High Mountain Fishing

News & Tips: High Mountain Fishing

Fish have such a short growing season that once the lakes open up (ice melts), they must go on a feeding frenzy to grow. If you hit it right, it can be magical. I remember the first high mountain lake that I ever hit over 30 years ago in Colorado. I hired a guide to pack me up to timberline. It was the start of a long love affair with high mountain fishing.

High Mountain Fishing Landscape

First off, your hike/horseback ride up will be in the most beautiful country in the world. When you finally hit your destination you will be up on top of the world.

This particular lake was at the bottom of a high peak. A small stream ran out of it and down the mountain. Beavers had dammed up the stream creating multiple ponds below the crater lake. The first one had a huge trout out in the middle. I stumbled up the dam and it spooked back in under the beaver dam.

Jim, my guide, said, "What are you doing? When you come up on a high mountain pond like this don't crest the dam. Stand behind it and lay a fly out in the middle," he explained. "There will always be a big trout setting out in the middle feeding. He'll see your fly land and run over and zap it."

He showed me how to properly execute such a cast. We had a great time and he taught me a lot about high mountain fishing. The end of that summer Jim and his girlfriend had a wreck hauling their horses and killed both of them. He was a good man.

One summer I signed up for a backpacking trip with some others at church. The plan was to hike to a high mountain lake and set up camp. I was the only hardcore fisherman in the group. The others wanted to fish some but mainly to go climb mountains and try to kill themselves.

We met before daylight, ate breakfast and took out. After a 4 1/2-hour pack we hit the lake at the bottom of a steep ridge right at timberline. The fishing was awesome. I don't have a clue how many fish I caught on that trip. The first afternoon the other guys were fishing the lake so I hit the stream behind the lake and caught quite a few.

The next day they took off to climb distant mountains, and I had the lake to myself. In fact, there was a smaller lake above that fed into the bigger one. So I had a choice of two lakes to fish.

A lot of the high mountain lakes will be pretty shallow due to all the silt that filters in and as you wade out you will sink up to you calves. If you're wearing hiking sandals every step will nearly suck your shoe off.

High Mountain Fishing Landscape

Due to the extra weight that it would add I usually don't pack in waders and wading boots. Another option is to use float tubes. Many of the lakes taper out for some distance before they get deep. You may walk out 20 yards and the water is only 1 1/2-feet deep but the mud will be 1 1/2-feet deep as well. You're not really in good fishing water, but that's as far out as you can get. With a float tube you can get out where the fishing is good.

But carrying a float tube can take up your whole pack by the time you also throw on your fly rod, vest, waders, boots, flippers, life jacket and a pump. So this leaves you in a dilemma. You need a horse to pack all of your gear or you can just pack in for a day trip.

One time a few guys and I hired a guide to pack us in for a week to a high mountain lake in Colorado. The guide took us in, dropped us off and came back in a week to get us. That's the best deal. That way you can take enough camping gear to be comfortable and have a good time.

We caught no telling how many fish that week. When fishing a lake don't forget to hit the in feeding stream. Usually the fish will be packed in there like cordwood. It is bringing in nutrients and bugs.

Many times even on a super shallow lake the incoming stream will somewhat dig out a little trough in its pathway. I once hit a lake that had such a trough out in the middle.; by the time I waded out all the while sinking in the mud I was still out a good distance so that I could barely cast a fly out to the trough. Pretty much every cast I'd hang a fish if my fly made it to the trough.

The fishing will be totally out of this world but why not pack in a shotgun so you can pick up a few grouse while hiking up? Make it a cast and blast event. Or, what may work just as well is to load up your .357 mag or your .44 mag with birdshot and use it to whack a few grouse. Hopefully this time of year if you hit it early enough you should be able to walk up close enough to adequately kill them with birdshot. A pistol will be a lot easier to pack and you need to carry one anyway in case you have wolf, bear or cougar trouble.

And a high mountain trip can also serve the dual purpose of a last minute scouting trip. You just can't go wrong. Grab a forest service map and find a lake to hit. Throw on a pack and get out and explore the prettiest country that God ever created.


  • A four-piece fly rod is nice for packing. I love my Loomis East Fork. You'll want a 9 footer to be able to reach out but for the small brushy streams sometimes a 7 1/2 to 8 footer is nice.
  • Take along plenty of tippet and leader material. 
  • Same with flies — take plenty. They don't weigh anything anyway.
  • I like to wear nylon-type zip off pants. They dry off fast.
  • Rain gear. It may be summer but up high it doesn't know it. I've encountered blistering heat, sleet, snow and rain.
  • Take a camera and don't forget to slow down and take plenty of pictures.
  • Wear a cap or hat. You'll be up high and it's easy to get sunburned so pack along some sunscreen.
  • Polarized sunglasses.
  • Filtered drinking straw so you don't have to pack water. Like the Platypus GravityWorks 4L Water Filter System.