The first three strips of the fly caught the fish’s attention.
The fish quickly changed direction and made a beeline toward my fly. It hard-charged the floating bug, then abruptly hit the brakes, turned 90 degrees and swam away.
Refusal! I’ve seen this before so I didn’t give up.
Instead - two more strips.
The fish turned and with an explosive burst of speed and energy blasted my fly on the water’s calm surface – like a Mack Truck hitting a MINI Cooper. BOOM!
I’d been a bass kid growing up and watching fish eat on the surface has always entranced me. From two and three pounders from a local golf course pond to chasing barracudas around atolls in the Bahamas with steel leaders and gaudy poppers, I could never get enough of watching the behavior of fish who can be coaxed to kill their prey at the surface.
But this was no bass pond in upstate NY, nor was it an international destination far from home. I was standing on a rock ledge above a lake at 11,300 ft elevation after hiking 2800+ ft vertically with all of my fishing gear.
And it was less than a three-hour drive from Denver.
If you haven’t spent time in the high-country exploring Colorado’s high-alpine creeks and lakes it can really be a game changer from an angling and exploration perspective. It changes how you think about fishing end-to-end. When I say end-to-end I’m talking about how you prepare for a day on the water, the amount of research you commit to, your goals for the day and how you define success.
The fish that hit my fly was a gorgeous cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii) – the fly it demolished wasn’t a popper, it was a foam and deer hair hopper pattern. The fly floated like a cork and when stripped aggressively on a still lake with little breeze it behaved like…. well…. a micro-popper. It wasn’t the most elegant or refined approach to fishing, but it sure delivered results. And those results were fully visual, from watching the big fish slowly patrol the lake’s skinnier water, to the demolition derby that followed.
What brought me to this high-country lake was a conscious decision I made in the spring to spend more time exploring lakes above 10,000 ft. The reasons were simple: 1) I knew that by putting in a little extra research and work I had a better chance of getting away from other anglers 2) I enjoy hiking and the physical aspect of reaching lakes further off the grid and 3) To me, every new lake and creek I would fish was a mystery.
What I was able to do that summer of high alpine exploration and puzzle-solving was to put together a fairly standardized approach to my research. It’s a methodology so generalized you can apply it to almost any lake or creek you can find on a map that is within 10 or 15 miles from a Colorado river or major river basin.
If you are new to Colorado or you haven’t put miles on your boot treads with a small pack and a fly rod, here are 6 steps to think about if you are going to explore the high country.
There is a reason why people are protective and tight-lipped about high-country creeks and lakes that fish well: they want to keep them that way. These fisheries tend to be small and they can’t support a lot of fishing pressure. This makes research even more important than just finding access points on larger rivers. Everyone’s research methodology is going to be different. I like to start by looking at major river basin (i.e. Arkansas, Colorado, Gunnison, Rio Grande, San Juan, South Platte or Yampa) and then move to a smaller tributary that feeds one of these larger rivers. From there, using Google Earth or similar app, I start looking for lakes that in turn flow into those tributaries. If I can then find a lake within my hiking range that also has a feeder creek – giving it an active inflow and outflow – I’ve likely found a solid high-country candidate.
Once I’ve found a target creek or lake within proximity to a larger river fishery, I start to look at trail access as well as other sources that could include fishing reports. The good news is that many of the lakes that fit the above criteria in Colorado, are also popular trails for hiking, biking, birdwatching and other wilderness pursuits. For example, when researching access to a lake earlier this summer, I read a recent trail report from alltrails.com where a trail user reported seeing a wide array of wildlife on their hike… including… a number of rising fish when they first arrived at the lake. The report was made just a few days prior to my research – bingo.
Range and Limitations
Anytime you are accessing the backcountry, especially if you are new to hiking and exploring, it is important to have an accurate assessment of your own physical ability and limitations. Without this, you are potentially putting yourself at risk, as well as others who might end up having to extricate you from a bad situation. If you have never hiked 10 miles round trip above 8000 ft and covered 3000 vertical ft. up and down, you should rethink this type of excursion for your first outing. Put another way, start small and be reasonable. Think about exploring the backcountry as more of a personal journey over a period of time vs. a single mission with a single endpoint destination. Once you’ve tackled your first stream or lake you’ll start to gain appreciation for terms like “elevation gain” and “round trip” vs. “one way.” These are details you’ll want to pay attention to so you can reach your fishing destination successfully and more importantly, return to your trailhead safely.
Once you have a few successful trips under your belt, you can think about extending your range by including a multi-day/night backpacking element into your program. This will increase the amount of water you can cover, but it will also increase the complexity of your planning as well as your due diligence required to ensure a safe trip.
Especially if you plan to explore on your own.
For the most part here in Colorado, high alpine fishing is best enjoyed in the summer months as well as the early fall. You can certainly start exploring in the “shoulder months” or “mud season”, but you are going to find two potential obstacles. The first is trail access where snow drifts from the prior winter make trail navigation difficult. You also may find your destination lake still in the grips of winter ice. I’ve pushed the seasonal envelope on a few occasions in the fall only to find a fast-moving winterlike storm cut my hiking and fishing plans well short of a successful day.
The beauty of high-country fishing is that you don’t need a lot of gear. Don’t get me wrong, I love the warmth of waders and the steadiness of studded boots on a slick river bottom, but I also enjoy not having to fish in them when the conditions are right. On most of my backcountry exploration trips, I ditch the waders and wading boots – and swap them out for a pair of hiking boots for my ingress and egress, and a pair of light sandals for when I fish. Often, I’m not even getting in the water.
I rarely venture out on a trip without sturdy Gore-Tex rain gear (jacket and pants) and a small, lightweight kit to start a fire for the worst-case-scenario where I have to spend a night in the woods. If you do end up fishing above tree line in the summer, be cognizant of lightning and fast-moving storms.
On most trips I’ll bring two rods and two reels – just in case something fails or if I accidently break a rod (been there done that – I don’t need to do that again). My go-to rod is usually a 3 wt. and I have a backup 4 wt. both with weight forward floating lines. I’ll usually fish a 4X or 5X leader and I’ll bring a few spools of 4X or 5X tippet as well. All of my terminal tackle and flies go into a single day pack that also houses 100 ounces of water in a sealed bladder, my rain gear, sandals, trail snacks and a lunch.
All of my flies are in a single box and they are specifically selected for the high-country and cover a wide variety of situations. If I’m lucky enough to see fish feeding on the surface, I’ll have a combination of big foamy dry flies down to more microscopic midge patterns. I’ll often see fish cruising close to the shores of the lake. They seem to like chasing moving flies – so I’ll have small streamers, hopper-dropper combinations and surface poppers at the ready. I’ve also seen fish hunkered down deep so I always have a split shot available if I have to throw a depth charge to get their attention.
On The Water
One of the things I love about high-alpine fishing is the visual nature of the sport. If I’m fishing a small creek I’m usually casting a lone dry fly while watching a brook trout, cutt or brown trout nail my bug on the surface. If I’m walking around a lake I often get the advantage of a large outcropping where I can peer down to see cruising fish – or I get to simply watch fish smashing insects on the top water. If I don’t have that visual luxury, I’ll usually start to probe different parts of a lake with a streamer or a skated dry fly. If I’m fishing a streamer I’ll usually look for changes in the lake’s habitat, where light shallow water turns to dark deeper water signaling a drop off. Or, similar to bass fishing, I’ll look for structure in the form of sunken logs, rocks or patches of vegetation.
Another tactic I’ve found effective is constantly trying to put myself in a position to make the cast. At high elevations, you often don’t have to worry about overhanging trees and branches. Sometimes you will. This is where the sandals and wet wading can come in handy and also looking for opportunistic places to position yourself to make that cast.
Once you’ve finally made it to your high-country destination and found a few fish, fly selection and making that cast will probably seem like the easiest two pieces of this backcountry puzzle. Most of the hard work has gone into the preparation, research and planning of your trip as well as the physical endurance it takes to put you in front of that fishing opportunity.
For more information about exploring Colorado’s prolific amount of backcountry streams and lakes, feel free to stop in or call the shop. We’ll be happy to answer any questions and get you pointed in the right direction. In the meantime, check out Trouts Guide Tucker Bamford's Live Stream "Timberline Tactics - Fly Fishing High Mountain Lakes with Tucker Bamford."