Lets Talk About High Alpine Trout Fishing in Colorado

Melissa Plantz
Photo credit: Melissa Plantz

We have all heard the rumors: “18 inch cutthroat up there”, “super spooky fish”, “the biggest I have ever seen”, and while not all of them may be true, every rumor starts from somewhere. So, where are these fish, and how do you catch them? 

Let’s start with what I am sure you’ve been dying to know…are there really big fish in high alpine lakes and streams? Short answer, yes. Throughout Colorado, cutthroat and brook trout often frequent the cool waters of the high alpine country. Where they are found, however, they are habitually challenging to catch.

What:

Cutthroat and brook trout ranging from 4 inches to 20 inches in size. These fish are wild as can be, and have some of the most extraordinary colors you will find anywhere. Cutthroats are characterized by their distinct red coloration at the gills, and in the high country, their bodies are frequently tan in color. Brook trout are often smaller in size than cutthroat trout, but will fight just as hard. These fish will likely have a red/orange color on the lower part of their bodies and tails, as well as small pink spots along the upper section of their torso.

A cutthroat trout caught in a small alpine stream.
Photo credit: John Duncan

When:

Both species of trout thrive in the cold waters that can be found at high altitudes, and because of this, the timing of your fishing expedition is crucial. In Colorado, the best time to head up to the high country is between the months of June and October. The temperatures in these months are comfortable for both you and for the fish. In general, high alpine lake fishing is often best in the morning and evening, when calm conditions are conducive to rising fish. It is important to remember that every location is a little bit different, and there is no hard and fast rule. If you see bugs over the water, or fish rising, don’t be afraid to go throw a fly around. 

Stream fishing tends to be more consistent all day, but warmer water temperature and hatches positively contribute to fish activity. Consequently, dry fly fishing is often better in the afternoon. 

 Where:

Throughout Colorado there are hundreds of alpine lakes and streams. When you are planning your fishing day(s) I would suggest going to talk to the local fly shop first. The

people working there can give you a general idea of where to go, and where the fishing has been best. If there is not a fly shop near your destination, don’t be afraid to look up the location on the internet, and identify lakes and streams between 9,000 and 12,500 feet. You may have to hike into your fishing location. When doing so, always bring the proper equipment (sun screen, water, plenty of food, etc.), and tell someone where you are planning to go in case of emergency. Always pack it out so that we can keep the backcountry clean for years to come. 

High alpine lake
An alpine lake located at 11,700′ above sea level.

How:

Flies:

Effective high country flies are unique from what you may normally have in your fly box. You will want to bring an assortment of beetles and ants in various sizes, shapes, and colors. These flies work wonders on both still and moving water. In addition to this, I would recommend bringing grasshoppers, chubby chernobyls and stimulators in sizes 12, 14, and 16 in assorted colors. On the lakes there are often small midge hatches. Having an assortment of Griffith’s Gnats and single midges is very important (sizes 16-22). Mayflies and Caddis are a favorite among the wild cutthroats and brookies that inhabit these waters, and appear intermittently throughout the season. Once again, it is beneficial to have a variety of sizes (14-22), colors (dark, light, and everything in between), and styles. 

Rods:         

Scott G Series
The Scott G Series 
Photo credit: Telluride Angler

As a rule of thumb, when you are fishing backcountry streams, you will usually be using a lighter, shorter rod in order to navigate your fly line in tight spaces and control a light.

leader. Two, three, and four weight rods are the best for the job. My personal favorite rod to fish in little known creeks is the Scott G Series 883-4. This eight foot, eight inch, three weight fly rod casts with precision that is unmatched within the industry, and has the ability to make subtle presentations. It is a medium action rod that is spectacular in hand, and will take your breath away as you lay out cast after cast.

As far as the best fly rod to fish in high-alpine lakes, I would 100 percent recommend the new Scott Centric 904-4. All nine feet of this fly rod enable you to control your fly line in a

Scott Centric
The Scott Centric
Photo credit: Telluride Angler

way that will give you a precise, gentle cast, while also enabling longer casts in windy conditions. It is a fast action fly rod that is perfect for lakes, regardless of wind, weather, or other negatively contributing factors. Alternatively, any four or five weight rod will do.

Reels: 

On the topic of reels, the single most important thing to take into consideration is how the reel feels on your fly rod. On the Scott G Series 883-4, the Ross San Miguel 3/4 is a great way to go. It balances out the rod, and the rod will feel

Ross San Miguel
The Ross San Miguel
Photo credit: Ross Reels

 

stunning in hand. On the Scott Centric 904-4, the Hatch Finatic 3 Plus is an ideal match. Plus, you can order it custom black with red engraving to match your rod. 

If you have any questions about rod/reel pairings, give your local fly shop a call and they will help you out to ensure that you have the best set up possible.

Fly lines:

Similar to reels, the most important thing is that your fly line corresponds with the weight and style of your rod. For example, on the Scott G Series 883-4, I would put a Scientific Anglers Mastery Trout WF3F for the best possible casting and overall fishing experience. 

On the Scott Centric 904-4, I would recommend the Scientific Anglers Amplitude Smooth Infinity Taper WF4F. This is a fly line that will enable you to feel all of the perfectly crafted nuances of the fly rod. 

Leaders and tippet:

Size 8 Grasshopper
A fan favorite out here in Colorado, the size 8 hopper.

Having the correct strength leader and tippet is very important for fly presentation and playing fish. On lakes, a leader between 10 and 13 feet will help with gentle presentations, whereas on creeks, a shorter leader will help you to fish in tighter quarters. In general, the size of your fly corresponds with the strength of your leader.  For example, if you are fishing a size 8 grasshopper, 4x would be appropriate, whereas, with a size 20 ant, you would want to use 6x or 7x. Sight-fishing is often possible in both lakes and creeks, so make sure to fish with your eyes before you fish with your rod. 

 

The next time you head into the high country, take these tips with you, and I hope that the fishing is as spectacular as the scenery. 

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