Loop Hikes For Backcountry Trout

Loop Hikes For Backcountry Trout

Loop Hikes For Backcountry Trout By Gary Lewis

How to plot a circuit trek for high lakes cutthroats, brookies, and rainbows. 

We stood on a ridge, looking over at a snow-capped peak. Jacob took off his boot and shook out a pebble. John scratched his head, “if I’d have known we were going to be doing this, I’d have brought my map.” 

I was disappointed: we’d been planning to hike into a lake that is known for big brown trout, but the road was blocked. We had changed our plans, heading into a little lake John had seen while hunting a few years ago.

“It should be right here,” he said, pointing at the canyon before us. “Or over there,” pointing into the canyon to our right. John led off again. 

“Here it is.” We’d missed the trail and walked right by the lake without seeing it. We could see it now; an emerald jewel, shining through the pines.

Beside the water, we inflated our float tubes and my raft. Like so many backcountry waters, this one had too much shoreside timber to fish it from the bank.

A small lake with a sandy bottom, this one measured no deeper than 20 feet at any point.
I rigged my four-weight rod with an intermediate slow sinking line and a red beadhead leech with a pheasant tail on a dropper. 

A breeze began to blow a chop on the surface, pushing my raft along. I picked up my fly rod and began to twitch the line with short, three-inch tugs. Fish on!

Keeping its head down, the trout shook, then ran, burning line off the reel. The backing knot slipped through my fingers before I could turn him. 

Finally, I cradled the hook-jawed, hump-backed rainbow in the water. I slipped the fly out, measuring him with the rod before he kicked away and vanished into the depths. He topped out at twenty inches. I would never have guessed I could catch a fish that big in a high country lake.

The Cascades, the Ochocos, and the Blue mountains contain hundreds of lakes, many of which do not see more than a handful of fishermen in a summer.


Three years ago, a guy called with an unusual request. Sam was from California, and his son Taj was turning 13 that summer and wanted to hike for trout for ten days. Would I lay out a few two- and three-day loop hikes for them, he asked. 

I flipped to the back of the Fishing Central Oregon book – to the white pages where people seldom think to turn, and the little-known backcountry lakes. 

Up near Mt. Jefferson, on the Warm Springs Reservation, a string of small lakes is accessible to non-tribal members with the proper permit. In the shadow of Diamond Peak, a couple of chains of small, still waters can be found near Crescent Lake, and more near Odell Lake. Up by Lava Lake and Cultus, several trailheads lead up and away. The Olallie Lake area is full of waters teeming with trout. Lay out a map, find a place to park, and plot a hike that will lead from one lake to the next to the next. 

The backcountry Cascades lakes are seeded by helicopter or pack train every other year. Most are stocked with fingerlings – brookies, cutthroats and rainbows – and the fish that survive winter can be frying-size by the next July.  

I provided four printed routes, sent them by mail, and when I returned from my trip, I heard Sam and Taj were getting out of the woods and wanted to meet up for coffee. 

Taj had the time of his life. The father and son duo spent their whole vacation in the woods, sleeping under the stars, fishing mornings and evenings, hiking when the sun was up, cooking freeze-dried dinners, and slapping mosquitoes. I was proud of them.  


Mountain trout are uncomplicated; the trails are easy to follow, and packs don’t have to be heavy. Routes can vary according to skill level and time. 

After a little research on the web, I came to the conclusion the old ways are better than the new ways. Use Google Earth if necessary, but buy a real map, and get a real compass. A GPS unit is optional, but adds flexibility in finding unfished water.  

Get a hiking book. There is a higher level of reliability in the old hiking books that can be found in new and used bookstores hereabouts, and the Forest Service maintains lists of the lakes and the fish available. Don’t trust what people on the Internet say about the lakes they have been to. 

Compare information from different sources and take notes. Heed the author’s advice about weather, what to bring, and what to leave behind. 

Once the route is settled on, share the plan with two different people at home. If fishermen don’t return at the appointed time, rescuers can know where to start a search. 

Plan to bring a light spinning rod with 4-pound test line, casting bubbles, wet flies, and dry flies. A good alternate would be a 9-foot, 4-weight fly rod with a floating line. Pack them both.  

Stuff a sleeping bag and pad in the backpack. Don’t forget mosquito repellent. 

For shorter trips, plan no-cook meals. Pack a stove and freeze-dried meals for overnighters. Dress in layers. Keep a change of clothes because thunderstorms and rain or snow can whip up in minutes, no matter what the forecast says. 

Later, Sam reflected on the trip and how they had fished several routes in ten days in Central Oregon. 

“We got to see so much. To break it up in three or four different trips allowed us to evaluate our gear and know what to leave behind on the next route.” 

They used the float-and-fly method of fishing with a spinning rod. And they used global positioning. Taj’s best trout stretched the tape to over 20 inches.  

With the map in front of them, the pair found a lake they could hike to by using GPS and cutting straight across a swamp – a spectacular place off the beaten track with feeding trout. 

“That was one of our first experiences doing off-trail hiking,” Sam said. “And using GPS, which was how we got to that lake, and where Taj caught that monster fish.”

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