April 18, 2018
If you love the hunt for native fish high in the Rockies, you tie flies all winter in anticipation of late June ice-out, and you're willing to hike for miles to have a pristine lake all to yourself, you might be suffering from altitude sickness. You're not ill, but you've caught the raw passion and motivation that pushes fly fishers to climb thousands of feet in one day by foot or horseback to catch native trout. I think the band Disturbed describes it best when they sing "Get up, come on, get down with the sickness." This kind of madness is contagious, and I promise after trying it you may also feel a bit mentally warped.
It brings to mind the time I was running down the side of a fourteener as the electricity from a summer storm had rocks around me bouncing like Mexican jumping beans. I distinctly remember asking myself "What is wrong with me?" and repeating "I don't want to die!" out loud to the gods of lightning and thunder.
After finally reaching the truck parked 5 miles from the end of the trail, battered and bruised from my adventure, the real question was "When could I do it again?"
A high country adventure offers more rewards beyond a catch, from the hike, to weathering an afternoon storm, or the therapeutic sense of relief from leaving the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The cherry on top is a chance at landing a fish of a lifetime.
"In cold, productive alpine lakes, trout can live to be quite old," says Jeff Spohn, aquatic biologist for Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. "With an ample forage base such as scuds, crayfish, terrestrials, aquatic insects these fish can live 10 plus years and grow to very large sizes."
I love cutthroat, golden trout, and brook trout because they are often aggressive at this altitude. The fish simply cannot afford to miss any meals.
Most high mountain lakes and streams have one or more of these species because they thrive in cold environments and short seasons. Sometimes the trout are descendants of fish stocked in barren lakes. My favorite lakes are ones with native trout like greenback cutthroat trout and Colorado River cutthroat found in my home state of Colorado, Bonneville cutthroat in Utah, and golden trout in California. I also enjoy brook trout even though they aren't native. As Greg Brown put it, "Brook trout are God's way of saying, this is a good idea!"
King of the Hill
Most alpine lakes involve a challenging hike that either leads you to a high vantage point that navigates down to a water-filled bowl, or you crest a ridge and arrive eye level with the lake. In the latter case, take the extra leg-burning hike up another 100 feet to look down and examine the lake topography. This gives you an immediate idea of the best fishing points.
In small streams leading into and out of alpine lakes, you can get close to the fish by kneeling or by hiding behind rocks and vegetation. Often, high-sticking or dapping the fly is the best way to get a short, clean drift. Photo by Landon Mayer
You just worked your butt off to get this far, and you do not want to waste valuable time. A storm could be on top of you in minutes, so it's essential to identify the best fishing areas as quickly as possible.
My favorite feature is a drop-off where the color change shows you where shallow water changes to deep. The shallows appear as light brown because you can see the bottom, and the deeper areas are green or deep blue. Fish love drop-offs because they can find "comfort food" in the shallows, knowing they have the security of deep water nearby.
Another thing to look for is structure such as boulders, rock piles, logs, or submerged weed beds. These supply habitat, insects, crayfish, baitfish, and crustaceans. Even if the lake has just one boulder along the whole shoreline, chances are at least one big trout will be nearby.
Also, don't underestimate the influence of cold water from springs or stream inlets. This oxygenated water often carries food for the trout. If you have a stream inlet and a drop-off together, the outcome can be magical.
Drop it Like it's Hot
When I start fishing, I often start with a single dry fly and search the shallow edges for prowling fish. Trout in shallower water are spookier, so I use a 9-foot tapered leader with an extra 3 feet of 4X tippet. Trout will bolt at the first sign of overhead movement, so they should never see your line in the air.
If I can't find trout cruising in shallow water, I often switch to a dry-dropper. Trout in alpine lakes are cruising their whole lives in search of food—seldom does the food come to them. Sometimes you have to ring the dinner bell to grab their attention.
I am not shy about using a "mic drop" every once in a while to let the trout know dinner is served. Smacking that big dry on the surface gets the attention of cruising trout, and the expanding rings show where the food is, like a bull's-eye. If they don't take the big dry, it's often because they are distracted by the nymph hanging below.
For a dry-dropper I use attractors like #12-14 Amy's Ants, Lime Trudes, or Fat Alberts. I have become a huge fan of using a small noslip mono loop knots on large dry flies. This allows the fly to move freely on the surface when it is twitched, popped, dragged, or simply swaying in the wind or
Getting Jiggy With It
For the dropper fly, I'm a firm believer in weighted jig flies. There are numerous advantages, including the fact that they prevent snags, but most important is the awesome jigging motion created when the dry fly rides small choppy waves and ripples. Like a boat lost in a storm at sea, the dry moves and causes the dropper fly to erratically jig up and down like an escaping or injured food.
When you start fishing, first scout the shallows near the shoreline. If the fish aren't there, they are likely prowling the drop-off indicated by a color change. Photo by Landon Mayer
I am a fan of 60-degree jig hooks like the Tiemco 403BL I use for the Mayer's Mini Jig Leech. You still get the jig motion of a 90-degree but it slides over structure easier and you get a better hook gap opening for more secure hook-ups. I use clinch knots and 12-, 24-, or 36-inch pieces of 4X fluorocarbon to connect the dropper to the eye of the dry-fly hook.
Pray for chop every day you fish stillwaters. Calm conditions can make fishing tough; not only do you lose the movement of the flies, you lose surface distortion that hides you from feeding trout.
When the surface is glassy, you'll have to move the fly yourself. I prefer a long, slow strip that moves the indicator fly about 12 inches with a smooth wake. You may have to strip more than 12 inches to remove slack from the system. After the slow strip, pause for five to ten seconds. This lets the nymph fall back to the anchor position, and gives trout time to find the fly.
Intercepting the Trout
Like pool players visualizing a shot, fly fishers must use angles to intercept cruising trout. The only difference is that in pool, the balls are stationary when you line them up. Casting at a moving target is infinitely harder and less predictable.
I first learned this lesson on a seven-day trip tarpon fishing in Homosassa and Boca Grande, Florida. When large migratory tarpon cruise on turtle grass flats, beaches, and harbors you have seconds to line up the shot, load the rod, pull the trigger, and deliver the fly. While tarpon fishing was frustrating at the beginning, by the end of the week I was thoroughly enjoying the challenge. It was also great training for stillwater trout fisheries where the trout cruise in clear water where you can see them.
Before you can cast at a cruising trout, you need figure out what direction it's moving, and if there is a pattern to how it feeds. It is common for these fish to stick to the same routine, swimming the same route over and over. Take your time to look for these patterns and determine if the fish is looking for food on the surface, below, or both. If it is only on the surface then it is simple. If the fish is a subsurface feeder then you'll have to factor the depth as part of your interception plan.
Native trout like this greenback "Cutzilla" are the primary targets in high alpine lakes, although sometimes you'll find lakes overrun with brook trout, or with wild populations of other species. Photo by Landon Mayer
Once you have located the pathway and speed of the fish, visualize a plan by making an imaginary dotted line in front of the trout to a spot where you think the fish will travel. Putting the fly about 10 feet in front of the trout is often about right to give you time to manage your line properly or allow a dropper to sink.
Fish can change directions, so it's difficult to always land the fly exactly in front of the cruising target. I prefer to overshoot the target, as this gives me breathing room to move the fly into position to intercept the trout and its viewing lane.
After the fly lands, you can skate, twitch, or pop the fly into position. I like skating a dry to mimic the motions of a natural caddis. The most important aspect of moving a fly is not always the movement itself; it is the pauses between movements.
These important pauses let the trout know the food source is not going to escape. It's their opportunity for an easy meal.
At elevations above tree line, trout normally feed in shallower water, but at the height of summer at lower elevations, they sometimes prefer deeper, cooler water.
In these conditions use a sinking line like Scientific Anglers Sonar Stillwater Seamless Density with a short 6- to 8-foot 2X leader. Add 3 or 4 feet of 4X fluorocarbon. Use a loop knot to attach a #12-16 Booby, Zoo Cougar, or Foam Nymph. These floating flies allow your sinking line to scrape the lake bottom while the fly wiggles where the trout are feeding. Use 30- to 60-second intervals (literally look at your watch after you make a cast), to soak your fly and get it down to the zone.
[You can also achieve a similar effect with Scientific Anglers Sonar Stillwater Parabolic Sink fly line. The line sinks in a U-shape so the fly rides up over the bottom. The Editor.]
The Creek Connection
Small streams and creeks that flow in and out of alpine lakes are like a fine dessert alongside your main course. Often, fly fishers following a stream toward a lake never reach the lake because they are tempted to stop and wet a line.
Creeks provide cover, oxygen, and food for large trout that often move in and out of the streams following abundant food sources. In the summer, trout often move into these tributaries looking for hoppers, ants, or aquatic insects that might be less abundant in the lake, or they might be influenced by water temperatures.
In these sometimes choked, overgrown streams, smaller 8- to 81/2-foot rods and short leaders are the tickets to success. Bow-and-arrow casts, short sidearm casts under overhanging branches, and high-sticking in plunge pools and pockets are most often the way to go.
You can often get very close to fish in these small streams by using turbulent water, trees and bushes, or large boulders to mask your presence. Your drifts will be very short, and line control here is more important than the casting. The more line you can keep off the water, the better. Sometimes just dapping the fly on the water from behind a large boulder can do the trick.
You don't always catch large trout in these alpine lakes and streams, but even the small ones are brightly colored treasures. And each one somehow seems more satisfying because of the long hike and the majesty of the alpine experience. Altitude sickness is always euphoric because I think I'm climbing up toward the heavens. I hope I'm never cured of it.
Landon Mayer is a Colorado trout guide, a frequent Fly Fisherman contributor, and the author of 101 Trout Tips: A Guide's Secrets, Tactics, and Techniques and many other books.