It’s a way of life in Montana, the winters are cold and the summers are hot. With this year’s sub-par snow pack and an early heat wave, we’ve already experienced some fishing restrictions on our local water. While the main rivers and streams get choked with traffic there are a plethora of options awaiting you up in the hills. Alpine lakes and streams offer anglers a chance at cool water and eager trout while the rest of the area’s fishing slows down.
Fly fishing mountain streams and alpine lakes is a great way to spend a hot summer day or even a weekend. While the rivers running through the valley bottoms heat up and fishing slows down, the cascading streams and crystal clear lakes that dot and slash Montana’s backcountry thrive. There’s something to be said about picking your way along a small mountain creek, miles away from anyone listening to the constant movement of water and casting small dry flies through holes in the brush to eager trout. All fly fishing is an art form, small creek fishing is just a more delicate form. The small cutthroat found in these streams seem to burst with vibrant colors and intricate patterns, occupying the soft water behind rocks and logs.
Most of these creeks tumble down the mountain from alpine lakes which offer another trout fishing venue during the warm summer months. These lakes are home to cutthroat and brook trout along with the occasional grayling, and most are routinely stocked by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. While all alpine lakes have their own unique attributes and subtle differences, the tactics used to catch fish is usually very similar. Cutthroat trout will travel in pods, circling the lake along the edge of drop-offs and shelves while looking for food. If there is a creek flowing into the lake there will usually be more fish on that end taking advantage of any food being flushed into the lake. When fishing these alpine lakes I try to find a rock to cast from that gives me a good angle to spot cruising fish. If it’s close to the mouth of the creek then it’s even better. If the vegetation is too close, wade out until you’re within casting range of the drop offs. Be patient and look for pods circling the outskirts of the lake, once you spot them lay a cast in front of them and wait.
You can get away with a pretty limited fly selection when heading to alpine creeks or lakes. I usually carry a selection of dry flies consisting of Elk Hair Cadis, Royal Wulff’s, Purple Haze, Parachute Adams, ant, beetle, and small grasshopper patterns. If fish are being picky on top, I’ll have a few wet flies such as small leeches, few bead head princes, and soft hackle nymphs.
Being located in Southwest Montana we’re fortunate to have an abundance of mountains to recreate in. With mountains come alpine lakes and streams, the hardest part is just deciding which piece of water you want to fish!
If you’re just looking to get out for the afternoon Hyalite is a great option. It’s well known and does see a lot of traffic but there are plenty of spots to fish and the fish are usually eager to eat. The creek below the reservoir offers small brook and rainbow trout with the occasional cutthroat or brown mixed in. The creek above the reservoir which opened July 15th offers shots at much larger cutthroat than you’d find below the dam as well as some nice grayling mixed in. The reservoir itself is always fun to fish and the combination of these three spots so close together makes for a great afternoon. Don’t be afraid to throw some streamers on the reservoir, I’ve caught quite a few cutties stripping yellow streamers off of the dam and near the entrance of the creek.
If you’re looking to find a little more serenity but don’t want to hike very far, Lava Lake offers up some spectacular views and some larger cutthroat than you’d expect. The trail head is located on Highway 191 in the canyon on the way up to Big Sky. A relaxing 2.5 mile hike will get you to the edge of this beautiful emerald blue water.
If you don’t mind putting a few miles down on your boots, Mystic Lake, located just south of Bozeman is a great place to hang out for the day or take a light pack and spend the night. The hike is 5.5 miles from New World Gulch Trailhead or 10 miles from Bozeman Creek Trail Head. Mystic holds brook trout and chunky cutthroat trout up to a few pounds. I’ve even heard a few rumors over the years that there are lake trout cruising the depths of the lake, although I have yet to catch one there. If you’re lucky, you can reserve the forest service cabin on the lake and spend a weekend enjoying the peace and serenity that this lake offers.
Finally, my favorite option for exploring alpine lakes and streams is doing a multi-day backpacking trip. Obviously this is much more of an undertaking and requires a lot of planning but the places you’ll find yourself are well worth the work.
My favorite backpacking trip yet was one I did with some friends a few years ago along the Spanish Peak Trail. There are a number of lakes and a few different loops that you can choose from. We chose Jerome Rock Lake as a destination. We started at the South Fork of Spanish Creek and followed Falls Creek. After 8.5 miles and a few thousand feet of elevation we arrived at the lake. We were immediately greeted by rising cutthroat trout. Fishing was difficult but we managed to catch a few nice fish on caddis patterns. That night we enjoyed the amazing night sky you can only experience at that elevation with only a few other groups scattered around the lake. The next day we picked up camp and hiked over to Solitude Lake. This was the highlight of our trip as we were completely alone on the lake and the fishing was stellar. Fish were cruising the shelves and every passing pod resulted in a fish or two for the group. We kept a couple of fish for dinner and enjoyed them in tinfoil over the fire with some salt and lemon pepper. The next day we hiked out of Solitude Lake on a trail that connected back with the Falls Creek trail. The clouds had closed in the night before and we had a cool misty hike out through the clouds.
The gist of this article is that there are an infinite number of fishing options in our area. It may get warm this summer and we may see some closures on our popular rivers, but there is always somewhere to fish. You may have to get a little more creative and spend a little more time planning but you can always catch fish in Montana. So grab a map, get on google earth, check out Fish Wildlife and Parks fish stocking records (http://fwp.mt.gov/fishing/searches/mFish/), and go experience some of the amazing fishing we have up in the hills!
This article will appear in Bozeman Magazines August issue.
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