PART 1 - Building A Game Plan for Fly Fishing High Mountain Lakes
Feeling confident when fly fishing high elevation lakes can be a challenge. The reasons are plentiful:
- Sub-alpine and alpine regions can be difficult to decode at times. The weather can change drastically and rapidly. You might be sweating it out in the sun one minute, but an hour later, you could be caught in a driving snowstorm. Conditions are difficult to predict, at best.
- Many of the anglers that we talk to do not fish stillwater (lakes & ponds) often; if ever. By and large, typical anglers on the Front Range spend most of their time on rivers and creeks. If you’ve never fished a lake before, fishing your first one at 12,000’ can be intimidating.
- If you don’t know anyone that has wandered up into the high country before, you probably have a lot of unanswered questions. We’ve all heard horror stories about people getting skunked, getting lost, or getting into otherwise perilous situations on the mountain. But, rest assured - the majority of those terrible tales turned sour due to “user error”, instead of the alpine acting as an antagonist. If you prepare properly and use your brain at all times, you’ll be just fine. (And if you have questions that could relieve any anxiety about exploring at high altitudes, just ask us. We’ve been doing this for a while and are always happy to help.)
Here’s the honest truth: Fly fishing mountain lakes can be as technical or nontechnical as you want. Both approaches work AND don’t work... If that makes sense? Sometimes, if you don’t take a more techy approach, you can get your butt kicked. There have been plenty of days where we’ve watched pretty cutthroat rise from the depths time after time, only to refuse every dry fly in our boxes. Other times, it seems like the trout will eat anything you throw at them. Glue a hook to a bottle of gink, chuck it out there and BOOM; a cruising brook trout will demolish it. The temperament of the resident fish in high mountain lakes is similar to that of the weather up there: completely unpredictable.
In an effort to keep this article concise and actionable, we’re going to skip the technical breakdowns of all the bug species and hatches. You really don’t need to geek out on the differences between a short-horned sedge and a little sister sedge; you can imitate both of them with an Elk Hair Caddis. Don’t feel unprepared if you see mahogany duns hatching but all you have are Red Quills. These aren’t South Platte trout. As long as your presentation is decent, the fish don’t care if your fly isn’t an exact match. Remember - K.I.S.S.
Similar to river fishing, there are 2 different overarching strategies you can deploy:
#1 Matching the Hatch - Using fly patterns that imitate the bugs you see in the air, on the banks, on the surface of the water, swimming below the surface, and buried in the lakebed. This strategy is especially useful in lakes with heavy angling pressure.
#2 Search & Destroy - Using fly patterns that don’t necessarily look like anything in nature, but are intended to catch a trout’s attention or provoke a reaction from the fish. This strategy is best used on remote lakes, lakes that do not receive much pressure, and at lakes that do not have prolific numbers of bugs.
You can alternate between the 2 strategies or use them together. For example: Tying 2 realistic baetis imitations off a giant Rubberleg Crystal Stimulator gives the fish an offering that resembles the resident food supply, but also a flashy, appetizing-looking meal to attack on the surface.
Now, let’s look at the bugs in groups and their importance during Colorado’s ‘alpine season’ months (June-September). Note: Because terrestrials are so important when fishing high mountain lakes, we’re separating them out when segmenting the groups by importance. Just how impactful can terrestrials be? In his book, Fly Fishing High Mountain Lakes, Gary Lafontaine notes that 80% of a high altitude trout’s diet is made up of terrestrials.
Mayflies - BWOs, PMDs, Black Quills, Red Quills, Western Gray Drakes, etc.
Caddis - Little Sister Sedges, Grannom Caddis, Spotted Sedges, Little Brown Sedges, etc.
Terrestrials - Ants, Beetles, Grasshoppers
Streamers - Small Baitfish, Leeches, etc.
TIMING / IMPORTANCE
In order of importance during the month, from most to least:
JUNE: Mayflies | Caddis | Ants | Streamers | Beetles | Hoppers
JULY: Ants | Caddis | Hoppers | Beetles | Mayflies | Streamers
AUGUST: Hoppers | Ants | Beetles | Caddis | Mayflies | Streamers
SEPTEMBER: Hoppers | Ants | Streamers | Caddis | Mayflies | Beetles
Please remember: This list is not set in stone. The bugs and their timing varies by lake, altitude, weather conditions, location, etc. Use this as a general guide, but always be ready to react to conditions as they play out on the lake. Just because a rusty spinner fall is supposed to happen, does NOT mean it actually will. And being ready to cut off your spinner pattern and switch to a drowning ant might mean the difference between landing a bucket list fish or going home empty-handed.
PART 2 - Confidence Flies for Fishing High Mountain Lakes
Thunder Thighs Hopper | Terrestrial - Hopper
- Best Fished: As the dry fly in a Hopper Dropper rig OR as the lead fly in a doubly dry fly rig.
- Notes: Parmore’s Thunder Thighs Hopper has quickly become a shop favorite. This fly has the perfect hopper profile, with split foam legs and a segmented foam body. Fish this thing EVERYWHERE. But especially around overhanging structures in the form of trees, shrubs, boulders, or cliff walls.
Hippie Stomper | Terrestrial - Ant/Beetle
- Best Fished: As the dry fly in a dry dropper rig OR as a solo dry fly
- Notes: Grillos’ Hippie Stomper is one of the best terrestrial patterns ever invented. It can be fished as a big ant, a beetle, or a small hopper. It can be fished on a dead drift, or slowly stripped and danced along the surface. You can fish this fly just like with the Thunder Thighs: Everywhere. Trout will eat this fly anywhere from right up against the bank, to all the way out in the middle of a deep lake. The Hippie Stomper, in a wide variety of colors and sizes, is an absolute essential for fishing at higher elevations.
Flying Ant | Terrestrial - Ant
- Best Fished: As a solo dry fly OR drowned in the surface film as the dropper in a dry dropper rig
- Notes: Flying ant imitations are seriously underrated as terrestrials. Winged ants take flight during the summer months in search of food or new territories, making them susceptible to strong alpine winds. Often, the ants will end up on the surfaces of lakes, creating easy meals for trout. Flying ant patterns can be fished high on the water, but they are especially productive when drowned.
Hamburgler | Terrestrial - Beetle
- Best Fished: As the dry fly in a dry dropper rig OR as a solo dry fly.
- Notes: Grillo’s Hamburgler is a thick, juicy beetle imitation. The Hamburgler is highly visible at a distance, which can not be said about many beetle patterns. This pattern lands with a plop and floats like cork. Fish the Hamburgler next to grassy banks, near downed trees, and close to overhanging vegetation.
Chernobyl Ant | Terrestrial - Ant/Beetle
- Best Fished: As the dry fly in a Hopper Dropper rig OR twitched with a slow, steady retrieve
- Notes: The Chernobyl Ant is a big, gaudy terrestrial that is highly visible to both angler and fish. This bug is a perfect example of a “dinner bell” fly. If you haven’t heard the expression, “ringing the dinner bell” refers to slapping the surface of the water with a big dry fly to get the attention of trout in the area. The goal is to get the fish to come investigate the fly and then either eat it, or catch sight of a more natural dropper suspended below the surface.
Stimulator | Attractor Dry Fly
- Best Fished: As a dry fly in a dry dropper rig OR as the lead dry in a double dry fly rig.
- Notes: A tried and true classic from Randall Kaufmann. The Stimulator is super versatile. Small Stimmy’s can be used to imitate caddis; large variations can be fished as adult stones or salmonflies. Either way, the Stimulator is a loud, obnoxious dry fly that will stop cruising trout in their tracks.
All Season Caddis | Adult Caddis
- Best Fished: As a single dry fly OR as part of a double dry rig. There’s no rhyme or reason to the placement; just cast this fly at rising fish or into the middle of caddis hatches.
- Notes: Caddis are a major food source for trout in mountain lakes. Most species of caddis you’ll find in the west at high elevations will be relatively small and usually dark in color (Tan, Brown, Dark Olive, & Black) as adults. The All Season Caddis matches this aesthetic perfectly. Complete with a pink sighter post for visibility, the All Season floats better than many adult caddis imitations, which is great when the wind kicks up. Additionally, the flat foam underside of this fly helps it skitter along the surface of the lake when the wind is blowing, recreating the movements adult caddis make.
Psycho Prince | Attractor/Searcher Nymph
- Best Fished: As a dropper in a dry dropper rig OR as part of a deep nymph rig. There is no particular portion of the lake (in either depth or shore position) that you can’t fish with the Psycho Prince.
- Notes: If we had to recommend only one nymph pattern to take on high mountain lake trips, it would be the Psycho Prince. Orange Belly, Caddis Green, Purple, Blue… #12’s, #14’s, #16’s, #18’s… all the color/size variations produce trout. The Psycho Prince has the perfect proportions, amount of flash, sink rate and ideal profile for fishing at high elevations. If you can’t catch a trout on this fly, it’s probably time to hike back down to the trailhead and head home!
Uncased Caddis | Caddis Nymph
- Best Fished: As an anchor fly on a deep nymph rig OR mid to upper water column if the lake receives precipitation OR down at the bottom in the weeks leading up to a caddis hatch.
- Notes: Caddis larva imitated are massively underrated in the high country, especially during the early parts of the western alpine season. Front Range lakes (RMNP and other wilderness areas) are full of cased caddis and the trout love them. John Barr’s Uncased Caddis resembles a vulnerable larva beginning to emerge from its case - the perfect time for hungry trout to take advantage.
Shotglass Baetis | Mayfly Nymph
- Best Fished: Within 1’-2’ of the surface below a small dry fly OR mid to upper parts of the water column as part of a deep nymph rig.
- Notes: Shea Gunkel’s Shotglass Baetis is an excellent searcher mayfly nymph with excellent proportions and shimmer. Almost every color of this fly will produce trout, but we’re partial to the Dark Brown/Red variation with a tungsten bead. The Shotglass Baetis excels as a dropper for throwing subtle dry dropper rigs in front of cruising trout.
Bat Wing Emerger | Mayfly Nymph/Emerger
- Best Fished: As an emerger hovering near the surface in a dry dropper rig OR sunken into the film as a single fly.
- Notes: The Bat Wing Emerger, in both the BWO and PMD colors, can wreak havoc on the upper half of the water column. Trout will eat mayfly duns without much trepidation, but they’ll sip emergers and cripples with reckless abandon. If you’re seeing a mayfly hatch popping off, but can’t get a fish to eat a dry fly, fish the Bat Wing Emerger on a long leader. While deadly, this fly is difficult to see at a distance. Just watch for the water to boil in the general area where you placed the bug and then set the hook immediately.
Neon Nightmare | Midge Nymph
- Best Fished: Middle to deep in the water column as part of a nymph rig OR within a few feet of the surface during/leading up to a midge hatch.
- Notes: When choosing flies to tie on in the high country, midge nymphs are probably at the bottom of your list. But don’t discount their importance! Midges are so abundant in high mountain lakes that trout will eat them by the hundreds every day. Matt McCannel’s Neon Nightmare is a simple, thin midge larva imitation with a pretty sheen. This luster of this fly will help it stand out among all the other midge larvae in the lake - which is especially important for grabbing the attention of cruisers.
Sparkle Minnow | Streamer
- Best Fished: On a medium sink VersiLeader with erratic strips and jerks OR low & slow along the lakebed.
- Notes: Coffey’s Sparkle Minnow is one of the best all around trout streamers you can have in your box, regardless of location. But if you want to strip streamers in the high country, the Sparkle Minnow is the best one with which to start. The #8 is the perfect size to avoid spooking trout, but the #4 is another good bet at times. Brook trout love a big pearl Sparkle Minnow in the early fall.
Baby Fat Minnow | Streamer
- Best Fished: Low and slow along the lakebed OR stripped erratically in front of cruising trout in the shallows.
- Notes: Cheech’s Baby Fat Minnow is a pint-sized, proportionally-perfect baitfish imitation for fishing in high mountain lakes. The fly is not too much bigger than the size of a quarter and does not necessarily look like anything special. But the Baby Fat Minnow’s size and movement make it a subtle offering that does not spook fish like larger, heavier streamers can. This fly can produce some beautiful trout around ice-off time during the spring and when the lakes start to freeze in the early fall.
PART 3 - Complete Fly Box for High Mountain Lakes
Terrestrials (Hoppers, Ants, Beetles, etc.)
- Thunder Thighs Hopper (Yellow or Pink | #8 - #14)
- Panty Dropper Hopper (Tan | #8 - #12)
- Chubby Chernobyl (Black/Tan, Purple, or Red | #8 - #14)
- Chernobyl Ant (Tan | #8 - #10)
- Amy’s Ant (Olive or Red | #10 - #14)
- Hippie Stomper (Red, Purple, Yellow, or Lime | #10 - #16)
- Baby Boy Hopper (Olive or Tan | #14 - #16)
- Flying Ant (Black | #12 - #16)
- Grillos’ Hamburgler (Black | #12 - #16)
- CFO Ant (Black or Red | #14 - #16)
- Galloup’s Ant Acid (Cinnamon or Black | #14 - #16)
Attractors / General
- Stimulator (Orange, Yellow, or Ginger | #10 - #16)
- Garcia’s Mini Hot (Red, Yellow, Lime, or Purple | #12 - #18)
- Patriot (Pearl/Red | #12 - #14)
- Parachute Adams (#12 - #18)
- PMX (Yellow | #12 - #16)
- Humpy (Red or Yellow | #12 - #14)
- Puterbaugh Caddis (Yellow or Black | #14 - #18)
- All Season Caddis (Tan | #12 - #16)
- Foam Wing Caddis (#14 - #18)
- Elk Hair Caddis (Black, Brown, or Tan | #10 - #18)
- Garcia’s Mother’s Day Caddis (#14 - #18)
- Christiaen’s GT Adult (BWO #18 - #22 | PMD #16 - #18)
- Hi-Vis Baetis (#18 - #20)
- Barr’s Vis-A-Dun (BWO/Baetis #18 - #22 | PMD #16 - #18)
- Hi-Vis Rusty Spinner (#18 - #20)
- Crystal Wing Spinner (Rusty | #14 - #18)
- Jake’s Wet Body Spinner (#16 - #18)
General / Attractors
- Psycho Prince (Orange Belly, Purple, Caddis Green, or Blue | #14 - #18)
- Purple Prince (#16 - #20)
- Egan’s Frenchie (Pheasant Tail | #16 - #18)
- Egan’s Thread Frenchie (Brown or Olive | #14 - #16)
- Perdichingon (UV Purple | #16 - #20)
- Copper John (Chartreuse or Red | #16 - #18)
- Two Bit Hooker (Red | #14 - #18)
- Duracell (Brown or Tan | #14 - 16)
- Rainbow Warrior (Pearl | #14 - #18)
- Mercury Flashback Pheasant Tail (#14 - #18)
- Flashback Hare’s Ear (#12 - #16)
- Dorsey’s UV Scud (Olive or Orange | #14 - #16)
- Hunchback Scud (Olive/Orange | #12 - #16)
- Barr’s Uncased Caddis (Olive | #10 - #14)
- Holy Grail (Olive or Hare’s Ear | #12 - #14)
- Barr’s Graphic Caddis (Brown | #12 - #16)
- Splatte Roller (#14 - #16)
- Caddis Candy (Lime | #14 - #16)
- Buckskin (#14 - #16)
- Shotglass Baetis (Dark Brown/Red | #16 - #18)
- Shotglass Emerger (Dun | #16 - #18)
- Bat Wing Emerger (BWO or PMD | #16 - #20)
- Jujubaetis (Red or Purple | #16 - #18)
- Garcia’s Darth Baetis (Gray or Purple | #16- #18)
- Micro Matcher (Chartreuse or Purple | #16 - #18)
- Garcia’s Rojo Midge (Red | #16 - #18)
- Neon Nightmare (Fl. Pink | #16 - #18)
- Sparkle Wing RS2 (Gray or Black | #16 - #20)
- Mercury RS2 (Gray | #18 - #20)
- WD-40 (Wine or Black | #16 - #18)
- Flashbang Midge (Red or Black | #18 - #20)
- Mercury Black Beauty (#16 - #20)
- Coffey’s Sparkle Minnow (UV Black or Pearl/Gold) | #4 or #8)
- Woolly Bugger (Black, Olive, or White | #6 - #12)
- Baby Fat Minnow (Olive/White | #8)
- Dirty Hippy (Platte or Tan | #4)
- Thin Mint (#4 - #10)
- Polar Minnow (#6)
- She Demon (Silver or Olive | #6)
- Bennett’s Lunch Money (Tan | #6)
- Hell Razor Leech (Black or Olive | #12)
- Jake’s CDC Squirrel Leech (Rust or Black | #8)
- Mayer’s Mini Leech (Brown or Black | #16)
FLIES WE’RE TESTING IN THE HIGH COUNTRY THIS SUMMER:
- Harkins’ Sneaky Pete Beetle - Solitude Fly Co.
- Glo Ant - RIO Products
- Anty Raid - RIO Products
- Hi-Vis Micro Chubby - Montana Fly Co.
- Garcia’s Mini Hot Mayfly - Umpqua Feather Merchants
- Harkins’ Drowning Yellow Jacket - Solitude Fly Co.
- Tantrum - RIO Products
- Tak’s Crystal Chironomid - Umpqua Feather Merchants
- 3D Glass Chironomid - Fulling Mill
- Beadhead Chironomid Larva - RIO Products
- SweetMeat Caddis - Umpqua Feather Merchants
- Jig Bugger - Montana Fly Co.
- Rowley’s Balanced Baitfish - Montana Fly Co.
- Chan’s Deepwater Leech - Montana Fly Co.
- Degala’s Hula Damsel - Umpqua Feather Merchants
- Pip Squeak - RIO Products
- Galloup’s Boogie Man - Montana Fly Co.