I am one of the few Montanans who groan at the sight of the first snowfall. Winter means that the alpine bliss of granite splendor dotted with trout filled lakes are now over. The lakes freeze over, the fish are blinded by anything presented to them on the fly, and the trails now require extra gear and slower arrival. But as any Montanan, I accept the inevitable for the necessity of snow in the environment to be as lush and healthy as it was all summer. I just begin crossing out the dates on the calendar for up to nine months until the next thaw and summer season.
It is always a slow process for the lakes to thaw and snow to melt. Unlike most places in the southwest or even the Sierra, depending on our snow year, some of the lakes aren’t even fishable until late July. Spring snow is necessary for Montana as it brings much needed moisture to the dry soils that help us fight our summer fire season. It isn’t uncommon to see an unbelievable weekend in June all to hike up to elevation to see nothing but a frozen landscape despite the 80-degree temperatures. But as any angler knows, we stayed in the sport by learning patience.
The alpine is quiet. Unsettled, unbothered, and undisturbed by even most of the creatures that inhabit the environment above 9,000 feet. Even the cute pika groan at the presence of something, not themselves and the marmot squeak at their highest pitch to let you know of theirs.
Mountain goats cautiously investigate the few visitors they see while the granite towers above, largely untouched by man. Other than them, the landscape is only whipped by the daily afternoon winds that speak of the quiet symphony that is playing throughout the landscape and into your ears.
Where the bustle of the highway and day hikers sit below in the crowded amphitheater of the concert-like noise at the treeline, the further reaches of Montana’s trails beckon with headphones and a deep beat of unfished terrain. With slithering streams cascading down from alpine lakes of deep aqua blue color, littered with trout, all one must do is load a backpack and start climbing.
The state of Montana hosts only a million people as the fourth largest in the country by landmass, largely dominated by mountains on the western side of the state. The pika, marmot, and mountain goats are still the only ones who see fish rise in some of the lakes in the state to this day.
That is an irresistible appeal that I cannot live with. I must dive deep and get into these untouched areas to explore what Montana Fish and Wildlife have planted. Explore what has been native and locked in these high prisons of jail cells with no guards or cellmates. Solitary confinement, but one of freedom with little as far as predators go to worry about. That is until an angler arrives with an arsenal of flies ready to fool even the most stubborn of starving alpine trout.
Some lakes are barren while others are loaded with anything from brook trout, Yellowstone cutthroat, grayling, and the only California native allowed in Montana; the golden trout. Montana Fish and Wildlife have attempted to try and drop both eggs and fry into new and uninhabited lakes, but some remain barren despite this effort without any real definitive answer for their disappearance. Another appeal for adventure for those that refuse to believe the lakes remain fishless.
In attempts to reach these lakes and creeks, one just doesn’t wake up and say, “I want to go and catch a grayling or golden trout today.” Unless you’re an ultrarunner who recently won one of the latest races at a ridiculous mountain speed, planning is critical to your success and safety in the mountains. Though one day ascents to these fisheries are possible, an early start and a glance at the weather is required.
With all the trips into the high country, no matter the forecast, I always expect and receive the worst each afternoon. Even in July, at elevation, an afternoon flurry of snow and a sudden drop of temperature can happen. Usually, I put the fly rod down around four if clouds begin to gather near the mountain peaks. Thunder and lightning aren’t just a maybe, they’re a when.
Going to bed at night debating to put the rain fly on my tent should never be a debate at all. Just because it is starry skied and you’re gazing in wanderlust at the myriad of spectacles in the sky, that rain fly better be put on before your eyes close until morning.
Each step up and away into your desired location, the trees begin to scatter and become scarce much like the humans at a trailhead. Leaving you with nothing but granite views and cascading creeks where some fish are even visible from the trail.
Many of the lakes are inaccessible to most because a trail either doesn’t meander over to its shores or is so unmaintained that it is untraceable. But simply because there is no trail to a lake never meant it shouldn’t be walked to. A GPS or a good compass and map with exceptional map reading skills can guide you to untouched trout bliss without a soul in sight.
The thing with Montana is that the trails up to your destination are never easy. In fact, many trails I have even considered going back down from the inaccuracy of the latest hiking apps or the questionability from my exhaustion and what the map reading said back at the trailhead parking lot. Getting lost and distracted in grizzly country isn’t recommended and preparation is paramount.
However, each time and every effort spent pinballing my way up a switch-backed trail in bear country has always been worth every huff and puff and curse word mumbled and screamed hauling loads of camping and fishing gear. For once you feel like falling over from the physical pursuit to get to your lake or stream, you crest onto a plateau with views of an alpine cirque loaded with fish frolicking in the shallow water so clear that their kaleidoscope of color can be seen from the trailhead.
I am unsure as to why the trout hooked in these alpine settings boast beauty and color that not only resembles the grandeur of the landscape but also rivals it in competition. Perhaps the effort of physical pain coupled with the fear overcame hiking in bear country made anything spectacular.
However, each cast and each fish brought to hand is an expression of an artist that cannot mix their paints appropriately enough to match the hues on each fish to hand. Like the spring colors of a rainbow in spawn or the fall colors of a brown trout at your local river, the alpine trout in mid-summer, sipping your flies from the surface or below, dance and flare their colors when hooked, visible even in the deepest of waters.
Some lakes and streams are tricky to land fish while others are nearly exhausting from a hook set on every cast. What these fish lack in size to their cousins down in elevation, they make up for in beauty and voracity. Never have I seen an 8-inch brook trout do a head shake as if I hooked a Marlin in Costa Rica than I have in Montana’s alpine.
For its quiet landscape, untouched fishery, and the colors of the flowers in their short bloom, this high church is a fishing religion worth pursuing. Like attendees at Sunday morning service, I too devote myself in a holy manner to the high granite gods above 10,000 feet.
Even when I am unable to attend during the winter, the choir of the chapel hits the deep low key on the piano, demanding my attention to look to the horizon from below and gaze at the mountain peaks encapsulated with snow skyrocketing to the heavens. Keeping me daydreaming for the following season and each lake I have yet to gaze at in wonderment and each fish I have yet to hook. Until the next church service, I sit and wait crossing out dates on the calendar.
Article and photos from Sean Jansen, an avid angler and writer based in Bozeman, Montana. Follow along with his adventures at @jansen_journals.