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Cutts on America's Spine: Fishing the Continental Divide Trail

A five-state hike along the Great Divide.

Cutts on America's Spine: Fishing the Continental Divide Trail

The Continental Divide Trail roughly follows America’s spine (the Continental Divide), which separates watersheds that ultimately drain into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. There are innumerable fantastic and gorgeous fisheries all along its path, as illustrated here in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. (Joshua Bergan photo)

The nearby jagged peak slowly faded from our view as the air tinged an eerie burgundy orange, as we debated bailing for the safety of our SUV. A thunderstorm had just rolled through and the smoke had quickly gotten considerably worse. Lacking cell reception, we had no way of knowing if a new fire had spawned nearby. We made plans to jump in the lake if an inferno came roaring up over the hills, though that wasn’t ideal as the lows were forecast to be in the 30s that night at the elevation we were at. Anxiety consumed the three of us, but we made the decision to stay and wait.

This incredibly smoky evening was the culmination of what we would later learn was the fishing gods’ efforts to keep us away from a certain lake, this past summer—the gods’ thwarts made this already roughly our Plan F. A couple of friends and I were backpacking and fishing along the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) high above Montana’s famous trout streams.

The lakes and streams along the CDT are underutilized fisheries that boat ramp-weary anglers should keep in mind. We encountered a total of three other hikers on our most recent five-day outing—and none of them were fishing. Granted, this was shortly after Labor Day, but it was also at a time when those famous Montana fisheries were largely shut down to fishing due to “hoot-owl” restrictions (fishing closures due to high water temperatures that stress trout) or full fishing closures due to low flows.

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail covers more than 3,000 miles (including loops and alternate routes) in five states and three of America’s fishiest national parks (Glacier, Yellowstone, and Rocky Mountain) from the Canada border in Montana to the Mexico border, and traverses the native lands of 14 different indigenous tribes. Thousands of creeks and lakes are accessible along its course, many of them as pristine and clear as they have been since the days of solely tribal inhabitance. It’s quite popular for through-hikers and other backpackers, but is not particularly popular among anglers.

As it follows the Continental Divide, there are not many places where it’s within reach of large, famous rivers. These fisheries are mere trickles high in the mountains where these major drainages start.

The trail is only semi-complete in places, and it does get rerouted from time to time. In other places, there are actually multiple routes to a destination that are all considered the CDT. And while through-hiking is rarely the modus operandi of dedicated fly anglers, there’s no reason it can’t be, with the opportunities along the CDT.

A fly angler standing on a lakeside scree field, casting.
Southwest Montana offers some of the CDT’s best fishing opportunities. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and its fisheries biologists, are great stewards of the mountain lakes, maintaining opportunities for native westslope cutthroat trout, golden trout, and Arctic grayling. (Joshua Bergan photo)

Plan F

We planned our trip for five days and four nights along the Montana/Idaho border. Several initially planned trips to Montana’s Beartooth Mountains (Plans A, B, and C) were aborted after learning of all the damage done by the same floods that ravaged Yellowstone National Park in June of 2022.

Then in August, the film crew that came along to help tackle some video projects came down with COVID on their previous trip (Plan D). So with our trip replanned and rescheduled, we finally embarked the Tuesday after Labor Day. But this forced our school bus-driving friend out, as classes had started (Plan E), and contributed to our large packs, since there was a legit chance for snow in the forecast (it did get down to 26 degrees one night). And once up in the mountains, we realized I’d planned our route based on an old map, and the trail did not go near several of the lakes we’d anticipated fishing. This was Plan F. Flexibility is crucial on this kind of trip.

Because of the reroute, we were only able to get to six of the nine lakes we planned to fish. And of those, three seemed to be fishless at that time (which is relatively common, even at stocked mountain lakes, for a variety of reasons—you really need to go to know), one had only 6- to 8-inch brook trout, and one seemingly had only small rainbows. But the other lake—the one that I believe that the fishing gods were trying to hide from us—made the whole trip worthwhile. More on that lake later.




Montana

The CDT meanders for about 800 miles in Montana, starting at the Canadian border on the north end of Glacier National Park. It snakes its way south through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the Helena National Forest over MacDonald Pass, across Interstate 15 north of Butte and Interstate 90 over Homestake Pass, through the Highland Range south of Butte, then back across I-15 into the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness.

This is where some of the best mountain fishing on the trail begins. From here to the border of Yellowstone National Park where it enters Wyoming, the CDT passes by a great many stunning stillwaters, rich with stocked and wild westslope cutthroat trout, wild Yellowstone cutthroats, Arctic grayling, and occasional goldens, rainbows, and brookies. The tumbling inlets and outlets of these tarns also provide opportunities to cast dry flies to opportunistic fish.

In southern Montana, it mostly follows the Montana-Idaho border, but at times around Yellowstone, the trail briefly ventures into Idaho.

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Some other noteworthy fisheries on or within a day’s hike of the trail here include several beautiful lakes in Glacier National Park, the Middle and South forks of the Flathead River, the upper Blackfoot River, the Big Hole River, the streams of Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, Henry’s Lake (Idaho), Hebgen Lake, and innumerable mountain lakes and creeks along the way.

Two hikers crossing a small stream.
Bear in mind that permits are required to camp in certain national forests and wilderness areas along the trail. (Joshua Bergan photo)

Wyoming

The 550-mile Wyoming stretch of the CDT begins just south of West Yellowstone, Montana and just west of the Old Faithful Village in Yellowstone National Park. It cuts across the Madison Plateau en route to the Firehole River before skirting Shoshone Lake, crossing the Lewis Channel, and then on to Yellowstone’s Heart Lake—one of the best cutthroat trout fisheries in the world. It then traces the Heart River to the extreme upper Snake River, and exits the park near the Yellowstone Thoroughfare—one of the most remote places in the Lower 48.

From there it runs south into the Teton Wilderness before crossing the extreme upper Wind River, paralleling the upper Green River and Green River Lakes, then passing through the innumerable mountain lakes of the Wind River Range —some of the best golden trout country in the world.

From the south end of the Winds, it traverses the Sweetwater River (which eventually feeds the incredible North Platte River) and spans some seriously desolate fishing in Bureau of Land Management checkerboard oil country around Rawlins en route to the Colorado border.

Colorado

The CDT enters Colorado after passing through Wyoming’s Huston Park Wilderness in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, where it crosses the Middle Fork of the Elk River (a fine dry-fly tributary to the Yampa River) prior to scrambling over the 12,000-foot peaks of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness and Park Range northeast of Steamboat Springs.

After briefly dipping into the valley along U.S. Highway 40, the trail then travels through the Never Summer Wilderness and enters Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) just north of Grand Lake. Here it crosses the extreme upper Colorado River at the Bowen Gulch Trailhead and offers a loop through the park near several fishy mountain lakes. Then it heads back to Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Lake and on to Lake Granby and Monarch Lake. And while RMNP is not necessarily known as a hotspot for huge trout, there are many opportunities for beautiful and native trout.

The next noteworthy section is where the CDT skirts and pokes through the southern end of the Indian Peaks Wilderness near Devils Thumb and King lakes, and onward through the James Peak Wilderness, over Berthoud Pass, and along the fishy pocketwater of Clear Creek near Bakerville.

From there it makes an arduous journey along the ridgeline of some 14ers and around the headwaters of some of the state’s most famous rivers, before dropping down to the uppermost freestone section of the Blue River. Then up and over the Tenmile Range, over the upper Eagle River, and onto Turquoise Lake and Twin Lakes in the upper Arkansas River drainage near Leadville.

It continues southward through the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, then past Chalk Creek toward Monarch Mountain. Near there, it follows a ridge directly above the Waterdog Lakes which have a population of rare and native greenback cutthroat trout.

The trail continues working south and west through the La Garita Wilderness near the Gunnison River headwaters and along Cochetopa Creek, on through the Rio Grande headwaters, then the Weminuche Wilderness where it passes many mountain lakes and through the South San Juan Wilderness along the Conejos headwaters. After its 750-mile journey through Colorado, the CDT spills south over the state border northeast of Chama, New Mexico.

New Mexico

The southernmost 820 miles of the CDT enter New Mexico in the Carson National Forest. It skirts the Cruces Basin Wilderness, crosses the Santa Fe National Forest’s Chama River Canyon Wilderness and San Pedro Parks Wilderness, passes through the Cibola National Forest, El Malpais National Monument, the mountains of the Gila National Forest and Aldo Leopold Wilderness, as it terminates its course in a remote part of southwest New Mexico.

Fly-fishing opportunities thin out down here, but that doesn’t mean you should leave your rod at home.

For example, the CDT dips into the rugged Chama River Canyon at Skull Bridge, which hosts some nice rainbows and a few truly huge brown trout. And if you build in a couple of extra days, you could thumb it 15 miles to the northwest of where the trail leaves U.S. 180 to Cliff, New Mexico. Here, the Gila River—which hosts smallmouth bass, catfish, and carp—flows through private land. One portion, along Iron Bridge Road, is owned by the Nature Conservancy and is open to the public.

From that point on U.S. 180, the CDT travels another 150 or so miles through Lordsburg and the Big Hatchet Mountains Wilderness Study Area to the southern terminus at a remote area in New Mexico’s bootheel.

A westslope cutthroat trout sits in a net, waiting to be released into a lake.
The best mountain lakes often have what biologists call “limited natural reproduction,” meaning the fish spawn on their own in the wild, but do not overwhelm a lake’s biomass. In other words, there is enough food for these wild beauties to grow large quickly. (Joshua Bergan photo)

Resources and Gear

There is plenty of specialized fly-fishing gear that comes in handy for trips on the CDT.

Smartphone apps, for example, can be very useful. One of the three people we ran into on our trip mentioned she had a smartphone app called FarOut, which has specific trail guides for many trails and public lands throughout the United States. If offers features like topo maps and satellite imagery that show the locations of gates, water crossings, roads, trail junctions, and highlights such as mountain peaks, along with user-generated waypoint photos, campsite descriptions, and trail conditions, along with other helpful tips. The complete CDT Guide costs $39.99.

I happen to prefer the Avenza Maps app, which will track your location on free, downloadable USGS quad maps. Just make sure your quads are current—we actually planned our trip based on a decades-old map with an obsolete trail course, and had to adjust our whole trip on the fly.

The Continental Divide Trail Coalition’s website, continentaldividetrail.org, has many resources, including a print atlas, family-friendly and day-hike suggestions, historical information, details on gateway communities, news, closures, and much more.

There are many books about fishing these places, most of which are where-to fishing guidebooks. But some of my favorite how-to books include Gary LaFontaine’s Fly Fishing the Mountain Lakes (Lyons Press, 2003), Rich Ostoff’s Fly Fishing the Rocky Mountain Backcountry (Stackpole Books, 1999), and Skip Morris and Brian Chan’s Fly Fishing Trout Lakes (Frank Amato Publications, 1999).

Some flies I pack for these types of high-country fisheries include Chernobyl Ants, Amy’s Ants, Bloom’s Parachute Flying Ants, some beetles, Prince Nymphs, Hare’s Ears, and Girdle Bugs. For the stillwaters, I add Callibaetis drys, chironomid larvae and pupae, leeches like Mayer’s Mini Leech or the Pigpen Leech, some marabou damselfly nymphs, a selection of scuds, and of course, Woolly Buggers in a variety of flavors and sizes.

Either a lightweight rod and reel, or a six- or seven-piece travel rod are ideal. Bring extra spools rather than full-on reels. Rather than the entire tippet caddy, I pack only 4X and 5X.

For lakes along the CDT, Scientific Anglers makes a great selection of stillwater fly lines. I like to bring one sinking line with a uniform sink rate, another with dual densities, and maybe even a hover parabolic line, along with a standard floating line.

I am unaware of any fly-fishing-specific, multi-day backpacking backpack, but I really like Simms’s Flyweight Vest Pack for day trips, which has a perfect bear-spray pocket that provides important peace of mind in the Montana and Wyoming portions of the trail.

And Simms Bugstopper SolarFlex Hoody is a great multi-day shirt for backpacking as it serves many purposes (bug protection, UV protection, is quick drying, etc.).

Bear in mind that permits are required to camp in certain national forests and wilderness areas along the trail.

A westslope cutthroat trout rising to a dry fly.
The 550-mile Wyoming stretch of the CDT begins just south of West Yellowstone, Montana and just west of the Old Faithful Village in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo courtesy of Side Channel Productions)

Uphill Fly Fishing

Especially at a time when our cold-water trout streams are increasingly affected by climate change, we should be looking

uphill more and more at high-elevation trout fisheries. Continuing to fish the West’s famous main stems through August will not make much sense if the trout are no longer there. Many of the lakes and streams along the CDT embody this alpine future.

So about that lake that the gods were trying to keep from us that smoky night on the CDT in western Montana . . . It turned out to be a gorgeous 9,000-foot gem bubbling with thick 12- to 18-inch westslope cutthroat trout that were facing the banks under downed logs, eager to ambush ignorant grasshoppers.

My film crew (Ben Pierce and Christine Marozick of Side Channel Productions—both excellent fly anglers) helped me spot fish, got me set up to cast in a way that the camera could capture, then confidently reassured me that if I can cast my hopper within a given radius of the sighted fish, it would eat. And they were right, time after time.

The smoke actually cleared that afternoon, revealing cyan heavens that we hadn’t seen for days. Together the three of us sighted, stalked, and caught more than enough native cutthroats on dry flies, and made our peace with the fishing gods on a fantastic trip on the Continental Divide Trail.

Mountain Lake Videos

Finding and Catching Trout at Mountain Lakes:

The Bugs and Aquatic Invertebrates of Mountain Lakes:

Packing for Fishing at Mountain Lakes:


Joshua Bergan is Fly Fisherman magazine’s digital editor, the former associate publisher at Wilderness Adventures Press, a freelance writer and photographer, and author of the Flyfisher’s Guide to Southwest Montana’s Mountain Lakes and Tributary: Fishing the Northern Rockies’ Periphery. He, his wife Liz, kiddo Thomas, and their dogs Mika and Koda basecamp out of Belgrade, Montana. joshuabergan.com | Instagram: @joshua_bergan

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