By Mike Carey
Fall is in the air and with it anglers are flooding to the saltwater and rivers for salmon. Meanwhile, largely unnoticed, some of the finest recreational fishing opportunities in our State are just a day hike away. Imagine having a beautiful lake totally to yourself to fish, no shoulder to shoulder fisherman casting and crossing your lines, fighting for your spot. It's just you, the fish, and a whole lot of breath-taking scenery. Sounds good? It should. It’s the end of summer and the Alpine Lakes are calling you. Are you ready to answer the call?
For those willing to put in a little energy and effort, Washington's Alpine Lakes offer a viable alternative to the hectic fall salmon fishing frenzy that descends on our state in September. You're looking for solitude and peace and quiet. Let's explore what you'll need and some of the places you may want to visit.
First off, our state is blessed with thousands of places to hike, and hundreds of lakes that have been stocked by those that went before us. The Hi-Lakers are one such group of outdoor enthusiast and anglers that have over the years ventured into our high lakes and planted fingerlings of rainbow, cutthroat, and brook trout. In addition to these groups, WDFW have stocked as well. Meaning many of these high mountain lakes have fish. Add to that the fact that most anglers who venture into the high lakes are catch and release means that any given lake you hike to will have fish to catch. That said our high lake trout can be incredibly shy and reluctant to bite one day, and willing biters the next. I've experienced both. Success is not guaranteed, nor is being skunked. Like most fishing, you never know what to expect.
So where to go? So many lakes, so many options. When I am looking for new lakes to explore, I have a simple checklist that works for me. Unlike drive-to lakes, when we are talking hiking to your destination it's important to consider factors that normally don't come into play. First and foremost is, how good of shape are you in? If your first hiking choice is a fifteen mile round trip with 3,000 feet of elevation gain and you are in mediocre shape, I can tell you that at the end of the day you will be so exhausted and tired you'll be reluctant to try high lake fishing again. So my Rule Number One is - know your limits! Pick a hike that won't burn you out. Figure that most people walk around 2-2.5 miles in an hour. To that add on elevation gain. For me, my comfort zone is a ten mile round trip with less than 1,500 feet of elevation gain. Anything more than that and I am really worn out by the time I get back to the car. So if you haven't done much hiking before, start out slow, say under five miles round trip and 700 feet of elevation gain. Then, see how it goes and gradually stretch your comfort zone. Ultimately, the longer, harder hikes will get you to lakes that have less angling pressure and open up vistas with more beautiful scenery and less people. The whole point is to get away from it all, right? So start slow and build up to bigger and better things. As to specifics, well, our state has a plethora of high lakes to explore. I recommend picking up some standard hiking books, such as 100 Hikes in the Alpine Lakes by The Mountaineers, or other hiking guides. Check out Half Priced Books to get used guides cheap, or Amazon.com online. Speaking of online, my favorite online site for hiking information is hands down WTA.org (Washington Trails Association). You'll find hike descriptions, maps, trail reports and more.
OK, you've picked your hiking destination, and checked my favorite print source for obscure lake information, Washington State Fishing Guide. The guide tells you what type of trout the lake you have selected holds. Don't forget WashingtonLakes.com, we have a growing list of Alpine Lakes as well. Time to get your gear together!
Rule Number Two - tell someone where you are hiking! You're going into the wilderness. Even though many of these trails are well established and used, there are days you may hike and see few people on the trail. What if you slip, fall down a hillside and injure yourself? Does someone know where you are going? Always leave this information before you set off. Note, I'm recommending this whether you are hiking alone or with someone. It's basic backcountry safety.
Rule Number Three - bring the proper gear. I'm not talking fishing gear! (We’ll get to that shortly). I'm talking keeping yourself safe in the wilderness. I recommend you hike with a day pack. In that pack bring The Ten Essentials. If you don't know what those are, go to the WTA.org site and do a search. They have the list right there. Some of the things I really encourage you to have include a map, and a compass or a handheld GPS with a set of spare batteries, Guide book with hiking description, water, snack, knife, matches, raingear, whistle or noise making device, and bug spray. Cell phones are good and sometimes (not often) will have reception. Proper footwear is really important. You'll be hiking over uneven terrain with roots, sharp rocks, and other hazards just waiting to injure you. My preference is a good mid-height hiking boot with ankle support with some nice quality sox. Please, no tennis shoes! They may be light but are totally inadequate for the task at hand. To the above items I would also include a hiking stick for support. It really makes a difference on those long hikes, plus it's a source of protection. My hiking stick is straight from Mother Earth and every hike I've done I've burned the name of the lake into the wood. It's a pretty cool memento to have.
Speaking of protection, I strongly encourage you to invest in bear spray. The chances of running into a bear or cougar are rare; however, it is a possibility. Better to have something than nothing. As for myself, I made the personal choice several years ago to hike with a gun. I'm sure I have raised a few eyebrows among the casual city hikers out for a stroll in the woods, but for me it just extra peace of mind. My Glock 45 caliber gives me a fighting chance, which in my book is better than playing dead on the ground.
Onward to more happy gear recommendations, the fishing gear. Let's start with rod and reel. For the purest among us of course they will bring a fly rod and reel, and perhaps waders. And two spools of line, one floating, and one intermediate sinking, or sinking tip. Perhaps even a small one person raft for those who really want to increase their fishing opportunities? Here's the fun part - you don’t need a fly rod to fly fish! The rest of us can get around fly rods by hiking in with a spinning rod. I use a 6 1/2 foot medium action rod with a basic spinning reel sized to match. My line is 12 pound mono. Attached to this I run a clear small float which can be used either dry chambered to cast dry flies, or, filled with water to cast nymphs and streamers. The bulb provides the weight to cast dry flies but floats on the surface. It's a great tool and really works. I'll run a 5-6 foot tapered leader with my dry fly and cast it out. If there are trout feeding on the surface they will hit that fly. Heck, many times they hit the float! Bring a good selection of dry and wet flies, and for sure don't forget the wooly buggers. They work on high mountain trout just as well as their low lake cousins.
If I want to cast hardware, then I just go with a fluorocarbon leader in 6-8 pounds. I have had good success with spinners of various types and brands. I think anything shiny will do the job. Other lures to consider bringing would be small sized flatfish or plugs, and spoons. Cast any of this gear as far out as you can. Start by retrieving on the surface, and if no results start doing a countdown method - cast, let the lure hit the water, count to ten, and retrieve. Work the lake in a fan casting motion, from left to right. Walk down several feet and repeat. Some lakes you'll be able to walk all the way around, others will have rocky cliffs or dense shrubs preventing you from getting all the way around the lake. I've had my best success casting into deep waters. By the way, if you've never been to a high mountain lake you will be amazed by the water clarity. Finally, remember that these lakes are pristine waters. Treat them with respect, clean up other people's mess, and consider catch and release. Hiking back five miles is not going to make that freshly caught trout taste any better. Let it go for someone else to enjoy.
Take in the sights and sounds around you. Remember, it's the journey, not the destination. Maybe you'll hit the lake on a day when the fish are active and willing biters, maybe nothing will touch any of your gear. Hiking into a high mountain lake is about the total experience. The smells on the trail, the sounds, the solitude, the scenery all make a sensory impact on your body and mind. You may very likely find your mind slowing down, quieting, relaxing in a way you never could out on the river, shoulder to shoulder with dozens of other anglers. This is what you exerted yourself for. So take it all in, and if a beautiful high mountain lake trout decides to play with you, tugging your rod and splashing cold water in your face, all the better. You're home.
Editor's Note: this article was first published in 2014 on WashingtonLakes.com