Fly fishing in the alpine lakes can be a rewarding experience. However, given the remote nature of these beautiful and tranquil lakes, it is essential you get the best tips so that you can go prepared and get the best from your experience.
If you're experienced at fly fishing and want to enjoy the experience of fishing somewhere new and exciting, alpine lake fishing will undoubtedly tick these boxes. Alternatively, if you're new to trout fly fishing and are looking for a breathtaking view in which to dip your toes, you'll need some great tips on how to go about fishing these fantastic alpine lakes.
Here are 20 tips to help you get the best from your alpine lake fly fishing adventure.
#1. Choose The Right Lake To Fish
What Is An Alpine Lake And How Do They Differ From Other Lakes?
Alpine lakes are often found at high altitudes of around 5,000 feet or more above sea level. They're usually clearer than those found at lower levels due to the colder water, which slows the rate that algae and moss will grow. These glacier-cut depressions collect melting snow and groundwater.
Because of their extreme elevations, alpine lakes experience quite a brief summer. In Western alpine lakes, this could be from July to September, with winter snows coming any time from September onwards.
This short summer season means that there is not a great deal of time in which fish can grow, however, due to the natural isolation provided by the surroundings, this provides the fish with ample room to grow and develop.
Many alpine lakes can be quite fertile environments, providing plenty of excellent fly fishing opportunities; however, in general, you are likely to see lower fish stocks than you may see further down the valleys. This is often due to the lack of aquatic weeds growing in the lakes, as well as a scarcity of insects for the fish to feed on.
Ice-cover, a lack of food, and reduced plant growth can all be contributing factors to a high winterkill level, which could lower fish stocks in many alpine lakes. This is most common in lakes that are the most sheltered from winter winds. In lakes where there is more wind during the winter months, there tends to be more light and oxygen to help plants grow, which in turn provides an environment where fish can survive.
Which Are The Best Alpine Lakes To Fish?
To pick the best alpine lake to fly fish from, you should look at areas that have the conditions that will help fish survive. There needs to be enough exposure to allow light and wind through to the lake during the winter months.
In addition to the right physical surroundings, with lower fish stocks, in general, to be found in alpine lakes, you’re going to want to find a lake that sees the least amount of visitors.
One method of finding a lake that will get the least visitors is to measure a three-mile radius out from all access roads and paths on a map using a compass. Then, look at all of the areas that fall outside of this three-mile radius.
Most people will fish closer to roads and trails. Outside of this three-mile area, you’ll be more likely to find areas where there has been less human activity.
Don’t assume that every lake is going to be suitable for fishing. Before planning your journey, check with the local fish, wildlife, or parks department and get some information on the lakes you plan on visiting. Check out the experiences of others who have fished in the area. There may be local fishing blogs or forums that will provide you with an invaluable insight into what you can expect.
#2. Safety Is Essential in Alpine Fly Fishing
When heading off to fly fish in alpine lakes, you may need to get a little off the beaten track. Given the high altitude of your fishing trip, there are likely to be more extremities compared with any other type of wilderness fishing trip. Errors in judgment could cost you your life.
Let others know where you plan on fishing. Give a specific location, and make sure you stick to your plans. Even if you’re looking to get away from the worries of your daily life for a while, keep in touch with someone back home that knows where you are and check-in. Let them know when you intend to return.
Pack the right clothing. There may be sudden or extreme weather changes and a drop in temperatures, and you need to be prepared for this. Similarly, heavy rain could cause considerable problems.
Take some essential safety items with you, such as an emergency phone charger, a GPS system, physical maps, a flare, a first aid kit, and a bear deterrent spray.
#3. Take The Right Gear For A Successful Alpine Fly Fishing Trip
Having the right fishing gear is essential. Given the distance you may need to carry your gear, you don't want to take anything that won't be required.
Take a couple of double-sided fly boxes. One with dry flies and another with nymphs. On the dry fly box, take a variety of simulators in a mixture of colors and sizes. You can also take Streamer patterns, but make sure you are using smaller patterns. These should all slightly smaller in size than river flies.
Remember to take a neck lanyard complete with nippers, tippet, hemostats, and floatant. Keep a small multitool or Swiss army knife close to hand too.
You will also need to take a small amount of split shot.
Take a four-piece travel rod that is no more than a 5-6 weight. This will allow for more comfortable transportation. If you want to get the best casting distance out on the lack, take a 9-10 foot rod. This will help you get the fish that lurk further from the shore.
#4. Keep Quiet While Fly Fishing Alpine Lakes
The tranquil alpine lakes won’t see a lot of footfall from passers-by. There may be the odd fisherman who comes and enjoys them from time-to-time. But if you’re up fishing with friends, keep your voices down and tread lightly.
Fish will sense your presence, and the noisier you are out on the lake, the more likely you are to spook them. Don’t just wait until you’re in the water already to start thinking about being quiet. Get into the habit of your approach to the lake or before.
Trout have excellent eyesight, so if you make any quick movements nearby, then you'll ruin your whole trout fly fishing expedition by scaring them all away. For this reason, you should make calm and considered movements as you get closer to the water.
#5. Fish Midweek when Alpine Fly Fishing
If you’re after the perfect tranquility of an alpine lake, it’s essential that you go when it is likely to be quietest. Not only will you be more likely to get your choice of spots on the lake, but it’s also less likely that there will be other anglers up there, causing stress to the fish.
Mid-week will be your best chance to fish these lakes as many anglers will be at work, or will prefer to fish on the weekends. So, book a couple of days off mid-week and head off up into the mountains.
#6. Watch For The Direction Of The Gulping Fish When Alpine Fly Fishing
Gulping refers to the way that a fish will repeatedly feed at the surface of the water. They’ll snack at the scattering of little treats that you layout in a row. They’ll be so engrossed in following the trail that they won’t pay much attention to where they might be heading even if this is straight in the direction of your hook and line.
Trout will cruise in a specific direction when there is food on the top of the water. Watch for the direction that these fish move and cast your fly in front of them. Due to the speed that the gulping fish will move at will mean that you’ll only get a couple of decent casts in before you lose them.
#7. Spot The Cruising Fish While Alpine Fly Fishing
The most opportunistic feeding fish will cruise, looking for food that may have dropped into the water or have been in. They’ll hear the splash of a dropping insect and instinctively make a rapid move towards it and eat it. These fish chase down food with considerable energy making them a great fish to go after when visiting these high altitude lakes.
These cruisers will be continually on the move looking for changes above, finding the right time to move. Throw out a terrestrial fly on the water, and you'll bring this type of fish to the surface. Even if you miss the mark, the fish will come back for your fly. Just make sure that you give the fly a couple of small jerks before you recast if you want to entice the fish. These will make your fly seem alive and wake the attention of the fish.
#8. Don't Rule Out The Low Cruising Fish when Alpine Fly Fishing
If the lake naturally has aquatic insects, you may not find this type of cruiser coming to the surface because they'll get so much of their food from below. Luckily, most alpine lakes are beautiful and clear, which makes it much easier to spot the cruisers that head for this type of food.
When you spot one of these fish, you’ll notice that they don’t pay all that much attention to the flies that you throw out on the surface. If this is the case, don’t waste your dry flies, change your approach. Instead, use a wet fly or add a sink tip to your floating line, and you’ll be able to get down to reach these fish.
#9. Look Out For Fish On A Path When Alpine Fly Fishing
While gulping fish will prey on any food that they come across, they don’t necessarily have a set pattern that they’ll move in. A ‘fish on a path’ is quite the opposite of this. They’ll eat food that they find as long as it falls in their very clearly defined route.
They’ll repeat the same route over and over and over again. While this may sound pretty straightforward, you’ll have to pay attention to learn the exact pattern that the fish is making. It may seem a bit abstract. Be patient, and wait until you understand it.
You may not realize that you’re dealing with this type of fish at first. You may be throwing down flies hoping to see a bite, but the turn when they’re close by and take a different route. It can be pretty perplexing. Wait calmly, because this fish will be back, and once you know the specific route it’s taking, you can drop your fly in the feeding lane of your fish. You’ll have about one and three feet to play with in terms of accuracy. Outside of this area, your fish won’t detour and take the bate.
Once you’ve worked out the route, drop your line where you know that it will go and leave it until it comes back around for it.
#10. Match The Food Source when Alpine Fly Fishing
Before you start throwing all of your dry flies into the water, pay attention to the food sources that are already present in and around the lake. See what type of insects the fish are feeding on, and match the flies that you put down so that you’re suiting their tastes.
This is where planning is going to come in handy. Make sure that that fly box has a real variety of different flies of all shapes and sizes in there to attract the different types of feeders that you'll meet on your mountain fishing trip.
#11 Cover Lots Of Ground When Alpine Fly Fishing
Out-of-bounds areas tend not to be such an issue in the type of backwater lakes that you find in alpine settings. With no private property restrictions, you'll be free to go where you want and fish where you like. And, with fewer other anglers fishing the shore, you'll be unlikely to find yourself locking rods meaning that you can cover as much of the lake as you like.
Where a lake is higher than the treeline, you’ll find that there will be lots of great points on the lake that will be ideal for casting from without the need to worry about where your line may end up.
The ability to move around the lake will mean that you can move on quickly if you're not getting much interest from the fish.
Try and fish the entire lake if you can, but work methodically and prioritize areas.
#12. Use High Vantage Points To Get A Bird’s Eye View when Alpine Fly Fishing
It may be possible to get above the lake and look down from a hill or mountain that overlooks it. This will help you to make a full assessment of the lake to give yourself a good clear idea of the entire layout of the lake.
From above, you’ll be able to see where the lake drops away. You’ll spot shelves and other features of the underwater terrain, and this may give you an indication of which parts of the lake will have the most fish. Make a mental note and try and fish all of the hot spots.
If some small streams lead into the lake, get down low close to the fish by hiding behind rocks or bushes. This will help you to spot the fish in these shallower areas.
#13. Look For The Drop Off Spots When Alpine Fly Fishing
Some of the best areas on the alpine lakes will be where there is a drop-off. When you’re looking from a distance, these areas will be where you can see a color change. In the shallower areas of the lakes, you’ll be able to see the bottom, so these will look brown. The deeper parts of the lake may appear deep blue or even green.
These drop off spots are popular with fish because they offer the easy-to-catch comfort food that can be found around the shore edges. However, these spots also provide them the security of the deeper water close by.
In addition to the sweet drop-off spots that make for prime fishing areas, look for rock piles, logs, boulders, and weed beds. These areas will be like a food court full of fast food outlets for all of the aquatic life in the lake. You’ll not just find that they’re teaming with insects, but that they’ll be full of baitfish, as well as crustaceans, and crayfish. These spots will be very popular with the trout, and you’re likely to find the real whoppers in these parts.
Even in a lake with a limited array of features such as these, you’ll usually be likely to find the biggest trout around.
#14. E Scout The Lake Before Setting Off to Fly Fish Alpine Lakes
Are you thinking of heading somewhere completely new? Why not e-scout the lake by viewing it from Google Maps. Sometimes, when you're exploring the wilderness, you may find a sweet spot to fish from, but you may not know that you're not far from even better spots. These may be hidden away behind some trees or a hill.
It's always worth knowing all of your options in a particular area. That way, if you arrive to fish your first choice and find that you're out of luck with the fish there, or that too many other anglers have made the trip too, you can always head to your second choice.
E-scouting the lake may also give you a bit of an insight into the topography which may help you to work out which parts of the lake to focus your attention on.
#15. Use A Belly Boat To Reach More Of The Lake While Alpine Fly Fishing
If you’re only fishing on the edges of any lake, you’re missing out on vast areas that make up its entire middle. By doing this, you’ll be missing out on so much potential. While alpine lakes are generally pretty quiet, limiting yourself to only fishing the shorelines will mean that you’re competing for precious space.
Another great advantage of getting out onto the lake with a belly boat is that you're going to be able to fish back toward the shore from the center of the lake. This allows fishing the shallow cruisers from a different angle. As you fish along the bank, you may find these fish don't stick around or don't take the bait. However, approaching these fish from a belly boat from further into the lake will be less disturbing for the fish.
Similarly, you may have spotted some great features on the lake that you know will be great feeding spots, but they may be out of reach of the shoreline. A belly boat will give you access to all areas of the lake.
One of the best ways to get out onto the lake and see what is available further out there will be to use a belly boat. Float tubes can be a bit cumbersome to have to drag up a mountain. However, the extra range they add to your fishing experience can make a massive difference. It may be worth carrying it for a couple of miles.
If you’re thinking of getting belly boat to broaden your fly fishing experience when visiting the alpine lakes, look for the lightest possible option. There are some packable options that can make transportation easier.
#16. Tell The Trout When Dinner Is Served when Alpine Fly Fishing
You may spend a lot of your time trying and failing to get the shallow water trout closer to the shoreline. The fish in this area will be on the prowl and happy to feed. However, they're very easily spooked. As soon as they see your rod or line overhead, they'll be away like a flash. These fish should never see your rod. Because the trout in these shallow areas are continually looking for food, they may not be used to it coming to them. You'll need to let them know that their food is there.
When you're dry-dropping, let it go with a splash so that plenty of rings form around it and alert the fish to their presence. Use attractors such as Royal Wolf, Fat Alberts, or Amy's Ants.
#17. Head Off The Beaten Track for the Best Alpine Fly Fishing Experience
Don't be afraid to take the path least trodden. You may need to walk for hours and put in the effort in climbing, but often these remote lakes will take you to the lakes that hold the most fish. And, you may find that these fish are the ones that go for the flies that you put down for them.
Head to the local fly shop in the area and find out the best lakes to fish from. That said, don’t disregard the lakes that you know nothing about. Just because people aren’t talking about a lake, it doesn’t mean that you won’t find a well-stocked lake.
#18. Take Full Wading Gear for A More Enjoyable Alpine Lake Fly Fishing Experience
You'll no doubt have a debate about how much you need to take up in terms of waders or boots, as it'll have a noticeable impact on your load.
There may be an added weight in taking full wading gear up to the lakes. However, the additional weight will be worthwhile as it can make a significant impact on the number of fish that you'll be able to catch.
You'll be able to quickly get out further into the water to access those fish that don't come too close to the shore.
#19. Respect The Fish Stocks And Local Regulations when Alpine Fly Fishing
It may be tempting to stock up on lots of beautiful freshly caught trout, and you could no doubt dine well for several days following a trip. However, you should be respectful of the regulations in the local area. Be sure that any fish you take away are legally caught.
Remember that up in these high mountainous lakes, and these fisheries may be the last places that you'll find some native varieties. Overfishing may be problematic for the long term future of the specific species that you'll find there.
#20. Respect The Area
If you’re fishing in the secluded alpine lakes, you’ll hopefully be able to appreciate the untouched breathless beauty that surrounds you. It can only stay this way if you make sure to help keep in that way.
Make sure that you’re practicing a no trace, pack in, and pack out philosophy with all of your actions while up in the mountains. That means leaving nothing behind and consider the impact of everything that you do and how your actions will affect the local wildlife and indigenous species.
Now you know the basics of how to fly fish an alpine lake, all you need to do is find your lake and the time to go and fish it.
About the Author
Matthew Bernhardt, a third-generation Coloradan, grew up at the forefront of the state’s fly-fishing revolution, enjoying time on the water side by side with experienced guides and lifelong anglers.
By combining his passion for fly-fishing with input from other experienced fly-fishers and guides and his fine arts degree from Colorado State University, Matthew spent five years carefully developing the Drifthook Fly Fishing System, built to help every angler catch more trout.
When he’s not spending time with his wonderful family, you’ll find him out on the water catching MONSTER trout, and he anxiously looks forward to the day when his kids are old enough to join him there.