Author: Tucker Ladd
I have always been a firm believer that some of the best trout fishing in the Lower 48 can’t be accessed by plane, boat or car. These are places that are off the map, and only available to those who are willing to work for it. Backpacking and hiking has always been a popular past time in America, but it has yet to really taken hold in the angling community in terms of how and where we access fishable water. But those hearty soles that are willing to venture into one or our nations many Wilderness Areas, National Parks or National Forests will undoubtedly be greeted with solitude, beautiful surroundings, and lots of hungry trout.
The hard part is that these places aren’t marked on any map, and typically these are lakes and streams that must be fished and experienced to know if they are any good. That’s the intriguing part of backcountry fly fishing, you never know what you may find. I have been on plenty of trips that were a complete bust. The creek was to low, the lake was to shallow, the fish too small. But for every lake I find that is junk, there is another I find that is a complete jewel. These are the places that will keep you coming back for more, and pushing yourself that extra mile to get just a little farther away.
But please don’t think that these places are in any way a secret, and although I will not tell you where my honey hole is, I am happy to offer you some insight to help you how to find your own.
The answers are in the map
Because there is little information regarding backcountry lakes and streams (in terms of fishing), your best source of information is going to be a map. When selecting a lake or creek, there are a couple key characteristics that you want to look for. The map below is of the Missouri Lakes basin in the Holy Cross Wilderness. Just a short drive from Vail, CO., this is a great hike that you may want to consider trying to get more familiar with backcountry fishing.
Now this does not mean that if a prospective lake does not have all the above qualities that it is unfishable or void of life. This map is more an illustration and explanation of some important characteristics that individually or combined help create a prime trout habitat.
Don’t be afraid to go off trail
One key factor in all highcountry lakes is access. The easier it is for people to get to, the more pressure the lake or creek will see, and the tougher the fishing will be. As a result I have developed two very important rules when selecting a prospective backcountry fishing hole. First, it must be at least 5 miles from any trailhead. Most people seem to have a phobia of hiking more than 10 miles in a day. So by choosing a destination that may take a bit longer to get to, I know I am dramatically decreasing the number of other people I will see. My second rule of thumb is to find destinations that are not on a trail. Although this takes more navigating to find, and will lead to tougher hiking conditions, the end result is always worth it.
Don’t be in such a hurry, stay a while!
Although there are plenty of lakes and streams you can get to and from in a day, those are also the ones that will see the most traffic. My favorite highcountry lakes are 10-15 miles away on foot, are located in a protected Wilderness Areas or National Parks (no bikes, motorized vehicles, planes or helicopters allowed), and require multiple days to be able to fish them. Because of the remoteness and lack of access to these areas, always be sure you’re properly prepared with a map and compass, tent, sleeping bag, proper clothing, and food. So although fishing these places require more planning and work, the end result is always worth the effort.
When choosing your flies, keep it simple
When ever I head up to fish a mountain stream or lake, I will only take 1 fly box. In it I’ve got an assortment of what I like to call the “meat & potato” flies, basically a variety of my favorite basic, must have patterns. Elk Hair Caddis, Parachute Adams, Griffiths Gnats, Parachute Ants, Foam Beatles, Wooly Buggers are just a few of the staples I’m sure to have along. This also allows you to travel light on those days when you’re tying to get just a bit farther into the backcountry.
So next time you have a free day, or week-end for that matter, hold off on going to your usual fishing spot, and give the highcountry a try. I guarantee you’ll be hooked by the endless possibilities, and beautiful destinations you’re sure to find.