With summer comes the opportunity to find wild trout in high alpine lakes that have been sitting iced over for months. The trout found within are typically eager for an easy meal as food supplies in these waters tend to be scarce. In addition to numerous lakes, the opportunity for fishing pocket water on mountain streams should not be overlooked. Pocket water is often abundant in the streams flowing in and out of alpine lakes and can provide countless hours of fun with spooky fish in crystal clear water.
Clothing is an essential aspect of high alpine and backcountry fly fishing. Temperatures at high altitudes can fluctuate drastically throughout the course of a day. Morning temperatures can be sub-freezing, even in the summer months, and reach highs in the 70s and 80s by mid-afternoon. This obviously creates a problem when you are trying to minimize the amount of gear that you carry while still being prepared for anything that Mother Nature throws at you.
Hiking to an alpine lake or backcountry stream often requires an early start, if you want to miss the all-to-common afternoon thunderstorms that fall upon the high country throughout the summer months. This often means cool mornings where layers are required. I swear by my Patagonia Nano Puff jacket for a vast range of temperatures from the 30s to the high 60s. It’s lightweight and packs down to almost nothing, helping save space for other gear required for a day in the backcountry.
As mentioned above, afternoon thunderstorms are the norm at high altitudes and there’s no better way to be prepared than having a comfortable rain jacket. It’s important to find a jacket that you can wear over a wide range of temperatures so leaving room for layers certainly isn’t a bad idea (mine fits perfectly over my Nano Puff insulated jacket). I’ve worn Patagonia’s Torrentshell 3L Jacket for a few years now and my only real complaint is that it can get sweaty in warmer temps, otherwise it has kept me dry in more than a few surprise rain and snowstorms.
Pants & Footwear
If you’ve read Get Wet: A Guide to Wet Wading here on the mag, you’ll know my choice of pants for outdoor activities are the Eddie Bauer Men’s Guide Pro Pants. They’re lightweight, incredibly fast-drying, and still provide enough protection to bushwhack if necessary. A sturdy pair of hiking shoes or boots are great for navigating a variety of terrain on your way to these remote fish. I have worn several different styles of Keen’s for going on 10 years and would recommend them as a great waterproof option. When the temps really start to rise, I’ll strap a pair of Teva sandals on my pack for stream crossings and wet wading.
Fly Fishing Gear
Backcountry fly fishing enables an angler to use just about any rod from about a 0wt-5wt depending on the terrain. Small mountain streams typically contain smaller fish allowing ultralight rods to be used for dapping dry flies all day long. Many backcountry anglers will opt for fiberglass rods to enhance the fun of catching these smaller but incredibly beautiful wild fish. With that being said, a calm day on a high alpine lake is rare, often requiring a rod with more backbone to punch casts through a stiff breeze. A 3-5wt fly rod with a floating line should serve you well in just about any backcountry situation.
For backcountry fly fishing a click and pawl reel is the perfect setup. Instead of having a built-in drag system a click and pawl reel uses a clicker that ticks against the teeth of a gear placed on the spool, this creates a drag. Not only are these reels extremely fun to fish with smaller backcountry fish but they are also lightweight making them perfect for backcountry fly fishing. Specifically the Ross Reels Colorado LT Reel.
Backcountry trout are often opportunistic feeders so you can keep your fly selections relatively simple. A few impressionistic flies are all you really need to fool these willing fish. Dry fly fishing opportunities are plentiful throughout the summer so being prepared for topwater action is key. Some of my personal favorites for backcountry streams and high alpine lakes include Parachute Adams in sz18-24 in BWO and PMD, Elk Hair Caddis in sz14-20, and all sorts of attractor patterns like the Chubby Chernobyl, Hippie Stomper, and PMX.
There will be times when going subsurface is necessary so an array of medium to small nymphs (16-22) will typically get the job done. Copper Johns, Zebra Midges, Rainbow Warriors, and a variety of emerger patterns are my go-to’s. Methods for fishing nymphs include dry droppers (particularly for mountain streams), under an indicator, and even stripping a single nymph on a slow retrieve can draw a strike in alpine lakes.
Backcountry and high alpine fly fishing provides an opportunity to get away from crowded tailwaters and freestones during the summer months. Be sure to take time to enjoy the many wonders that the wilderness has to offer. Upon arrival at alpine lakes, take a few moments to set up your gear and observe the water. Alpine lake trout will typically cruise the shorelines in a repetitive manner. The keen angler can figure out when and where to place a perfect dry fly by taking time to observe the trout’s feeding habits. Once you’ve figured out the pattern, lead the fish with a dry fly by several feet with a long leader (a 5x mono leader around 9-12 feet is a safe bet) and get ready!
In addition to alpine lakes, pocket water is abundant in high mountain streams due to the steep nature of the terrain. Dapping your fly near a plunge pool is likely to draw the attention of an opportunistic small stream trout. Often times you may only need a foot or two of fly line out of your guides. Watch your shadows and do your best to keep your rod from spooking these fish. I’ve spent countless hours on small streams with a massive grin on my face thanks to a bunch of 6” trout, eager to take any dry fly I throw their way.
The next few items are great general backcountry supplies that will help ensure a fun and safe day. Maintaining a lightweight pack is a great goal but don’t sacrifice the essentials.
A waterproof pack or backpack is a great idea for backcountry adventures. Keeping spare layers of clothes and supplies dry is critical for when the temperatures drop.
Brands like Yeti, Simms, Rising, and Fishpond all have their own version of waterproof lumbar packs, slings, and backpacks designed with fly fishing in mind. I like a pack or bag with enough space to carry a day’s worth of food, water, layers, and the ability to carry a fly rod tube in one way or another. Hiking for miles with a built rod can be a real pain and you run the risk of breaking your rod in the process, so I’d recommend packing it in. I use the Fishpond Thunderhead Submersible Lumbar pack with the Fishpond Lariat Gear Straps to fasten my rod tube.
When entering the wilderness, it’s hard to come over-prepared. I highly recommend purchasing a topographical map, downloading the region you plan to explore on Google Maps (for offline access), or using the awesome digital topographical maps that National Geographic has made available. These are also great resources for locating backcountry lakes and streams in the first place! Letting someone know your plans (someone that you trust with the location of your favorite blue lines, of course) is never a bad idea in the event that an accident occurs.
Lastly, a lighter, flint, TP, pocketknife, and all the usual first aid supplies should accompany you in the backcountry. A GPS system is a good idea if you plan to blaze your own trails. If you aren’t used to high elevations or will be taking a guest from lower altitudes to a high alpine lake, be considerate of altitude sickness. Purchasing a can of bottled oxygen has saved the day more than once for some of my visitors.
Finding Your Wilderness
If your favorite rivers and lakes are full of recreational boaters and floaters this time of the year, I’d highly recommend doing a bit of research and planning a high alpine adventure! Catching wild, beautiful trout is only half the fun of backcountry fly fishing. The hike, wilderness, and time away from crowded rivers should not be taken for granted. Put in the time to research locations near you and I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Article by Evan Garda, he is on the Content Team here at Fly Lords. He can be found chasing trout throughout the west with his trusty fly rod. Check out his adventures at @evangarda.