Alpine lakes are classified as lakes at high altitudes, usually above treeline or around 10,000 feet in elevation. The lakes are a refuge for fly anglers in the late summer when local waters are muddy or water temperatures are too high. Due to their cooler water temperatures, algae and weeds don’t grow like in lower elevation lakes providing sight casting and stunning scenery.
Alpine lakes have a short window to fish as they are typically frozen and hard to access 8 months out of the year. So the window to fly fish them is short but it sure can be sweet. From the scenery to the rewarding prize of landing a fish, hiking into an alpine lake is an experience for every fly angler to try. Below you will find 6 basic tips to prepare you for having success when alpine lake fly fishing.
Tip 1: Do Your Research: Find a Lake with Good Numbers of Fish In It
When choosing to hike into an alpine lake, you’ll want to do a little bit of research to be sure that you will have a fighting chance to find some fish once you reach it. Not all alpine lakes have trout in them as some completely freeze over in the winter and others have been fished out. One of the bittersweet parts of fishing alpine lakes is the uncertainty that there will be a lake that has trout in it. Some states in the United States have in-depth stocking reports, that show exactly which alpine lakes have been stocked and when. Unfortunately in Colorado, the CPW does not show this.
One way to do some research on a specific alpine lake is to look on a satellite map like google maps and see if there is a direct inflow and outflow (creek) at the lake. If there is this typically means the lake will not freeze over and thus there should be a good population of trout in it. For the most part, most alpine lakes in and around the Vail Valley do have good numbers of trout in them.
Word of mouth is the best bet to get a real idea about the fish numbers in a specific alpine lake. You can also call or stop into your local fly shop and see if they have any information on the lake you hope to fly fish.
Tip 2: Fish the Feeding Window
Once you have reached the alpine lake you intend to fly fish, now comes the fun part of trying to crack the code and catch some fish. Just like in rivers, the trout in alpine lakes have specific feeding windows when they key in on bug hatches and feed. There can be certain times of day when the bite can turn off completely and the fish are down deep and not active.
When to fish:
The best times to fish are typically in the mornings from sunrise until about 9:00 am and then in the evenings from 5:00 pm to sunset. Needless to say, there are still plenty of opportunities throughout the day based on insect activity. The trout feed throughout the day, every lake is different, some providing opportunities all day and some with a short window especially if you are throwing dry flies along the bank. On most afternoons when the wind picks it will typically turn on a terrestrial bite as bugs are dislodged from the banks and motivated trout cruise the shallows in hopes of a meal.
If you do find yourself fishing in the middle of the day when the sun is high, walk the banks in search of cruisers in the shallows. If you don’t see any fish, it may mean the fish are out in the deeper water where the water temperatures may be cooler. This calls for going subsurface. Tie on a chironomid pattern or general attractor nymph like a rainbow warrior or pheasant tail. Then tie on a balanced leech behind it. A balanced leech fly pattern works better than a normal leech or streamer pattern because when you retrieve the balanced leech it makes a jigging motion like the leech is swimming. This can trigger a bite from just about any fish in the lake.
Tip 3: Fish the Inlet and Outlet of the Alpine Lake
Unlike a river, it can be challenging to figure out where exactly the fish may be feeding. Typically trout will work the lake in circles cruising around feeding at different depths based on food sources. One way to choose a place to start on the lake is to find where the inflow or outflow of the lake is and begin fishing here. These areas are often hot spots for trout as they serve as highways for insects to get either washed in or out. The trout pick up on this and often hang around in hopes of finding an easy meal. The creeks surrounding these areas will often hold smaller trout that can be relatively easy to catch with a dry fly as well.
Tip 4: Have the Proper Flies and Gear
Typically when hiking into an alpine lake you are going to be limited to just bringing one fly box. As there is no need to add a bunch of weight to your backpack with excessive flies or gear that won’t be used. Fill a fly puck or one fly box with specific alpine lake fly patterns. Here are some basics flies to pack:
-Parachute Adams #18-22
-Royal Wulff #16-20
-Cinnamon Ant #14-16
-Royal PMX #14-18
-Griffiths Gnat #18-22
-Tim’s Beetle #14-18
-Bionic Ant #14-18
-Adult Damsel #14-16
Nymph and Streamer Flies:
-Rainbow Warrior #18-22
-Flashback Pheasant Tail #16-20
-Chrome Chironomid #10-16
-Juju Chironomid #10-16
-Zebra Midge #16-20
-Damsel Nymph #12-14
-Balanced Leeches (Variety of Colors and Sizes)
-Thin Mint Streamer #6-10
As for proper fly fishing gear be sure to check out this previous blog, “Backcountry Fly Fishing Guide”. However, a couple of spools of tippet, a basic trout fly rod and reel, and a floating line are all you really need for fly fishing alpine lakes.
Tip 5: Be Patient and Don’t Be Afraid to Try New Techniques
If you are striking out, not having any luck on the lake, don’t be afraid to switch up the techniques. Try throwing on an indicator and making a 12-foot leader with a leech and nymph to get down really deep. Or throw on a streamer and cast out and let it sink and slowly retrieve it. A lot of the time it’s a waiting game. If there aren’t many fish in the alpine lake it’s only a matter of time before you throw your fly in front of one. Unlike rivers where you are instantly rewarded with a good drift, lakes are more humbling. Even though you have a good cast there may not be a trout near the fly to eat it. Be patient with your presentations, keep the casting to a minimum, and wait for the trout to see your fly. If the trout reject the presentation try throwing on more tippet or a smaller fly. Small size #22 dry flies on 6x can be the ticket for the pickiest of trout.
Tip 6: The Weather Can Turn on the Bite
While there really isn’t a good way to check the weather at high elevation lakes as storms can move in on a dime. These storms can often trigger a feeding frenzy as the barometric pressure changes. Typically before and after these rain storms can provide great streamer fishing on alpine lakes. Be sure to pack a raincoat and take cover if lightning comes about.
Also, be sure to pack the bug spray. The mosquitoes at the high alpine lakes can be extremely bad at times!
Alpine lake fly fishing can be a great way to explore the natural wonders of the Rocky Mountain West, the scenery, the fishing, and the physical demands make this type of fly fishing rewarding on so many levels. Hopefully, these tips can assist in getting you on some fish in the high country this summer. Be sure to give the shop a call or visit us online for up-to-date fishing reports and fly recommendations.
Patrick Perry, Former Float Fishing Guide, and Content Contributor, @patperry