Few things are as beautiful as a wild backcountry trout. Their colors, their willingness to rise, and the places they call home are all worth the effort it takes to find them.
Waking up at 4am, putting miles on the boots, sleeping on the rocky ground, getting caught in a hail storm with no trees to duck beneath. It’s all worth it to have a chance at a fish that may only be a few inches long.
Many would even go as far as saying that extreme discomfort is mandatory. A trout looks and feels finer with more obstacles in its way. This is the reason we’ll climb a tree for a fly that costs $1.50 or cross a stream on a log when there’s a bridge accessible.
Because many fishermen seek out these hardships on streams, beautiful lakes often get overlooked. These hidden gems, often above treeline, offer some of the best backcountry fly fishing to be had. Here, we’ll go over nine ways to have better success fly fishing in backcountry lakes.
1. Cover ground
One of the best things about backcountry lakes is that you can usually walk the entire perimeter. With no need to worry about private property along the shore, and very little chance of competing for water with other anglers, it’s often possible to cover the whole lake during a day of fishing. Lakes above treeline make this even easier, as there’ll be no obstacles to worry about while casting.
While lakes may appear uniform at first glance, there’s usually plenty of underwater variety to get fish locked in on a certain area. They might hang around just off a shelf, among rocks near shore, or out in open water.
If you aren’t finding fish in one area, move and look for different habitat.
If you can get up onto the surrounding landscape to get a bird’s eye view as well, even better. Shelves, rocks, and other features are much more obvious from above.
2. Always check the moving water
Two of the first places you should visit on a lake are the inlet and outlet. Inlets, where water is flowing into a lake, and outlets, where water is flowing out of a lake, are some of the best areas to toss a fly.
Try fishing in the actual lake near these areas and also in the moving water itself. Fish will congregate in the calmer lake water and gorge on insects as they flow past. In a large lake with little structure, finding these concentrations of fish can be crucial.
The stream mouths themselves also provide ample opportunity, as they are often narrow and will squeeze many fish into a tight space.
These spots are also a go-to in the early season just after ice-off, when the rest of the lake hasn’t quite “woken up” after winter yet. In this case, these might be the only places in the lake that produce fish.
3. Switch flies if needed
One of the golden rules of fly fishing is that if the fish aren’t biting, you should change everything else in your power before switching flies. It’s usually your presentation, location, or depth that’s killing you. For alpine lakes, bending this rule is more acceptable.
Frequently, high-country trout will not be very picky. I actually use some backcountry lake trips as excuses to throw flies that don’t often get to see the light of day, such as bumblebees or tarantulas.
That said, this mindset has occasionally caused me to waste a lot of time waiting for fish to take flies they flat out don’t want. Every so often, the fish will want something very specific, and it’s often something so small you can’t see it.
When the fish are being picky in these situations, I switch flies frequently.
It’s unlikely you’ll go through a whole box of flies without finding at least one or two patterns the fish will accept, and it’s also likely that their tastes will change throughout the day.
4. Consider taking a belly boat
This is one of the biggest advantages you can give yourself on any lake, backcountry included. If you stick to the edges of the water, you’re restricting yourself to a very small percentage of the overall area of the lake. Not only does this limit the fish you can access, some of which will surely be just out of your reach, but, if there do happen to be other people fishing there, you will also be competing with them for the same area.
Belly boats, I’ll admit, are a pain to haul, especially if you have to hike more than a couple miles with them. That said, there are plenty of options that are designed to be lightweight and packable, and I’m able to fit one in an overnight pack without skipping out on any of my normal fishing necessities. I usually strap the fins to the outside of the pack, but this isn’t much of a burden.
The obvious advantage of bringing a boat is accessing deeper and more remote parts of the lake, but another benefit that’s often overlooked is the ability to fish back toward shore. Fish often cruise the edges sipping easy prey off the surface, and you have probably seen them as you fish along the bank. The problem is, they can also often see you and will either refuse a fly or leave the area altogether. Belly boating allows you to target these fish from within the lake without causing a disturbance on the bank.
Along those same lines, you will be able to access shoreside areas that are impossible to reach on foot due to thick brush, fallen logs, or other obstacles. Fish that might be lurking under a low-hanging tree branch in thick timber will no longer be out of the question.
5. Learn what lake fish eat
Although most trout flies transfer just fine from stream fish to lake fish, there are a few particular flies that work especially well on lakes.
In addition to all the basics like the Adams or the Copper John (which you should still definitely bring), midge larvae, scuds, beetles, and ants can be especially deadly on alpine lakes.
Midges, or chironomids, occur in high numbers and make up a huge percentage of a trout’s diet. Fishing them with long leaders and indicators sometimes produces fish when nothing else is working.
While terrestrials are known for being a high ticket item on lowland streams in the late summer, beetles and ants are extremely effective through much of the summer on many alpine lakes.
6. Skip the afternoon nap
The classic low-elevation stream fishing trip usually goes something like this: get up early to fish, nymph until late morning, nap until the hatch, then throw dries. If you do that on a high elevation backcountry lake, you’re missing out!
Not only do these trout often accept dries any time they feed, but they also usually feed throughout the day. If you have to factor in a long hike to get to your destination, you probably won’t start fishing until late morning anyway. I usually find this to be no problem, as trout will be eagerly feeding into the afternoon.
If you want to take advantage of this, skip the nap.
7. Ditch the extra gear
I don’t mean ditch bringing your gear (that would be bad). But, consider leaving some of your luxury gear on shore while you fish. Unlike fishing in a stream, in a lake you aren’t necessarily moving in a steady linear direction all day. You don’t have to worry about walking too far from your gear by accident, and you’ll most likely be able to see your gear even if you do stray.
Ditching gear like your fly pack, fly boxes, leaders, and tippet can free up your wading in a lake. You can wade deeper, avoid getting line hung up, and generally feel more comfortable with just the essentials like nippers and forceps. For anything else, you can just pop back to shore. And, with fewer obstacles like trees, it’s unlikely you’ll lose flies to snags anyway.
Leaving your gear on shore probably isn’t going to make or break your fishing game, but if you are able to wade more freely and skip messing with extra gear, it can only help.
8. E-scout beforehand
This is a big one. It’s amazing how many lakes are “paired up” with other lakes just next to them that you can’t see through trees or over ridges. What’s even more surprising is that sometimes one of these lakes will fish way better than the other.
Without pre-scouting online or on paper maps, you could miss a perfectly good hidden gem near your destination that could actually prove to be more productive. In doing the research, you might also come across tips that other people have left on forums to give you the upper hand wherever you’re going.
9. Go deeper
Casting a dry on a glassy lake is one of my favorite ways to fish. But, going subsurface is sometimes required. Many times this is a straightforward technique: cast out a beadhead nymph, strip it back, and wait for the strike.
If the fish truly aren’t feeding near the surface, though, don’t be afraid to get down deeper with your fly.
In some situations, you may actually want to use a sinking line to get down quickly and stay at a level depth. If you’re stripping a fly in, a floating line will pull it back up toward the surface, while a sinking line will keep the fly down and level. If the feeding zone is deep, you don’t want to constantly pull it to the surface.
You can also add split shot or a heavy fly to a long leader if you have a floating line and still want to get down in the water column.
If you learned a thing or two from this post, check out my list of 11 Tips to Catch More Trout in Small Streams.