The West has thousands of alpine lakes accessible only by foot and horse. Most of those lakes reside in wilderness areas, miles from open roads. With a little planning and some sweat equity, you can catch fish every cast on any kind of lure.
The hike to the first lake was only nine miles. “We got this,” I told my wife. What I failed to tell her was that we were going to gain about 2,000 feet in elevation in the last three miles. Plus, I found no references online about this lake. I got the feeling no one actually went there, except perhaps to hunt mountain goats. It was going to be a perfect spot to reel in some high-mountain Montana trout—assuming we actually made it.
Late-August in western Montana is prime time for backpacking, fishing and scouting for elk in the high country. Spending some quality time with my wife for our anniversary in the middle of nowhere was an added bonus
After dropping the kids with the grandparents, we drove to an empty trailhead. Spirits were high, until we started hitting the switchbacks. Unlike the first six miles, few fit-for-print words were spoken on the final three. Up, up and up. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, was our lake. All we wanted to do was drop our packs and set up camp. But the first camping spot was closed for reclamation. Onward we trudged. The trail climbed even more and skirted the lake below.
Eventually, we found a flat, well-established campsite a good four hours after leaving the truck. We opened cans of warm red wine, took a dip in the lake and tossed in a ½-ounce Rooster tail. Second cast, cutthroat on.
Find a Spot to Fish
The easiest way to ditch the crowds and find uneducated fish is to look for lakes at least three miles from the nearest open road. You can find these places most often in officially designatedwilderness areas that allow only foot and horse traffic. Then, start looking for lakes.
If you’re one for nostalgia, feel free to pore over paper maps. Otherwise, download a map app like www.alltrails.com. Fishing apps like Fishbrain can be indispensable as well. These apps rely on data from your fellow hikers and anglers. If you’re truly getting off the beaten path, beta on your destination might be hard to find, which is a good thing. When in doubt, call up your regional wildlife office, tell them where you plan to go, and they should be able to tell you species, stocking info and angler days.
Now that you’ve found a destination, it’s time to have a little heart-to-heart with yourself. When was the last time you hiked eight miles without a pack? If you can’t remember, it’s time to start walking to get ready. Don’t want to hike eight miles? Just find a lake that’s a little closer but still takes effort to fish.
Also consider elevation gain and loss and elevation in general. If you can drive most of the way up the mountain and hike from there, then great. Drink plenty of water and take it slow if it’s more than a few thousand feet higher than what you’re accustomed to. If you’re starting at 6,000 feet and your lake is three miles and 3,000 feet higher, be ready for a death march.
The Gear for Fishing Alpine Trout
Backcountry camping will differ quite a bit from car camping. Everything will need to go on your back, so everything will be smaller and lighter. You’ll need to make some concessions such as trading beer for whiskey (think weight) and you may need to upgrade your tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad set up so it fits nicely inside your pack. Expect to eat salty, dehydrated meals (supplemented by fresh fish, of course). And expect to get freaked out by weird noises at 3 a.m. It’s all part of the fun.
Your fishing gear will be a little different, too. For starters, find a four-piece, 5 wt. fly rod and two lightweight reels—one spooled with floating line and the other with sinking line. Flies don’t weigh much, but limit yourself to one “high country” collection with plenty of terrestrial patterns like hoppers and ants as well as scuds and streamers. For the spinners like me, I’ll take plenty of four-pound test line on any old reel, but I prefer a two-piece rod at least six feet long so I can huck those lures out there. As for lures, I swear by heavy Kastmasters and any big Mepps spinner. If I’m not catching dinner. I’ll cut one of the hooks off my treble hook and bend or break off all the barbs. Trout are tough, but I’d rather hook them in the mouth and not in the eye.
And hook ‘em we did. In those three days, we visited three different lakes and caught cutthroats in all three. We saw no other animal—human or otherwise—bigger than a chipmunk. And the silence, oh sweet silence, which was immediately shattered upon our return to parenthood.
Want to know what NOT to do when fishing with kids?