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Exploring the Uinta Mountains

Utah's largest wilderness area remains mostly untapped by fly fishers.

Exploring the Uinta Mountains

Colorado River or Bonneville cutthroat trout were native to all the major drainages of the Uintas when settlers first arrived and started fishing, but the vast majority of the higher lakes and steams in the Uinta Mountains likely did not hold any fish at that time due to upstream obstacles like waterfalls.

Some anglers spend their lives trying different waters to soak up new fishing experiences. Others pick a fishery and dedicate all their time developing an intimate knowledge of the place. Cordell Andersen found a way to do both.

The 80-year-old has hiked more than 1,650 miles in the Uinta Mountains of Utah, and fished or visited many of the more than 1,000 lakes or ponds found on the range. The fish he caught while exploring the high-elevation Uintas often provided Andersen vital nourishment during his epic adventures. Others, like an estimated 9-pound brook trout that got off when he was fumbling with a camera, haunt Andersen while he sleeps under the starry skies of the range that harbors King's Peak–Utah's highest point at 13,528 feet.

"I have fished 168 lakes, and had hoped to pick up around 121 more with my list of 'Dream Backpacks'," said Andersen, who has had a 50-year-plus love affair with the only major mountain range running in an east-west direction in the Lower 48 states. "Focusing usually on getting to off-the-beaten-path areas rather than going to easily accessible lakes would have also helped some, but for me, I wasn't ever excited about just going where everybody goes."

Trout & Grayling

More than 600 of the stillwaters in the Uinta Mountains are capable of supporting trout and grayling from one summer to the next, according to biologists from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The streams flowing into and out of the lakes, and sometimes connecting multiple lakes, are also logical places to cast a fly. Lakes with connecting flowing waters are also the best places to look for naturally reproducing fish populations.

Roger Wilson, chief of aquatics for the Utah wildlife agency, spent his first 13 years with the state as a high-mountain fisheries biologist in the Uintas.

"It was my first full-time job and I started with the best," Wilson said of the time he spent sampling the lakes of the Uintas for fish recruitment.

"We used gill nets, of course, but we also picked up a rod because it helped us figure out the catch rate compared to the numbers we were seeing in the nets," he said.

man fly fishing small stream uinta mountains
Small, unmarked native trout, breathtaking vistas, and dry-fly fishing are the "trophies" you take home from the Uintas.

Wilson visited between 350 to 400 of the lakes deemed fishable in the Uintas during his time as a biologist, and he returns at least annually with his family to visit the places he enjoyed the most, and to explore new country.

"We probably go 10 to 12 miles each trip. We just love the wildness of the Uintas," he said.

State biologists typically describe the Uintas Range as 150 miles long and 50 miles wide, and includes the 456,705-acre High Uintas Wilderness–Utah's largest wilderness area–as well as 276,175 acres of Ashley National Forest and 180,530 acres of Wasatch/Cache National Forest. Forest Service officials claim 545 miles of trails within their boundaries alone.

Geologic Isolation

Part of the wildness and geologic ruggedness we appreciate and enjoy so much about the Uintas may have also limited the areas where native trout thrived when European travelers first arrived to the northeastern corner of what is now Utah.

Colorado River or Bonneville cutthroat trout were native to all the major drainages of the Uintas when settlers first arrived and started fishing, but the vast majority of the higher lakes and steams in the Uinta Mountains likely did not hold any fish at that time due to upstream obstacles like waterfalls.


"It is probable that only a handful of lakes had fish," Wilson said. "There may have been historical occupancy in the Uintas before the last Ice Age, but the ice came and the ebb and flow may have caused extirpation of fish in the higher waters."

It didn't take long for Utah's early settlers to start looking for fish in the Uintas. A century ago (and more) the idea of wildlife conservation simply meant "more fish," and people weren't particularly concerned about native species. Colorado River and Bonneville cutthroats suddenly found themselves with new neighbors, as aggressive stocking of exotic trout started, not only in the Uintas, but around the country.

Eastern brook trout made up the majority of the fish introduced into the Uintas–as settlers moved west, they brought their Eastern trout with them. Through the years, the list of nonnative fish in the range grew to include rainbow trout, Yellowstone cutthroat trout, Kokanee salmon, brown trout, golden trout, grayling, and two hybrid trout (tiger trout–a sterile mix between a brook and a brown trout; and splake–a naturally occurring mix between a brook and a lake trout).

Native cutthroat felt the squeeze and started to become more and more isolated as they competed for food, habitat, and spawning and rearing territories. For the past 20 or so years Utah fisheries biologists, like many others across the country, have turned their attention to reversing that course, and restoring native species.

Uinta Mountains fly fishing mountain lake Red Castle Lake
Cordell Andersen takes a well-deserved break at an overlook at Red Castle Lake in the Uinta Mountains. Andersen has backpacked into nearly 400 of the more than 600 fishable lakes in the Uintas over the past 50 years.

The first step was eliminating other subspecies of cutthroat that were not native to the Uintas, yet could interbreed with native species. The Utah wildlife agency had been primarily stocking Yellowstone cutthroat for many decades. That ended in the mid-1990s.

"Attention was turned to finding pure-strain Bonneville and Colorado River cutthroat, creating broodstock resources at natural lakes within historic ranges." Biologists extract eggs and milt from the stock to raise in hatcheries.

Bonneville cutthroat are native to the Bear, Provo, and Weber drainages in the Uintas (basically anything that flows into the Great Salt Lake). Colorado River cutthroat are native to the Green and Colorado River drainages and are native to the South Slope and northeast side of the Uintas.

Brook trout will likely always have a place in the Uintas. Rainbows and tiger trout will probably continue to be stocked in high-pressure put-and-take waters in the most easily accessed areas, but native cutthroat are, with the help of biologists, reclaiming their range.

For decades the Uinta Mountains were stocked by wildlife biologists leading pack trips into the backcountry with fish, namely brook trout, stored in milk cans until their release. Aerial stocking by small planes began in the mid-1950s, and put an end to the stock-by-horse scenario. Horses, however, are still used by biologists conducting fish surveys at remote lakes in the Uintas.

The use of planes sped up the planting process. Today, each plane can stock seven lakes on one trip and a total of 40 to 60 lakes in a single day, depending on weather conditions and the number of fish to be stocked in each water. Officials say although it may sound harder on the fish, aerial stocking is actually more successful than milk cans on horses.

Aerial stocking of brook trout in the Uintas is conducted in the spring when the ice has come off the lakes. Cutthroat trout are planted in the fall. A typical drop includes roughly 2,000 fish.

The stocked fish average 21/2 to 3 inches, so more can be stocked and also because larger trout are less likely to survive a 150-foot fall to the water. People lucky enough to view the aerial drops often wonder what exactly is going on. Some, perhaps hopeful for relief, think it is spraying for the epic swarms of mosquitoes that are all too common in the Uintas. There has been at least one call to Homeland Security by someone reporting that water was being poisoned.

According to Ted Hallows, director of the Kamas Fish Hatchery and also the aerial fish stocking program in Utah, about 150 Uinta Mountain lakes are stocked each year by airplane. Another 100 or so across Utah also get annual aerial stockings.

Grayling are limited in the Uintas, but there are places where the fish can be caught with flies on nearly every cast.

Andersen says he and friends have landed Arctic grayling in the Uintas that would likely smash the existing state record of 1 pound, 12 ounces,  caught in Big Dog Lake in 1999.

Golden trout had dwindled down to virtual nonexistence in the Uintas, barely hanging on in a handful of lakes before Utah wildlife officials found another resource for the fish and augmented existing populations in three lakes of the Atwood Creek drainage in 2012, and released 4,800 in Echo Lake in 2013.

Trophy Fishing

In my mind, there are two kinds of trophy fishing–the kind that leads to potential record fish, and the kind that leads anglers to "trophy" scenery and too-many-to-count days.

Throw in an opportunity to see mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, mule deer, elk, black bears, mountain lions, and the definition of a trophy trip into the Uintas becomes more clear. Some lucky anglers may even spot the wolves and wolverines recorded in the Uintas in recent years.

It is the opportunity for a wild experience–away from traditional fly fisheries and the crowds associated with them–that Steve Schmidt says make the Uintas one of his favorite getaways.

"To me, a trophy fish is any fish that hasn't been fished to. I'd trade little 8- to 9-inch trout that don't have a single mark on them from being caught for any 24- to 26-inch trout. They are just as beautiful to me," said Schmidt, owner of the Western Rivers Flyfisher shop in Salt Lake City. "The Uintas have some amazing country. We as fly fishers really need to spread out our minds a little bit and think about other opportunities."

Schmidt says he has been sending anglers looking for something a little different and new anglers with no expectations to high-mountain fisheries like those in the Uintas.

"Fly fishers can be a pig-headed group," he said. "We get stuck in our routines and sometimes feel like we have to keep going to the same places, catching the same fish and bumping into the same guys. It seems like people getting started now are much more likely to realize the value of not catching big fish," he said.

Schmidt spent his early days of fly fishing in the Uintas, but, like so many others, drifted away from the high mountains and began making annual trips to "more notable" Western waters like the Green, Madison, and the Henry's Fork.

"The Uintas have 600 fishable pieces of water that we never send people to. It's not the type of thing we normally write books about or put in magazines," he said. "You aren't taking a lot of grip-and-grin pictures up there. It is mostly about the scenery."

The current popularity of tenkara and fiberglass fly rods plays well into the "different waters" philosophy.

Native Bonneville cutthroat Uinta Mountains
Native Bonneville cutthroat trout (shown) and Colorado River cutthroat trout are reclaiming parts of their historical ranges in the Uinta Mountains.

"The fiberglass rod kick is an excellent example," he said. "Our rods over the last 25 years were not designed for waters like those in the Uintas. I feel like a kid in a candy store with a fiberglass rod in those situations."

All that being said, who doesn't want to catch a big trout from a small lake in the middle of nowhere?

Andersen has had his share of big-fish experiences during his adventures.

He was fishing a remote lake in the Henry's Fork basin early in the season,

and was distracted by the scenery when a fish decided to hit.

"There was this alligator-like rush that almost stopped my heart and splashed drops of water on me from 20 feet away," Andersen said. "I missed him, but would love to cast one more time into those mysterious waters."

If you are looking for big fish, Andersen and Wilson both suggest a little homework might be in order.

"Check the DWR's website for our stocking plans and plan trips for the third or fourth year after a stocking event," Wilson said. "Fishing during a year where it has been stocked will not be very productive. We stock fingerlings, and they are not accessible to anglers for at least a year. Fishing later in stocking rotation means the fish will have grown, on average, to a good size."

Wilson says he netted cutthroat up to about 4 pounds and brook trout in the 3- to 4-pound range during his time in the Uintas. Biologists with his old job report occasionally catching fish in the same category.

Schmidt said anglers should be prepared for a big fish at any time.

"Don't assume the largest fish will be in the biggest lakes," he said. "Some of the smallest lakes with the meadows of floating banks hold some very large brook trout. Don't bypass them."

Fly fishing in the Uintas is simple. Chances are if you get a fly, virtually any fly, on the water in remote locations you will get at least a sniff.

You don't need much rod in the Uintas. A 3- or 4-weight of 7 or 71/2 feet is a common choice. The major issue is finding a spot to cast. Many lakes are lined with snag-happy trees. If you know how to roll cast, you'll do well.

brook trout terrestrial flies Uinta Mountains
Terrestrial patterns are always a solid choice in the Uintas. Ants and beetles typically do better than hoppers. Many fly fishers in the Uintas swear that a bee pattern is the most productive.

The size of the fly doesn't seem to matter. There is nothing like casting a big Chernobyl Ant over deep water on the first cast to a lake, and watching six brook trout–half of them no larger than the fly–come out of nowhere, racing to reach the free meal.

It's a smart tactic to avoid the pesky, smaller fish by using oversize flies. If you're truly looking for the biggest fish, look for the deepest water in the lake and use sinking setups with leech patterns.

Nets are not required and most anglers wet wade or find rocks and logs to stand on for casting platforms.

And, with so many lakes in such close proximity, Wilson says anglers should not be afraid to move around.

"If fishing is not good at one, look for other opportunities. Some will have higher catch rates," he said. "The fish might be smaller, but the fishing could be faster. Others may not have the high catch rates, but the ones you do catch might be bigger."

Brett Prettyman is the outdoors columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune, and author of Fishing Utah: An Angler's Guide To More Than 170 Prime Fishing Spots (Lyons Press, 2008) and Hiking Utah's High Uintas (Falcon Guides, 2015 revised edition).

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