FOR THE HIKING BOOT-CLAD FLY FISHERMAN
Every outdoorsman has their specialty. Whatever the pursuit, there is somebody passionate enough to fill that niche. For me, that niche is backcountry fly fishing. I’m fortunate that I live in Colorado, where miles and miles of backcountry wilderness sit at my backdoor. For years I’ve explored rivers and lakes without names and no permanent address on topographic maps. Some are seasonal ponds or creeks only to be found during runoff, and I suppose others are ones the cartographer just never got around to naming, so they sit patiently waiting for the weary fly fisherman to come along and unlock their secrets. These waters can be either quite rewarding, painfully stubborn or barren of any life form. However, most tend to be quite willing to relinquish a few fish. At altitude, these fish have a short growing season, which means they are quite occupied with filling their gut with as many invertebrate vittles as possible. This is excellent news for the angler, but certain strategies can enhance success and even the quality of fish one might land. Although most backcountry fish have rarely — if ever — seen a fly, they can still be extremely spooky at the slightest disturbance. The following are guidelines I follow trip after trip that have treated me well over the years.
Upon reaching a destination after a long hike, it is extremely difficult to stay back and observe the water. After all, the reason you’re there is to fish. Patience can be extremely painstaking, especially if fish are steadily rising, but remaining back and analyzing rise forms will inform an angler exactly what the fish are doing. For example, if you see a trout rise with only its back breaking the surface, there is a good chance it is feeding on emergers of some kind or other near-surface groceries. By rushing into the water immediately an angler can easily overlook this observation and miss a solid opportunity for a trophy backcountry trout. Furthermore, remaining back will allow an angler to spot cruising fish near the water’s edge. Sometimes the most productive area of a backcountry lake is the first several feet near the shore. Browns Lake in Comanche Peak Wilderness is a good example of this. Brook trout in this high-mountain lake utilize a cruising lane near the shoreline that provides them with easy meals and deep water close by for a quick getaway. On several occasions, I have shared this lake with other anglers, but knowing the cruising patterns of the resident fish, I knew they were spooking some exquisite trophies by not patiently observing the water and stealthily walking the shoreline. They would haphazardly rush into the water just to cast a fly as far out into the center of the lake as they could. All the while trophy brook trout were literally cruising just feet behind them. Oftentimes in this scenario, schools of fish will cruise together, bringing with them a flurry of action for the patient angler.
Various features tend to hold most of the fish at some point during the season or even during each day. The cruising lane at Browns Lake is a shallow shelf and has an interesting effect on the surrounding water. The water around shallow shelves can be slightly warmer than the surrounding water due to its depth. This temperature gradient can allow for earlier hatches when compared to hatches around the lake, which is why the brook trout at Browns Lake utilize it. As mentioned above, shelves also provide a deep-water refuge when predators such as birds of prey are nearby. Other features that are likely to hold fish throughout the season are inlets and outlets. Seasonal or permanent inlets can bring with them terrestrials (crickets, ants, termites or hoppers) from within the timber or meadows. Cutthroat trout are known to stack on top of each other at inlet areas to feed on the buffet of invertebrates being presented to them. Arrowhead Lake deep within Rocky Mountain National Park sees this type of behavior in June and early July as runoff begins in the high country. A well-presented hopper pattern such as a stimulator or Parachute Adams can be an excellent choice during this time because seasonal creeks feeding the lake swell during runoff and carry with them anything clinging to its banks. Fish in this scenario never seem to be too picky.
Paying attention to the topography around the lake will yield insight into fish behavior and lake patterns. Blue Lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness sits nestled below towering peaks that shade it from the sun. This essentially does two things. First, it prolongs ice-off. Knowing the approximate time a lake thaws allows an angler to pursue other productive waters in the spring while waiting for the high country to thaw. (Hitting ice-off can be extremely difficult in the backcountry, and in some instances the water thaws before the access leading to the lake does.) Secondly, knowing how a lake warms throughout the day allows me to eliminate certain spots that fish won’t utilize until later in the day. More specifically, this uneven warming creates a hatch gradient; the portions of the lake that warm quicker will yield hatches earlier in the day. There is a nameless lake deep in the Roosevelt National Forest that exhibits this pattern, and by utilizing this strategy I can effectively fish isolated hatches around the lake and pick off greenback cutthroat trout with ease. The fish routinely feed during these hatches, and it would behoove an angler to study nuances such as these at any lake.
Although backcountry fish tend to gorge themselves during the abbreviated growing season, there are certain rules that can be applied to fly selection. Mainly, I like flies that resemble everything yet look like nothing in particular. Examples include Parachute Adams, stimulators, hare’s ear nymphs, krakens or the timeless pheasant tail nymph. Throwing patterns like these in sizes ranging from 12 to 18 on a 9-foot, 5x leader allow an angler to mimic a wide variety of food sources. It is extremely difficult to exactly predict what kind of bug life a backcountry site has. This is especially true if it is the angler’s first trip there. Having flies of the Swiss army knife variety tends to swing the odds of matching a hatch in favor of the angler. However, there are patterns I carry with me that represent a common food item found in most backcountry waters: Chironomids. These aquatic morsels play an important role in the diet of backcountry trout. I’ve had great success with size 14–16 pupae patterns with clear glass beads and a little flash tied on a curved shank hook similar to a Tiemco 200R. Two patterns in particular that produce every season for me are patterns I call the blackshirt Chironomid and the backcountry midge. I like throwing these as a dropper 14 inches beneath a size 14 stimulator in a hopper-dropper style. Offer this rig ahead of cruising cutthroats and you’ll be surprised how well these combinations work.
One item I habitually carry with me to aide in fly selection is a stomach pump, which drastically reduces the learning curve of any fishery. Identifying exactly what trout are feeding on always increases the success of any trip, but especially future trips. Preserving stomach samples in alcohol give an angler real-world reference material to create patterns explicitly for their waters. Sometimes an angler will be quite surprised at what trout are keying in on.
The next time you’re in the backcountry, remember to be patient and watch before you wade out. Study the water and look for any clues that might reveal trout behavior. Also study the landscape and features around the water as well as in the water. Most of the time just a few features will hold the majority of the fish. Keep these tips in mind, along with a few Swiss army flies in your vest, the next time you’ve spent hours hiking into that backcountry lake, and they will increase the odds of landing more quality fish. Well, maybe not landing the fish but certainly hooking up more. The fighting and landing part is up to you.
Article and photos by Chris Cross. This is Chris Cross’ first time writing for Colorado Outdoors. This article appeared in the May/June 2018 print version of Colorado Outdoors magazine.
Good job, Chris – and sage advice for backcountry anglers.