When fishing for cutthroat trout in high mountain lakes, anglers must prioritize covering all water levels of the water column. They’re finicky and spook easily, so being prepared to fish with numerous methods and lures gives you the best chance to land cutthroat trout. Alpine lakes are a challenge to fish but always entertaining.
Alpine lakes present anglers with some extremely unique opportunities to land cutthroat trout. The crystal clear waters present ideal conditions for trout to grow. Cutthroat trout need cold, oxygenated water, and one of the best places to find them is in high alpine lakes in the Western United States.
When targeting cutthroat trout, stay stealthy when approaching the lake and fishing styles. Alpine lakes are extremely clear, and cutthroat can see through the surface and hide if they see something unusual.
As you work along the shore to get to your fishing spot, try not to splash around and make your presence known. Stay on the bank and slowly move to the spot you want to target.
Once you reach your spot, find a comfortable place to sit or stand and avoid sudden movement or disturbances in the water.
When you start fishing, the stealth shouldn’t stop. As you’re casting, try and be as smooth as possible. Fly anglers should avoid slapping flies and fly line on the water.
Keep your rod tip high on your false casts so you aren’t hitting the water while loading. Keep a smooth follow-through so the fly gently lays down on the surface when you cast it.
The less disturbance on the surface of the water, the better. If you cast it properly, fish won’t spook or swim away from your fly. Their eyes will be on the fly and keep that as the priority.
Spin anglers should keep a higher follow-through and let their lure fall more gently onto the surface. The more gentle you are with your movement, the better your chance of catching fish.
Cover All Levels of the Water Column
Once you get to the lake, closely examine the surface. If you see fish rising and feeding on the surface, throw topwater flies and lures to see if they’ll bite.
If you don’t see any action on the surface, you can assume they’re feeding below. The next step is figuring out exactly where they’re feeding. If it’s especially warm or the middle of the day, the fish are likely feeding on the bottom.
Cutthroat are in the deepest part of the lake, waiting out the warm temperatures. They’re not aggressively feeding but eat easy meals that drift close to their face. Use heavy lures and flies to get to the bottom.
In the mornings and evenings, trout are up shallow and actively feeding. The water temperatures are more comfortable, and the low light gives them more confidence to feed. Stick to sub-surface flies and lures. You don’t have to get to the deepest parts. Fish closer to shore in the shallow water and cast for active fish.
Cutthroat in alpine lakes don’t always behave the same way. The more options you have to cover all levels of the water column, the better.
Stay Prepared With Numerous Lures, Baits, and Flies
On my first few hikes to alpine lakes, I thought I would only use dry flies. I’d heard all the stories of the amazing dry fly fishing, and nothing happened. I only brought dry flies and couldn’t get anything to bite.
After those mistakes, I pack my fly box with dries, nymphs, and streamers to ensure I give myself a fair chance at landing a cutthroat.
Not only should you use flies and lures that cover all levels of the water column, but you also need different sizes and colors.
Spooky cutthroat respond better to smaller flies. They appear more natural and are less intimidating for them to eat. I’ll carry the same type of fly in a couple of different sizes and colors. If I want to use a Pheasant Tail Nymph, I’ll have one in black, brown, and olive.
For lures, anglers should keep multiple sizes and colors as well. If nothing is biting, you give yourself a fighting chance with multiple options for the same lure. Bring different Mepps Spinners or Panther Martins.
Look for Changes in Water Depth
When fishing for cutthroat, look for sections of the lake near drop-offs. Drop-offs give cutthroat access to different water temperatures, structure, and food options. Don’t spend your entire day fishing the shallows or the deep part of the lake.
You’ll better understand what the fish want as you vary the water depth you’re fishing. Try wet flies and different lures in all different depths. Finding drop-offs near shore is the best possible scenario.
Time of Day Matters
Many high mountain lakes require a hike or long drive, so getting to them in the morning can be challenging. Cutthroat actively feed in the mornings, so a long hike the night before or an early morning hike gets you to the water right as they start feeding.
Once the sun starts peaking up over the mountains, the hatches begin. Cutthroat move to the shallows and point their attention upward to start feeding on the adult insects. Once those hatches start, the feeding window begins.
The middle of the day is often slow when fishing for cutthroat in high mountain lakes. The trout head to deep water because they don’t have eyelids and need protection from the sunlight. They wait out the warmest and brightest part of the day and prepare for the evening hatches.
As the sun starts to drop, the evening hatches begin. The light levels drop, and the cutthroat move from their deep holes. They’ll cruise around in the shallows, looking for easy access to hatching insects.
Finally, if possible, fish for cutthroat trout in the dark. I love backpacking to alpine lakes and fishing for an hour before bed along the shore. I can hear the cutthroat feeding on the surface in the pitch black.
I’ll throw large lures and streamers in the dark for those giants. The biggest cutthroat feel safe in the dark. It’s hard not to stare at the stars and continue to fish into the night. The anticipation of what might happen is hard to ignore.
It’s hard to predict if the fish will bite, but going in the mornings, evenings, and night provide you with the best opportunities to land fish.
Look for Rises
It’s go time when the water’s surface starts filling with ripples. The fish are feeding on the surface. Insects are entering their adult phase and are vulnerable to feeding cutthroat. When you see a rise, cast your dry fly near it and wait for the strike.
If I don’t know what insects are hatching, I start by throwing Elk Hair Caddis or Parachute Adams. These flies often give me the best idea of what the trout want. If neither of these work, I’ll switch to an attractor pattern like a Royal Wulff.
Don’t pass up the opportunity to feed on trout eating at the surface.
Get Out On the Water
If I’m up for it, I’ll carry my float tube when I trek to high mountain lakes. While it adds extra weight, the float tubes provide access I couldn’t otherwise get by fishing from shore.
A paddle onto the lake gets me towards the middle, where there are food sources and changes in depth that I can’t get my flies to when fishing along the bank. Some anglers take inflatable kayaks and other flotation devices when fishing for cutthroat.
Having the option to get on the water is ideal.
Fishing for cutthroat trout in high mountain lakes is a fantastic experience. They live in ideal conditions, and beautiful views surround the lakes. If you’re willing to work to get to the lake, you’ll find that they’re eager eaters. It takes time to figure out where they’re feeding and what they want, but once you do, you’re in for a memorable bite.