Fly Fishing High Alpine Streams and Lakes

By GCI ambassador Grae Buck

Through an epic backcountry hike in Glacier National Park last September, I checked off a bucket list species: the elusive Arctic grayling! This uncommon species lives only in high alpine streams and lakes in select states—remote fishing locations out of reach of the everyday angler, and an opportunity that we couldn’t pass up.

The challenge of chasing the Arctic grayling took us on a 21-mile round-trip day hike to Elizabeth Lake. This hike was a gamble, with many variables that could jeopardize fishing and our chance at landing the grayling, including strong winds on the lake and the physical limitations of the mileage and terrain, with only daypacks to carry our rods and tackle. But sunup to sundown, the journey was well worth the miles, spanning mountains and prairies, passing only a few backpackers and many grizzly bear claw marks along the route.

It was an amazing feeling to get our first glimpse of Elizabeth Lake through the pines! Nestled in the mountains, the lake features steep, dark blue waters close to the shoreline with clear drop-offs and bubble lines on the surface. These are prime casting opportunities, and within a few casts, I reeled in my first Arctic grayling!

We continued to fish the shorelines, seeking protected coves out of the strong winds, for ease of casting. “Quest for Arctic Grayling,” as we called the journey, was a huge success! My wife and I reeled in six Arctic grayling and six nice rainbow trout in the few hours we had to fish before trekking back to the trailhead. The miles felt longer on the return trip, as our bodies fatigued and rations ran low, but the excitement of the bucket list fishing trip fueled us and provided memories to last a lifetime.

Grae’s Tips for Fishing High Alpine Lakes

  • When evaluating a high alpine lake for trout fishing, target drop-offs, which concentrate the fish seeking shallow water to feed, with deeper water nearby for safety.
  • Observe irregularities in water pattern or submerged structure. The winds blowing across the lake create bubble lines on the surface, concreting the aquatic and terrestrial insects and invertebrates.

Our Glacier National Park trip included other fishing opportunities as well. One hike took us deep into the backcountry, to a gentle waterfall along a high alpine stream that created a small pool below it. This isolated area in an otherwise narrow, shallow headwaters stream provided the perfect habitat for native brook trout. Fishing an alpine stream is similar to a lake in that the areas to target are those which concentrate the fish as they feed.

Seeking wild trout in high alpine streams is always a rewarding experience, from beautiful catches to the pristine scenery.

Grae’s Tips for Fishing High Alpine Streams

  • Fly fishing these smaller headwater streams is more technical than fishing a lake due to the natural presentation and drift of the fly required, as well as the overhead and surrounding cover, which limits casting. The perfect drift will entice the unsuspecting trout. 
  • When analyzing a stream, first look for deeper water and areas that influx oxygen, such as riffles. Depth is often relative to the stream—for instance, a three-foot pool may concentrate the fish in a stream with an overall depth of only one foot.
  • Another key casting area in a stream to target is outside creek channel bends with deeper, undercut banks, which allow the trout to hide and use these areas as ambush points.

Selecting Your Fly Fishing Gear

A multiple-piece collapsible rod is very convenient when hiking into a remote fishing destination.

As primarily a bass fisherman, lure selection for fly fishing varies greatly and can be overwhelming for the beginner fly fisherman. Personally, my favorite way to catch trout is on a dry fly because of the reward as you watch the fish come up and suck in your lure with the perfect presentation. I like to keep a stock of terrestrials that mimic the larger insects like grasshoppers, ants, etc. and then some more traditional dry flies like an elk hair caddis, stimulator, etc. When selecting flies it is important to consider the current forage in the stream’s location. As the saying goes, “match the hatch.”

Visiting a new stream, or even state, and unsure where to start? I always hit up a local fly shop to talk with the local anglers, buy a few recommended flies to match the current hatch, and pick up a copy of the fishing regulations and a license.

Another piece of gear always in my pack for alpine stream fishing: the GCI PackSeat™. At only 1.3 pounds, this durable and convenient seat provides much-needed lunch breaks along the trail! I was glad to have my PackSeat along for a relaxing evening at Fishercap Lake in Glacier National Park—from the rocky shoreline, I sat and watched three moose forage for aquatic vegetation as the sun went down.

Have a blast on your next adventure, wherever it may be!