Head for the Hills

Head for the Hills

When someone mentions fly fishing for trout, you probably imagine a river. While moving water is dynamic and fun, it’s not the only place our favorite salmonids reside. Stillwaters – the overlooked stepchild of the freshwater fly fishing scene – can be every bit as fun. Follow your favorite backcountry blue line far enough and you’ll often end up at an alpine lake. Remote, cool, and filled with fish, these waters are the perfect destination for a summer weekend. Here’s how to plan and execute a fishing trip to a high alpine lake this summer.

Do a little research

Most alpine lakes have a very interesting history. Some – like the high reaches of the Sierra – hold native fish that have been thriving for thousands of years. Other mountain regions – like the Wind River Range – were largely sterile before stocking efforts in the early 1900s. Many Colorado high-country lakes were historically populated by native cutthroat but are now filled with invasive brook trout.

State game and fish agencies generally keep both stocking records and electrofishing surveys on their websites. Finding these documents can sometimes be more challenging than getting to the lake itself, but if you can track them down, they will help in the planning process.

Whether you’re rocking the old school black and yellow Nat Geo paper map or a mobile app like OnX, it’s worth spending time reviewing the topography and satellite imagery of your target destination. Topography will give you a good idea of which portions of the lake are actually accessible while satellite photos will give you a general idea of the vegetation on shore and the relative water depth at different points around the lake.


You got an early start, put in some work on a few major climbs, and scoped out the perfect tent site. It’s time to fish. Now what?


While you might be anxious to start casting, it will pay dividends to spend a few minutes observing the lake before rigging up. Watch the surface closely for any rises and start looking for bugs. What hatches are going on? Are there fish on the surface feeding? Are there fish feeding just below the surface? Do you see any fish? How’s the water clarity? How deep is the water? Answering even a few of these questions will help you select the right tackle and strategy.

Sight Fishing

In perfect conditions, you’ll have the water clarity to see fish rising and feeding on the surface. Try to match the hatch (see our favorite lake flies below) or at least match the size of the fly. Sometimes, fish will be picking off tiny midges. In this case, tie the small dry fly as a dropper on a larger dry and use the larger fly as an indicator.

If fish are actively rising everywhere, don’t be afraid to pick up your line and re-cast frequently. If there are only a few rising or cruising fish, you’ll likely be sight fishing for a specific trout. Watch for the rise to identify its location, then follow its line and attempt to lead the fish with a soft cast. Watching a large trout make a beeline for your perfectly cast fly in crystal clear water is an electric experience, and one that might turn you into a regular stillwater angler!

Dealing with Poor Conditions

Unfortunately, you won’t always get ideal conditions. If the wind is whipping (hint: it tends to do that in the mountains) you probably won’t be able to see through the chop. In this case, focus your efforts on areas where fish are likely to concentrate. Target the water around both the inlet and outlet of the lake. These are natural pinch points that will funnel food into a concentrated area. More often than not, fish will be hanging out here. Try fishing areas where the depth transitions. This is especially important if there isn’t much natural structure in the lake (like downed trees and plants). In this case, a drop-off or point will serve as structure for cruising fish.

If the water is choppy and you can’t see the bottom to gauge depth, just look at the nearby terrain features. Whatever is happening on the shore will continue to happen underwater. A cliff face above the water signals deep water while a gently sloping beach indicates a shallower bay.

When the surface bite is completely turned off, you can turn to a deepwater rig. While not quite as exciting as dry fly fishing, the nymph game can put a lot of fish in the net. Rig a heavier fly (like a leech) deep under an indicator. Below the leech, try a small hare’s ear or chironomid. Cast out, and then very very slowly strip the flies towards you. A slight twitch is enough to kick them off the bottom and get the attention of a feeding trout.


Any time you’re fishing super clear water, stealth will be an incredibly important tool in your arsenal. Some lakes are so infrequently visited and devoid of nutrients that almost any fly that hits the surface will be smacked by a school of stunted brookies. Other lakes face routine pressure or are filled with mature fish wary of predators. In this case, stealth is extremely important. Move very slowly on shore and use natural features like rocks and trees to obscure your shadow on the water. In these situations, it’s worth watching the fish for a while to try and figure out what they’re doing. Throwing a “prospecting” cast to a group of picky fish in still, clear water is a great way to spook that corner of the lake for the foreseeable future.

I’ve fished places where I’ve had to crawl on my hands and cast from behind a rock on a knee to avoid spooking fish. It might feel goofy, but if you’re serious about catching the larger fish in some lakes, you’ll need to pull every trick in the book to sneak into place.

The forbidden frontier

Stillwater enthusiasts and regular hikers know that many alpine lakes abut at least one inaccessible shore. In some cases, the far side of the lake is a melting snow field, in others it might be a sheer cliff. A quick glance will quickly tell you these spots are completely off-limits. Unless, however, you bring a float tube or a pack raft. While we personally haven’t packed a floating device into the backcountry, we think it would be a great way to fish an area that may have never seen a fly. Here at Colter Backcountry, we’re hoping to get out on a trip soon to give this a shot!



Fly selection is, of course, dependent on multiple variables (time, place, weather, etc.). That being said, I’ve found a few flies to be reliable go-to options on high-elevation lakes. Make sure you have the following in your fly box:

  • These are present in just about every body of water and work like fish candy. Olive, black, and brown are great colors. Balanced leeches position well under an indicator.
  • Chironomid larva are tiny but present in tons of bodies of water. When fished under an indicator, the gentle bounce of surface waves will be enough movement to catch fish.
  • Griffiths gnat. This is a great pattern that can mimic a variety of bugs and situations. Works well as a dry fly or slightly submerged as an emerging midge.
  • Hare’s Ear. A hare’s ear with a bit of soft hackle is a great point fly for an indicator rig on stillwater. A very slight strip is all you need to trigger a bite.

Backpacking to an alpine lake is often a strenuous task, but it can result in phenomenal fishing and solitude. There’s no better time than now to make a trip like this happen!


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