Trails in the Clouds

Trails in the Clouds

  • By: Greg Thomas

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If I’m going to rot in hell some day it’s because I stuck a rock—at least a four-pounder—in a friend’s backpack just before he headed up a demanding trail into Montana’s Absaroka Mountains. Eleven hard miles in, while unloading his gear, he discovered my prank.

“Who did it?” he shouted at his camping and fishing companions. To a man they stated, “Not me.”
Later he told me, “I could tell by the way they reacted so instantly and so adamantly that all of them were innocent and I knew, almost immediately, that you were the only guy who would have done it.”
As any high-mountain angler could tell you, planting ordnance in someone’s pack is fly-fishing trickery of the most evil sort, not quite on par with sabotaging a competing guide’s boat, but an act that causes real pain to the recipient.
That’s because getting into and out of the mountains requires a massive planning effort and, most often, a long, arduous march up steep dirt trails into the high mountains, all with the burden of camping and fishing gear strapped to your back. When preparing for these sorts of trips anglers deliberate over every ounce they carry. The trek is even more grueling if they choose to fish off-trail lakes that require scrambles across giant boulderfields, or technical climbs through narrow mountain passes, or bushwhacks through some of the most daunting alder patches on the planet. It all sounds doable when you’re sitting around a table with friends, planning your great summer adventure. But a few miles up a trail, under the burden of a 50- or 60-pound pack, with the summer temperature rising toward 90 degrees, you may long for a redo that would place you anywhere but on that dusty trail of pain.
The reward for that misery is prime fishing for the most gorgeous trout you’ll ever see, many that haven’t seen a fly in front of their faces, even once, in their lives. If you can spot them and place a fly in their paths they’ll usually eat, which is not something that can be said for pressured trout on the big-name rivers, nor for those delicate spring-creek sippers that we’ve all had to deal with. In addition, the high mountains offer the most spectacular vistas available to fly fishers: turquoise lakes tucked into the bottoms of glacial cirques, with cliffs jutting from the water and massive granite spires rising thousands of feet overhead.
More than that, and more so every digital day, the mountains offer a respite from our demanding lives. Take off on a trail and most often you can kiss your cell service goodbye. No tweets, no Instagrams, no e-mail, no text messages; nothing but time and space and existence, and the opportunity to catch some mega-size trout if you play your cards right.
You’re right, I hear you. You can take sat phones and other apparatus into the mountains and plug in to the rest of the world, but that defeats the purpose and, besides, if you can’t wait to get out of the mountains before you brag about the five-pounder you landed, something may be wrong in your head. I like fishing mountain lakes because I have an eye for landscape, weather and wildlife, and an interest in contemplation. And I find an abundance of each in the mountains.
The wildlife can be unique and may include close encounters with moose, grizzly bear, black bear and mountain goat. The goats, you may know, are notorious for arriving in camp to lick salt off the ground, sometimes no more than yards from your tent. The grizzlies and black bears wander into the camps that idiots keep, meaning they are attracted to sites where people don’t use proper bear etiquette. The moose may be encountered anywhere, but they are especially entertaining when an angler wakes, pulls the tent’s zipper fly open and finds one chowing down on aquatic plants, its head fully submerged in the lake.
Mountain weather is so unpredictable it often becomes dangerous. Once I was hiking and fishing in Idaho’s Pioneer Mountains—they rise above Copper Basin, east of Sun Valley—when a wall of cumulus clouds suddenly appeared behind a mountain peak that rose a couple thousand feet above the lake. I was with one of the sweetest girls I’ve ever dated. We were trapped in open, rocky alpine terrain, and before we could even reel in the thunder rumbled. Five minutes later, while we descended for cover as quickly as possible, lightning bolts streamed down on an adjacent ridge just a few hundred yards away. The sound, in that natural amphitheater, was beyond description. We had no choice but to hunker in the bushes while marble-size hail rained down on our heads and the temperature quickly dropped 40 degrees.
Naturally this was unnerving, and was made even more so by the tendency my girlfriend displayed whenever she was nervous—she laughed uncontrollably. That was enough to deal with while watching some horror flick at a movie theater, but here it was magnified by the fact that we were going to die. After a while, however, as is the case in the mountains, the storm passed, the hail melted and we went back to our fishing. As we drove out of the mountains that night a radio report said several buildings in Sun Valley had caught fire in an extreme lightning storm. They thought they’d seen a show.

All of this may sound like a lot of effort mixed with calculated risk, and I’d be lying if I tried to portray it any differently. You can’t backpack into high-mountain lakes if you are out of shape. And you can’t do this unless you’re willing to take your ups and downs with your fishing, because sometimes mountain lakes fish well, other times they do not. This relates to when a lake may have been stocked with trout and whether those plants led to natural reproduction. Without getting too detailed, when choosing a lake to fish you want to pay close attention to the stocking records. If you’re looking for large trout—and why wouldn’t you—you don’t want to fish a lake that has been recently stocked. You want a lake that was stocked three or four years prior because those fish, being older, fewer in number and better fed, should be big. Better yet, you would like to locate an off-trail lake that has a feeder stream or an outlet stream that allows successful—but limited—natural reproduction. In that case you won’t find many fish (or anglers), but the trout you encounter could be real tankers.
That was the case when I fished Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains with a group of friends, who invited me at the last minute and said they had all the food covered and that all I needed to bring was a tent, a sleeping bag and a float tube. As we set up camp that afternoon it was apparent that they considered barley and hops as food and that they were relying on me to put meat on the table. I tooled around in that float tube for hours, and all of the boys cast from shore, but none of us garnered a single strike. Later, with the bonfire raging and the boys a-drinkin’, I started my last pass across the lake to join in the festivities. By this time I had resorted to a uniform full-sink line and a brown mohair leech and was dragging that along the bottom when I felt resistance on the line. I thought I’d hooked a log, but a second or two later I felt the telltale head-shake of a trout. And this was no ordinary trout. I pulled, it pulled, I gained line, it gained line. All told we fought each other for 10 minutes before I brought the fish to the side of my float tube, at which time I realized there was no way I could fit that fish in my net nor hoist it onto my mesh stripping pad. So I dragged it to shore, where three hungry dudes quickly dispatched it. It was a cutthroat trout of grotesque dimensions, almost as deep as it was long, a fish weighing maybe eight or nine pounds, and it fed all for two days.
Again, if you focus on large fish, study the maps and Google Earth, and look for lakes that are located away from established trails, lakes that require you to forge your own path. These lakes are stocked by air, sometimes by slightly meddling people who may talk a pilot into “making a dump” on an unnamed lake for their own “private” recreation. Other times these off-trail lakes rest below more accessible lakes, connected by a stream that offers fish the ability to travel. You can ask the biologists for hints on these waters, but the best way to secure intel is to buy some drinks for the locals in towns near areas that you want to fish.
It never hurts to have a boat or float tube on these lakes, but mountain trout routinely prowl the edges, and anglers who spend a lot of time looking for cruisers often do equally well. I remember fishing one of the off-trail lakes in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, on a whim, and finding several of the most golden-colored cutthroats known to mankind. There weren’t many trout, but they were cruising the shorelines, not far from deep drop-offs. They stretched 18 inches long and rose for ants and beetles. Later on that trip I worked very hard to reach another off-trail lake and only caught a couple six-inch golden trout, which disappointed me no end. As I began to hike away from that lake I took one last glance and saw a brute of a golden cruising a shallow bay. I dropped the pack, strung the rod, and raced downhill. I made one cast at that golden before it swam back into the depths.

Mountain lakes aren’t as productive as lowland lakes and rivers, but they do see aquatic insect hatches. Anglers should always be prepared to match mayflies (mostly Callibaetis), caddis, damselflies and, especially, midges. In my mind, however, fishing the mountain lakes is about casting terrestrial imitations and watching a big trout rise 15 feet in the water column to suck in a meal. The late Gary LaFontaine liked high-mountain lakes, too, and he believed terrestrials to be the most important part of fish diets there. He attributed this to anabatic winds that push upward—not horizontally—along the face of the mountains. When these afternoon winds occur, ants, beetles (including lady bugs), spiders and even grasshoppers can be blown hundreds, if not thousands, of feet in the air, all in a vertical column. As the winds subside those bugs are strewn over the landscape, including the surface of lakes. This often happens in late afternoon and evening, which accounts for all those rises you see while cooking dinner or getting ready to climb in the sack.
Mountain trout, however, aren’t always looking up. They’ll also feed near the bottom on damsel nymphs, chironomids and scuds. Anglers who carry floating and sinking lines stand a much better chance of success—when the fish aren’t looking up you can go down to them.
The shallow areas of mountain lakes are prime places to focus your attention and often, especially in the morning hours on windless days, you’ll see plenty of cruisers. You can cast ahead of these fish, then twitch your fly to garner their attention. These fish also cruise just off the shallows, along the drop-offs. With a sink-tip line you can cast out as far as possible, allow your fly to sink off the ledge, and then retrieve it with good chances of getting an eat.
When I fish mountain lakes—especially the first time I fish a particular lake—I try to find a vantage where I can see into the water, often with binoculars in hand. I look for risers, but I especially keep my eyes open in the shallows and along shorelines with large boulders and deep water just beyond them. If I see fish cruising along these areas I’ll head for a high boulder, wait for the fish to appear, then make my play.
I concentrated on just those types of water while fishing central Montana’s Crazy Mountains one year. I was trying to catch the state-record golden trout and had hiked to an off-trail lake that required the crossing of a raging creek, the negotiating of massive scree fields, and a couple harrowing little marches around certain-death cliffs. All on a slope where I saw more bear sign than I’d ever seen outside of Alaska. The results made the trek worth it. I found lots of goldens, and big ones at that, up to 21 inches long.
In fact I thought I’d indeed caught the state record, only to learn that these fish were tainted with rainbow trout genes. I fished the boulder drop-offs on one side of the lake with success, then switched to shallow bays and picked off good fish, too. But what I remember most was fishing an outlet stream that was loaded with these fish. I landed a dozen, up to 16 inches long, then spotted a big trout’s tail sticking out from under a submerged rock. I reached in, grabbed the tail, and hauled out an 18-inch golden-rainbow cross.
That evening I camped near the edge of the lake, watched mountain goats scale near-vertical cliffs, saw a chocolate-colored black bear turning over boulders on the far side of the lake, and gazed at big trout sipping chironomids off the surface. I lit a little bonfire to stay warm and watched an unbelievable display of stars rising in the darkening sky. The Milky Way was so distinct that it looked three dimensional. At one point I felt the modern urge to share and thought about snapping an image and posting to Instagram . . . until I remembered that I hadn’t even carried a phone into the mountains.

Greg Thomas is Fly Rod & Reel’s editor. Check out his Web site,