conditions. They don't need much casting room -- which is a real boon when the lakeshore is choked with trees and willows. Also, they can cast farther -- important when the biggest fish in the lake are rising 70 feet from shore, and you can cast a fly only 60 feet. Plus they are versatile; you can fish lures or flies.

Spin-fishing gear is pretty simple. A 6-foot-long medium-light action rod matched with a reel filled with 6-pound-test line, a spool of 4-pound tippet, a couple of clear-plastic bubbles (the type that can be filled with water), a box of lures and another of flies, and you're good to go. Bait is not recommended: Fish generally swallow bait, making it difficult to release them without harm. (In Washington, even if you release a bait-caught fish, you must count that fish as part of your daily bag limit.)

While there are tons of lures on the market, some styles have proved more successful at catching fish over the years. Rooster Tails in brown and black, Mepps Black Fury, Panther Martin in yellow, Kastmaster or Crocodile spoons, Daredevles in red/white and black/white, and Dick Nites all catch fish. Experienced lure fishermen carry at least two of their favorites in case one gets snagged and lost, and substituting single hooks for the factory treble hooks helps reduce fish mortality.


If you only carry one fly, make it a black Woolly Bugger. If you carry two flies, add an olive Woolly Bugger; WBs work virtually anywhere. Other patterns to toss behind that plastic bubble include Hare's Ears, scuds (particularly effective for goldens) and Parachute Adams in small sizes. If you know you'll encounter lake trout, toss in a couple of streamers.

To rig your fly, run your fishing line through the plastic bubble, then attach a barrel swivel. To the other end of the swivel, tie on an arm's length of tippet, then add the fly. If you're fishing the surface, then don't add any water to the bubble. If you want to fish deeper, add water until the bubble sinks to the proper depth.

A 9-foot, two-piece, 5- to 6-weight rod in a sturdy aluminum tube (which doubles as a hiking staff if cushioned at both ends) and a reel holding a floating line work just fine. The exceptional water clarity of lakes dictate longer tapered leaders in the 10- to 15-foot range.

Stream leaders can be much shorter. Add spools of 3x, 4x and 5x tippet material, some fly floatant, a box of flies and you're all set. If you can carry the extra weight, add full sinking and sink-tip lines. Knowing how to execute a rollcast may be your best weapon.

Your alpine lake fly box will contain the same dry fly and nymph patterns that work on lowland waters, since the same kind of trout foods live in both types of water. Mayflies, caddis, scuds, chironomids, leeches and damselflies are the primary food sources, with a healthy dose of terrestrials (ants, beetles and grasshoppers) added.


Lightweight inflatable rafts with oars allow you to explore the entire lake. Some hikers carry float tubes, fins and waders. If you take such a craft, make sure you include a personal floatation device in case your inflatable suffers a mid-lake puncture. Don't expect that you'll be able to swim to shore in cold mountain water.

Sunscreen, insect repellent, a hat and polarized sunglasses are necessities. The harsh effects of a day in the sun are magnified at 8,000 feet; you'll want to apply sunscreen early and often. Mosquitoes and black flies can drive you off the water if you leave the DEET at home. Put a bottle in your pack. Polarized sunglasses not only protect your eyes from errant casts, they allow you to see in the water and spot shoreline-cruising fish.

Today's digital point-and-shoot cameras have remarkably advanced features and quality. Drop one in your shirt pocket where it will be handy when you hook that huge rainbow. You can snap several quick shots before gently releasing her to provide sport for another angler.


Mountain fish are like all other fish. Their survival depends on two things: access to food and protection from predators. Structure provides them with both.

Structure may be a rockpile, a submerged log, an underwater ledge, a weedbed amidst a rock, or a sandy bottom. Structure is wherever there's a transition from one type of shoreline to another such as grass to tules, tules to willows or willows to trees. Structure is where sunlight changes into shadows or where an inlet stream introduces warmer or colder water into the lake.

In early season, a log that has fallen partway into the water absorbs more of the sun's rays and warms the water. The warmer water triggers insect hatches sooner than in the surrounding area, which means that this is where you'll find fish. In summer, that fallen log provides shade. In all seasons it provides a place for trout to hide from otters, herons and other predators.

Knowing that the fallen log provides what fish need also gives you clues about how to fish that spot. Instead of clambering out on it to give yourself some casting room, make a few casts around it, paying particular attention to the shady area and where the log disappears into the depths. After you've caught the fish hanging around the log, then you can hop onto it and make longer casts into the lake and along the shoreline.

Early in the season, northwest shores warm first and should be fished thoroughly. Dark bottom materials absorb radiant heat, so those are good early-season areas as well.

Look for points of land extending into the lake since they provide casting room and usually have deeper water on one or both sides.

Inlets are natural conveyor belts for food. Moving water constantly washes ants, beetles and other good-tasting treats toward waiting trout. The stream introduces oxygen into the lake water, which in turn attracts bugs and other foodstuffs, which attract trout -- which attract anglers. Cast where the stream current mixes with lake water. Fish stay in calmer warmer to conserve energy, then dart into the current to snatch edibles.

Trout in lakes are always on the move, looking for food. Polarized sunglasses help you spot those cruising fish so that you can cast to them before they spot you. It takes steady nerves to avoid yanking your fly away from an onrushing mouth, but if you do pull it away too soon, toss your fly back to where you last saw the fish. Cutthroat will often strike again.


Mountain weather affects both fish and fishers.

Ice-out is a great time to be on the water, since those fish have growling stomachs. Even the largest fish in the lake are searching for food in shallow water. As the season progresses and the water warms, morning and evening are the best times to fish. Midday generally means the fish go into deeper water. Several days of uninterrupted hot weather followed by a cold spell will usually mean slow fishing, but that merely gives you more time to revel in the scenery, watch for wildlife or maybe climb a peak or two. The cooler weather of fall is prime time again as the trout often binge-feed as if sensing the need to bulk up for winter.

Mountain weather can change quickly, and the most beautiful day can turn nasty. Always carry raingear and extra clothing. Lightning in the mountains means just one thing: Stop waving that long electricity conductor and get off the water!

Wind can dictate where you fish. It's easier to cast when it blows from behind you. On the other hand, strong wind may drive food toward shore, which means you'll be casting into the wind.

Here is your homework assignment: Make notes after each fishing trip. Keep track of where you went, what time of year, type and age-classes of fish, the weather and snowpack conditions. In a few seasons, you will develop data that will help you predict when and where to fish under any given set of conditions. Besides, your notes make great wintertime reading when the lakes are frozen over.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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