I’m going to be blunt, high mountain fishing is not for the faint-hearted—it takes dedication. However, if you think you’ve got the guts to head up into the mountains for the opportunity to get into some amazing fishing, here are the top 10 things I always have in my pack when I go fishing for high alpine trout.
An Assortment of Bugs
For a majority of mountain trout fishing, you can get away with throwing articulated streamers for meat-eating cutthroat and massive stimulators for aggressive brook trout. Regardless, it is still important to bring a variety of flies. While most of the time you have the opportunity to catch trout on your favorite fly, some of these fish are very picky. So, make sure that right next to your double bunny streamers you bring some small flies along from tiny midges, to gnats. As predictable as you may think high alpine fish are, you always want to be prepared for anything. Also, remember to crimp those barbs!
The Fly Fishing Basics
You don’t need much, but you do need the basics—leaders, tippet material (have a decent range 0x-6x), nippers, hemostats, and I could not stress enough how important floatant and dry-shake are because your dry flies will be getting pulled under time and time again… not that that’s a bad thing. Keep yourself stocked with these essential items, by starting a Postfly Box subscription and have them delivered monthly to your doorstep!
In our day and age of technology, I fully support the use of Google Maps/Earth for finding and leading you to new spots and I use it all the time, but there is nothing more invaluable when tackling tough terrain than physical, up-to-date, waterproof topographic maps. Having the ability to read those maps and know what to look for (i.e. terrain features) is essential to being able to tackle the art of alpine lake/stream hopping.
The Gear: 3-6wt Rod(s)
The rod(s) you choose definitely depends on what you are targeting and where. While you are free to bring a smaller rod or multiple rods, since it’s almost always windy up high, I recommend erring on the side of a beefier 5/6wt rod, so you’re not left trying to whip flies into gusts with a toothpick.
- 3/4wt: The Wade Blueliner
- Strengths: small streams/creeks, tight casting, delicate presentation
- Weaknesses: limited to smaller flies, won’t handle windy conditions
- 5/6wt: The Wade Freestone or Streamer Express
- Strengths: great for all flies sizes, can handle big fish well, perfect for utility (more so 5wt), can handle casting in the wind like a champ
- Weaknesses: harder to use in difficult casting areas, might horse in or physically launch smaller fish from the water
When exploring the mountains, you will often times find yourself fishing in cold, ultra-clear, snowmelt-fed lakes, ponds and streams. In these bodies of water, sight-fishing can play a huge roll in your fishing. Seeing the fish from a distance before they see you and being able to see a strike through a glare is essential. Without a proper pair of polarized glasses, you will be at a severe disadvantage.
Food, Clothing, Water
Making sure you have the appropriate amount of food and water and the right kind of clothing is crucial for your safety. If the fishing is on fire, you will be high up and exposed for a long time; the higher elevation puts you at greater exposure to the sun’s UV rays, so long sleeve protection, buffs and hats are key. Additionally, having good, reliable hiking gear, as well as water shoes, will make the switch from hiking to wading a lot easier.
Always have something to purify water (water filter, iodine tablets, Life-Straw). You will often take rigorous day hikes from your main camp to get to even more remote bodies of water, so it is always a good idea, no matter how many water bottles you can jerry-rig to your pack, to bring some sort of water purification method so you can stay hydrated the entire time. You definitely do not want to be left without a safe water source and then rely on inevitably getting giardia from untreated water.
The weather in the mountains can change in an instant. I’ve been in situations where it has been sunny, then snowed, then thunder stormed, then hailed and then rained again all within the span of 3 hours; there is nothing worse than not being prepared for that erratic weather. The last thing you want is to be soaking wet and then subjected to the roaring cold winds that rip through the channels of mountain ranges. So having a bulletproof wading jacket is imperative!
Most mountain lakes are deep. Sinking line is one thing that I have seen help people time and time again with targeting those deeper fish. This is definitely an extra and not a necessity, but if you have the ability to bring two spools, I would recommend bringing one with floating line and one with sinking line in order to effectively cover the entire water column.
Patience, Patience, Patience
In the words of Lillard Fly Fishing Expeditions Head Guide and Colorado Alpine Fishing Master, Charlie Parr, “patience Padawan, no one body of water is the same and different places will require different techniques.” I’ve had days where I couldn’t keep the fish off my flies and I’ve had days where the fish ghosted all but one person.
Don’t Forget Your Willingness to Explore
While you can’t pack this, you have to realize that the willingness to get out and explore is just as essential as any of this equipment. You have to be prepared to get cut up and scraped, to run into failure, to venture outside your comfort zone and (safely) veer off the beaten path. Once you’ve done all of this, only then will mother nature reward you with her beauty; whether it be the delicate patterns of a golden trout, the aggressive nature of saw-toothed brook trout or the power of a cutthroat. So, get out there, hit the trails and then find your own!*
*Make sure to always be responsible and consult your local park rules before going off trail*