Trout Above Treeline

As the thoughts of a warm trout-filled summer emerge, it’s time to sit down and plan the annual alpine fly-fishing/backpacking trips with my good friends Scott, Liz, and the life of the trip Paisley (seen below).

Questions quickly flood the air, like what new lakes can we explore? Which types of trout occur at each lake? Can the few cans of celebratory beer make the weight limit?! Let’s take a look inside what gear, flies, and essentials that will help make these trips successful and make memories that will last a lifetime!

The thought of a golden trout at the end of a fly angler’s mind may top the charts… That said, doing your research when it comes to this trip is crucial. Catching goldens out of their native range of California may seem like an impossible feat, but most western states have stocked goldens in high alpine lakes. Being able to get a hold of state game and fish-stocking records allow you to find the body of water right for you to catch what species you are after!

Gear for camping:

For me, a two-person tent is the ideal solo cover for many nights. A two-person tent allows for your gear to stay inside with you for the night as well. I use a 15-degree mummy sleeping bag all summer into early fall. I stay plenty warm at 10,000 feet during the cool summer nights in it.

The most crucial part that I’ve learned to change as a youngster while backpacking is my sleeping pad. I started out with a pad that was only knee height and up. Now I use a Klymit pad that is the length of my body. I’m 6’2” so I need something that can reach the length of my body. The Klymit Insulated Static V Lite is a perfect fit for me. Other essentials for the trip include freeze-dried meals, a water filter, and some sort of apparatus that boils water like a Jet-Boil.

Gear for Fly Fishing:

My go-to alpine fly-fishing rod is a 10ft 4wt. You will hear a lot of different choices on rods from many anglers, but from the many guided and self-alpine trips I have taken, this is my personal favorite. The extra length helps with ease of casting from the wind through the treeless terrain. Pair it with any 3-5wt reel with a power tapered line. A 9 ft leader with about 14-16in of tippet as well.

Less is more when you’re taking these long extensive hikes into the backcountry. A smaller bag to hold gear would be a great choice. Two extra leaders, some spools of 7x-4x tippet, some gink or drying agent, split shot, hemostats with cutters are the only terminal tackle I will bring to minimize weight. Add more or less of what you need depending on how light you want to go.

Where to Fish:

When fishing for alpine trout, I will first check out the lay of the lake. Inlets are always a great place to start, as trout will stack along the incoming water and wait for new food to get flushed in. Checking out rock points on the lake or ledges off chunk boulders can also pay off. Being able to locate structures that differ from the plain areas are key.

Fly Selection:

A few of my early season/ice-off choices are price nymphs, gold ribbed hare’s ear, pheasant tail, with varying sizes and beadheads based on the differentiating water clarity. Most of these lakes are crystal clear, so the more natural the presentation the better.

Changing it up often until you see a pattern is your best bet. Some extra shine on the fly when the sun is out may grab their attention or going beadless acts as a more subtle appearance. Your alpine trout box should have a lot of similar flies to your lowland flies due to similar forage for the trout.

A quintessential fly for all alpine lakes would have to be a black/purple wooly bugger with or without a bead head. I prefer one with a bead head for the extra shine to entice the fish. Size 10-12 in smaller lakes and size 8 with bigger fish in the lakes. Whenever I get to a new alpine lake and the fish aren’t rising, I will tie on a wooly bugger with a nymph trailing on about 14in of 4x or 5x tippet. Cast the line out, let it sink and then start stripping, you will learn what the fish are wanting to eat by what they take.

As for dry flies: purple haze, hoppers, beetles, caddis, mosquito patterns. With a lot of these fish not getting much pressure fly pattern is not a huge deal. If these fish do get picky, I find that decreasing in size will usually get them to eat. If you see rising fish cast right to the spot where they rose. The fish will still be in that general area and will see your dry hit the water and will be back to eat your fly.

After many days of camping, fishing, and exploring new waters each and every time I take a guided trip out or do some backpacking adventures solo or with friends, I learn new tips and tricks about trout. Keep an open mind while fishing, remember fly fishing is just for fun, enjoy yourself, and always remember what you pack in to make sure to pack out more.

Whether this is a trip you do many times a summer or a completely new adventure you are about to partake in I hope that this information can be useful.

Article and photos from Dan Towsley. You can follow along with Dan on Instagram at @dtowsley or on Vimeo.

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