A Guide to Piscatorial Acts in the Wilderness

A Guide to Piscatorial Acts in the Wilderness

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Committing Piscatorial Acts in the Mountains

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Montana Brook TroutBrook trout from a mountain lake.

Westslope Cutthroat TroutWestslope Cutthroat Trout
Multiday climbing in the mountains presents many options of overnight accommodations. While perching on the side of a mountain or staying a hut certainly has its advantages for a high start as well as enjoyable sunrise/sunset options; others enjoy spending evenings and mornings around the shores of a mountain lake. For those who desire this type of approach the options for how to spend that time are endless such as staying in the tent and reading a good book, playing cards or spending time in great conversation with friends. Perhaps a more enjoyable pursuit would be to bring a fly rod and spend some time fishing for trout.

For those of you who like to eat what they catch you might be doing the other fish in the lake a favor by eating a few of the fish you catch. Competition for food in these mountain lakes is intense and due to the lack of food they are stunted in growth. A lot of fish competing for a small amount of food produces fish with large heads and small bodies. These fish are usually planted by wildlife management departments for harvesting by anglers. Trout cooked over a stove is a high mountain delicacy that everyone who likes the taste of fish can appreciate.

If they are protected in some way by the state wildlife agency make sure you release them back into their environment.

Yes you could bring a spinning rod and perhaps do as well or better but truly there is something about watching a dry fly land on the water and seeing an eager trout rise to take the fly as a meal. Set the hook and it’s a great time. Mornings and evenings don’t get much better!

So what is needed to commit piscatorial acts in the wilderness? Presented below is a brief synopsis of recommended equipment, techniques as well as suggestions for locating trout on the lakes if they are not obviously feeding.



Most fish in mountain lakes spend their time feeding in the littoral zone (the zone between the edge of the lake and the deep area). This is the drop off area where most insects and smaller fish live. Sometimes there is a vast variety of plants that support plentiful aquatic life and other times the lakes appear to be devoid of aquatic life. This zone is usually one foot to 15-20 feet in depth and fish can be found throughout this zone depending upon current food source and time of day.

Most mountain lakes can be effectively fished with a floating line. With floating line there are a number of options for presentation. Both surface and sub-surface techniques can be used by adding a weighted fly or tungsten putty or weights. By increasing the length of the tippet most flies can be effectively presented to fish that are feeding. In many lakes the food sources are so limited that fish will feed on most flies that are presented. Therefore one line is usually sufficient for all but the most finicky trout.

The fly fishing industry standard is that fly lines should be the same weight as the rod and reel they are used with. A 6 weight line is matched with a 6 weight rod. However when fishing only stillwaters experts recommend using a weight of line that is one size higher than the rod which makes it easier to throw larger flies such as damselflies and minnow imitations.

Take down Fly RodTake Down Fly Rod

Unless you are fishing a lake with a high total dissolved solids count (more on that later) the trout will generally be small (under 16 inches) and will not require a strong rod. Fly rods are categorized by weight the higher the weight, the stronger the rod. For example, an 8 weight fly rod is stronger than a 4 weight rod. Generally a 4 or 5 weight rod should be sufficient for most mountain lakes and a 3 weight would also be a lot of fun on trout that are 10-12 inches in length. Rods that break down into 5 or 6 pieces will be more easily packed and this should be considered as well. Most rods come with cases and are essential for safely transporting any fly rod.


Most modern fly reels matched to the rod and line are sufficient for mountain lakes. If purchasing a new reel consider buying a large or medium arbor reel which increases the speed of the line retrieve over conventional reels.

The large or medium arbor reel matched to the correct fly line and backing will serve for many years if properly cared for.

Angling EquipmentEquipment

A quick stop at the local fly shop will reap huge rewards in selecting flies that are common in the area you are fishing.

However, it is never a bad idea to bring the following patterns imitating: mosquito flies, black ants, chironomids, damselfly nymphs, dragonfly nymphs and a few bead head nymphs as well. Many of the flies that are fished on moving water will also work on mountain lakes. The pattern is not as important as the technique in which it is presented. Most fish will take a fly that is properly presented and many patterns imitate numerous types of aquatic life.

Denny Rickards, a stillwater fly fishing expert, has designed a number of specialized flies that are VERY effective on stillwaters. My favorites are the stillwater nymph and the seal bugger.

Stillwater Foat TubeFloat Tube
Other Gear

The new fluorocarbon tippet is quite effective and many anglers are using it with success. Fluorocarbon tippet offers an advantage since it nearly matches the refraction of water. Tippet sizes of 4, 5 and 6 should be more than sufficient. Plan on having enough tippet to enable the sub-surface techniques as discussed in the following section.

Bring these as well: Extra leaders, clippers, hemostats, tungsten weights, a drift indicator and fly floatant.

Poloraized sunglasses and a hat are also necessary for seeing fish below the surface of the water.

To more effectively fish mountain lakes consider bringing a float tube, waders, boots and fins. A float tube enables more mobility and allows access to areas of the lake that cannot be effectively reached from shore. Many times it is easier to kick across a lake in a float tube than bushwhack around it.


Fishing at Long Lake, John Muir WildernessNoondueler photo
<i>A Forever Kind of Peace</i>Float Tubing, lcarreau photo
Typical Wyoming Fishing HoleMountains and fishing.....priceless!, jasonburton photo.

Top Water

Most new anglers will enjoy the thrill of seeing their fly gulped in by a rising trout. This technique is basic and after learning how to gently land a fly on the lake can be quite effective.


The goal of subsurface fishing is to use the fly imitate the aquatic animal it represents. There are many techniques that are effective for catching trout in the mountain lakes. The following three basic techniques are effective.

Sink and Retrieve:

It sounds fun and it is! After casting the line out with a weighted fly such as a damselfly nymph the fly is allowed to sink for a duration of time such as 15 seconds and then slow pulled in with small portions of line brought in. Experiment with different amounts and speeds of pull until one that leads the fish to hit the fly. Set the hook and bring the fish in.

Hang and Bob:

Use a drift indicator on the fly leader and use a weighted fly. Position the drift indicator approximately 9 feet (2 meters) above the fly. Cast the line out and allow the fly to sink. When the drift indicator is pulled under the surface set the hook.

Dropper Technique:

Use a floating fly and a weighted fly tied about 20 inches below it. This technique increases the odds of catching a fish as two generally are better than one. Catching two fish at the same time is always exciting.

Locating Fish

Fishing At Parker LakeA typical mountain lake, mrh photo

In most mountain lakes inlet streams are the place to fish if they can be located. In the summers the fish tend to congregate here as there is a higher level of oxygen in cooler water. The stream also carries insects that wash down the stream. It literally is a conveyor belt of food for the trout.

Other locations to look for fish include areas where there are beds of weeds and reeds along the side of the lake. I call these areas “salad bars for fish” as the aquatic life here is generally the richest in the lake.

Do not be over concerned about getting your fly into the middle of the lake since fishing the edges of lakes is much more effective.

Other places to look for include points where there is an obvious transition from a deep area to a shallow. Fish enjoy the safety of the deep but will eagerly rise to take a source of food if presented with the opportunity.

Finding Big Fish:

Big RainbowA LARGE Montana Trout caught on a fly.

[img:404692:alignleft:medium:A LARGE Montana Trout caught on a fly.]
Most of us know that bigger fish a more fun to catch. Here is one hint for locating a lake that has larger fish. Look for lakes with rich plant life and high number of aquatic insects.

Consider the following information as well.

Generally as a rule most mountain lakes are not rich in aquatic life. However there are some incredible exceptions to this rule these lakes are high in total dissolved solids (TDS) and produce trout that are large and plenty difficult to catch.

High TDS indicates that a lake is productive and has a high number of organisms that support the most basic life forms in the water structure.

Its all about the circle of life and the photoperiod (phases of the moon).
Phytoplankton, a basic life form, grows through photosynthesis and responds and grows better in sunlight and with better nutrients. Zooplankton (microscopic crustaceans) feed on phytoplankton during the low light hours. Small fish which are eaten by bigger fish feed on the zooplankton and the cycle continues better nutrients bigger fish. Its simple really!

Although not the single influential factor light plays an important role in a trout's life.

The more difficult aspect to time is the photoperiod. The photoperiod is super influential on the rythms of how a trout lives its life. An internal clock controls trout as it does most other animals. Scientists believe that the rut in ungulates is triggered by the photoperiod. Catching a large trout will certainly be a lot easier if you can be confident that they will be feeding. A Lunar Chart is helpful to help determine not only which days to fish but also which portions of the day will be most productive. Other factors influencing success are weather, presentation and location.

And finally.....Keep in mind that most fish and game departments will not publish information about TDS or where to find big fish. You have to investigate and study. However, a great indicator is found when studying the regulations set for the lake you are fishing. If the wildlife management department sets special limits such as minimum catch size of over 20 inches may indicate a lake that will produce large fish.


Lake Fishing With a Fly by Ron Cordes and Randall Kauffman

Big Trout: How and Where to Target Trophies by Bernie Taylor


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-7 of 7
Dan the Jones

Dan the Jones - Nov 16, 2008 10:25 pm - Voted 10/10


years of being in the mountains with other explorers who carried rod and reel, I have been looking for the correct info on how to do this myself. Thanks for Posting. One question however, what is the weight of the rod and reel?


lcarreau - Nov 17, 2008 8:46 pm - Voted 10/10

Hey Blake ...

Outstanding article!

But did you know: a bad day of fishing is better than a good day
in the (stinking) office?

Larry : )


FlatheadNative - Nov 17, 2008 9:40 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Hey Blake ...

Thanks Larry. Glad you liked it and I wa honored to be able to include your photo in memory of your dear friend.

A bad day of fishing is better than almost anything else....except for standing on the summit of an awesome mountain and well......!

Joe White

Joe White - Nov 18, 2008 2:55 am - Voted 10/10

Sweet Article.

Very cool. Loved it :)

Thanks for posting!



FlatheadNative - Nov 18, 2008 7:48 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Sweet Article.

Thanks Joe. I am glad you liked it.


stinkycheezman33 - Dec 3, 2008 1:15 pm - Hasn't voted


as an avid midwestern fisherman who has never had the opportunity to try his hand at flyfishing (much less real flyfishing in mountain lakes and trout streams out west) i loved this article! great fish photos, and spectacular scenery to back it up...heck, there's enough info there to get myself started :)
thanks for sharing,


FlatheadNative - Dec 3, 2008 10:35 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Wow!


I encourage you to give it a try. It is very peaceful after you get past the initial learning curve. Find a friend that already fly fishes or visit a fly shop to learn from someone who knows how to cast a fly rod. Its pretty relaxing!

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