Summer is around the corner, and the last memory of winter will be the ice melting off lakes high in the mountains. When the water is finally exposed, anglers can return to these high places from our inferior dwellings to hunt for gorgeous, delicious alpine trout.
For the last five years I’ve scoured numerous mountain ranges across the West looking for fishy spots. The treeless and craggy regions of the Western United States claim some of the most productive trout fisheries in the world. However, fishing this high above sea level means an angler must alter their tactics. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned to make sure a 20-mile hike into bear country isn’t for naught.
Nature of the Beast Before we talk about how to do it, it’s important to understand what it is we’re talking about. The phrase “high-mountain trout” can be applied very broadly across the left half of North America to a number of different species and situations. First of all, most of the fish way, way up in the mountains were originally stocked, but not all. Golden trout, for example, are native only to the high lakes of the Sierra Nevada in Northern California. Anywhere else they exist now, they got there on by truck, backpack, horse, or airplane. That’s right, after World War II, bomber planes and pilots were repurposed to fill America’s high elevation lakes with trout and occasionally beavers.
There are also places in the Northern Rockies where cutthroat trout are native to high elevation waterways but, by and large, anytime you find fish way up in the mountains, someone put them there. Some state game agencies restock certain lakes every year, while others have allowed introduced populations to reproduce in the wild and spread unassisted for decades. Most states and provinces publish exhaustive lists of lakes and stocking regimes on their websites.
The most common fishes in alpine lakes and streams are cutthroat, golden, rainbow, and brook trout, as well as arctic grayling. Each of these species have their own quirks, but the best methods for pursuing them are similar.
How to Catch High-Mountain Trout It seems that alpine lakes and the fish within them fall into one of two categories: very difficult or incredibly easy. Fishing pressure certainly is a factor, but availability of food also plays a role. Regardless of the reason, sometimes it just doesn’t matter what you’re using because the fish are so hungry they’re willing to eat anything. Other times it’s not so simple, and you’ll need to cycle through flies, lures, and techniques to key in on what the fish want.
Typically, small dry flies, nymphs, and streamers are the best plays for fly anglers. Many folks will start with Elk Hair Caddis or Parachute Adams. If that doesn’t get any takers, you can switch to a small Wooly Bugger or Zonker in black, olive, tan, or white. As a last resort, a small Pheasant Tail, Prince Nymph, or chironomid crawled slowly on a hand-twist retrieve may entice even the most recalcitrant trout.
For the spin angler, small Panther Martin or Roostertail spinners and Little Cleo or Kastmaster spoons should do the trick for aggressive fish. For pickier trout, anglers with conventional gear may fish success using natural bait or flies behind a casting bubble.
Be Stealthy High elevation lakes are often clear and calm, making it easier for fish to spot commotion from above. Keep in mind that these trout are apt to die via avian air assault during the exposed summer months. They’ve seen a few of their buddies picked off by ospreys and eagles and are especially distrustful of rapid movements. Consider wearing a camo shirt and don’t feel dorky crouching while casting. Don’t trudge right into the water; first assess the situation from a safe distance and even cast right to the shoreline before you expose yourself.
A heavy spinner or thick fly line slapping the water is like tripping the warning alarm. A soft and calculated approach will keep any sunbathing trout from spooking. Spot-and-stalk techniques can be productive but will become frustrating after watching dozens of fleeing fish. My preferred method for high elevation fishing is stolen from the saltwater playbook. Position yourself on the edge of the lake with your fly or lure in hand and enough line peeled off the reel to make some distance. Patiently wait for a cruising trout and cast ahead of the fish’s path. Using this patient tactic instead of the reactive spot and stalk will decrease the chance of spooking a fish.
When all else fails, resort to blind casting nymphs and streamers. Twitching or stripping nymphs produces great results in deep or murky lakes.
Don’t Dismiss Small Creeks Snowmelt often flows into alpine lakes through teeny-tiny creeks while the overflow is drained by a similarly small waterway. Anglers seem to run right for the lakeshore when mountain fishing, leaping over prime spots. Logically, this approach makes sense because depth offers more cover for trout, but these miniature tributaries tend to be trout gold mines. I can’t tell you how many times I have thrown a fly into an area that seemed inhospitable, only to hook up on the first cast. That choppy, moving water provides auditory and visual camouflage, as well as higher oxygen content. The water around the inflow and outflow of any alpine lake should be very high on your target list.
Explore the Water Column Right when the ice begins melting off the fringes of high-altitude lakes, the fish will be very shallow and often aggressive. This often continues through their spring spawning cycle. Later in the summer, however, those same fish may seek colder and deeper water in the middle of the lake. It’s good practice to be able to pursue those fish wherever they may be hiding.
Fish what’s in front of you first, but if you’re not seeing rises or fish moving across the shallows, add more weight. I like to find a rocky point above deep water in these scenarios, add splitshot to whatever fly or spinner I’m tossing, cast way out, and let the rig sink. Sometimes you’ll find them as deep as 40 feet down. Larger terminal tackle may come into play here because you’re searching and trying to call fish in from some distance.
How to Cook High-Mountain Trout As we mentioned, most alpine trout were originally stocked there. That’s not a license to kill every 6-incher that attacks your fly, but an acknowledgment that game agencies went to great effort to provide fish for people to eat. And there’s few things finer than the flavor of cold-water fish after a long, steep hike to their realm. Keep whatever the law and your stomach will allow.
Trout flesh doesn’t keep well even with a freezer or refrigerator handy. It’s best to eat a fish soon after harvesting it. If the catching is good, release trout until you’re ready to go have dinner. Bleed the fish, gut it, wash it in the lake, then build a fire.
There are three primary ways to cook trout in a camping situation: caveman style, wrapped in tinfoil, or pan-fried. Caveman is what we call spit-roasting over flames. Drive a sharpened stick through the fish’s mouth, through the gutted belly, and stab it into the flesh at the back of the ribcage. Brace the fish against the spit using several smaller sticks and roast near, but not in, the flames until the skin is crispy.
Another popular way to cook trout while camping is to wrap it in aluminum foil with butter or olive oil and some seasonings then place the package in the coals. It’s harder to tell when the fish is done but it will cook more evenly.
Another alternative is to fillet the fish and cook it skin-down in a frying pan over a fire or a portable stove. This is a handy trick if there are fire restrictions in effect. Pan-fry the fillets with butter or olive oil and some salt and pepper until the meat will flake off cleanly with a fork. You want it cooked through but not dried out.
On the Conservation Soapbox Alpine ecosystems are fragile. The growing season is limited at high altitudes, meaning it can take decades for trees, plants, and lichens to mature. Pummeling foliage to get to a honey hole or chopping down small trees for a firewood isn’t worth the damage to the environment. With a surge of outdoor enthusiast experiencing the Mountain West due to international Covid travel restrictions, these already-sensitive ecosystems are looking down the barrel of a gun. Be considerate about your waste, try to avoid trampling the land, pack out your trash, and bury your fires.