Alpine Lakes Offer an Alternative to Crowded Fishing

by Ron Belak

Mention “alpine lake” and the average Coloradan will generally remember a beautiful photograph in a calendar or a picture hanging in the doctor’s office. Bring up the subject to serious anglers, however, and they will think of ice-out brookies or summer dry fly fishing at one of Colorado’s high country lakes. For them, the secret is out - these lakes offer exceptional fly fishing for trout in uncrowded and unspoiled settings.

Our Front Range offers great stream fishing, but only at a high lake can we have the water all to ourselves. Most of these lakes are miles removed from roads, thereby giving the angler a true wilderness experience. The angler will also be treated to breath-taking scenery, courtesy of alpine glaciers that carved the cirque basins in which these lakes now sit. Also, anglers can forget about short-line nymphing and strike indicators, as most of their fishing will be with dry flies or streamers. There will be no doubt when a trout strikes. Many of the trout will be cutthroats that grew their last 10 to 16 inches right where they were caught. Some may be monsters—Colorado’s state record for brook trout and former records for cutthroat and mackinaw come from high lakes.

Most of Colorado’s 2,000 high lakes lie on public lands between 9,000 and 12,000 feet and are accessible by a few miles of Forest Service trail. Hikers will enjoy the challenge of reaching the remote timberline lakes in the rugged Holy Cross and Mount Zirkel wilderness areas. Horseback riders may prefer the more accessible and gentle terrain of the Flat Tops. Those launching float tubes and canoes will appreciate being able to drive within spitting distance of the many lakes and small reservoirs on the Grand Mesa. There is also a host of lakes accessible by short day-hikes in the Front Range, stretching from Guanella Pass northward into Rocky Mountain National Park.

Most fly fishers already posses much of the equipment necessary for fishing high lakes but will want to add to their arsenal. For those lakes accessible by auto or horse, a float tube is indispensable for reaching fish beyond casting distance from shore. High country anglers prefer a four-piece 5 or 6-weight rod for casting into the seemingly ever-present wind. They carry interchangeable spools armed with floating line for dry flies and nymphs and a full-sinking line for streamers and wet flies. Adequate rain gear and layers of polypropylene, pile, or wool are necessary for protection from the severe weather possible at higher elevations.

Alpine Lake

The high country angler will find the entomology significantly different from lower elevation streams and rivers. Midges provide the brunt of a trout’s diet in high lakes, so anglers should carry an assortment of midge pupae and larvae in black, green, blood red and tan. Adult midges are imitated with Nos. 16 through 20 Orange Ashers, Griffith’s Gnats, Black Gnats and parachutes. Caddis are also important, so don’t forget the good old Elk Hair Caddis for the adult and a No. 14 Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear for the pupa. Although mayflies are less important, anglers should be ready to imitate Callibaetis and Gray Drakes with No. 14 Adams and Mosquitoes. Pheasant Tails do a good job of imitating mayfly nymphs. One should never visit a high lake without black Wooly Buggers, Orange Soft Hackles and Royal Coachman streamers. These flies are deadly when vigorously stripped on a full-sinking line, both at ice out and during the summer when surface activity slows.

Just like streams, high lakes fish better at certain times of the day and season. Lakes below timberline fish best during early season when trout are cruising close to shore. In midsummer, these trout seek cooler and deeper waters farther from shore. Mid-morning and evening are the best times to fish, since they coincide with peak insect activity. Above timberline, however, fish generally become more active later in the day because it takes longer for the air temperature to rise and stimulate aquatic insects to hatch. Here, fish cruise shore the entire open water season since near-shore water temperatures rarely exceed the trout’s comfort range.

Anglers should be aware that each lake has its own personality, resulting from differences in entomology, limnology and fishery management. Generally, several day-trips or a multi-day trip to a given lake is necessary to appreciate the daily fishing cycles. It is often this figuring-out of the trout’s feeding habits that will bring back an angler on a repeated basis.