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High Lakes Trout Fishing by Dave Kilhefner

One of the best things about fishing a hike-in lake is seeing the lake for the first time. Usually, you are standing on a ridge, sweating from exertion, looking down on a cool emerald-green circle of water. And it usually doesn’t take long to see a fish or two rise, dimpling the surface and telling you to keep moving and find your way to the water’s edge.

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I’ve been drawn to fishing remote high country lakes for over 30 years. In that time I’ve learned a few things that have stood the test time.

The Best Fishing is Hard to Get To

Generally speaking, if you want to catch big fish or lots of fish in high lakes then that lake will be hard to get to. By this I mean you’ll usually need to hike more than three miles. Many people are willing and able to make three-mile hike to fish either for the day or overnight so these easier access lakes naturally get fished out or have populations of small trout.

For this reason, I look for lakes that are four or more miles from the nearest trailhead and have good depth to avoid winter kill. Next, look for lakes that are regularly stocked. Fish get caught, get old or die off after a hard winter. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has its high lakes stocking schedule online. This is a great resource for trip planning.

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Worms Work Best

High lakes trout love worms. My favorite way to rig them is on a 1/32—ounce jig head, using just enough worm to cover the hook. This Spartan rigging style will let a dozen nightcrawlers last two anglers for a weekend of high lakes fishing. To keep your nightcrawlers fresh and lively, wet a bandanna with water, wring out the excess water, and wrap it around the Styrofoam bait container. The evaporation will keep the worms cool enough to survive and remain lively. If the bandanna dries out, re-wet it; on hot summer days you’ll need to do this every two to three hours but it will be worth the effort and you’ll be eating trout for dinner. Be sure to pack out your bait container!

Fishing Tackle

For this kind of fishing my favorite outfit is a four-piece ultralight spinning rod carrying a small spinning reel loaded with four-pound line. Diawa has some really good rods for this. I prefer spin fishing over fly fishing for a couple of reasons. Most of the lakes in the Cascade foothills near my home in Portland Oregon have brushy shorelines that make fly casting nearly impossible. Also, after hiking anywhere from four to eight miles I’m usually too tired to devote the time and effort fly fishing requires, preferring an easy fishing session close to camp.

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For terminal tackle, my go-to set up is a small plastic bubble that can be filled with water for casting distance or left empty to act as a bobber. Usually, I will fill it half full of water making it a “long cast bobber” and tie on a jig baited with a 1-inch chunk of nightcrawler 3 to 4 feet below the bubble. A few Dick Nite spoons and some Soft Hackle flies complete my high lakes tackle selection. It all easily fits into a snack baggy; simple, lightweight, and effective.

Crawdads are Good Eating

If you’re fishing a lake that does not have crawdads you should pack out the fish entrails to avoid attracting scavengers to the campsites. However, most high lakes have good populations of crawdads to take care of any leftover fish parts.

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Also, it is fun to catch them by tying some fish guts on a string. If you can catch a few bigger size crawdads they are excellent eating and easy to cook by boiling them in your cookpot.

crayfish crawdads boil pot boiling cook

Bugs and Bears

Whenever I talk about backpacking it never fails to have someone ask if I ever worry about bears. My answer is “I used to.” Out in the woods after the sun goes down your imagination can really get the best of you!

Every sound (and you will hear something) suddenly becomes a lethal threat that is obviously closing in on you. In truth, what you are hearing is Bambi, Thumper or Rocky Raccoon. Deer make a fair amount of noise at night and small animals rustle around in the underbrush. More than once we have had deer walk over the top of us while sleeping to get a drink from the lake.

After you have a few trips under your belt and have made friends with the wilderness, you’ll get past the idea that bears are sitting on a hillside peering at you through a spotting scope & sizing you up for dinner. Then you’ll notice the bugs! Sometimes the bugs are hardly noticeable and sometimes they are impossible to ignore…

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Basically, mosquitoes need water to hatch so once everything dries out around late July the buzzing mosquito army retreats. But, a big rainstorm can trigger a hatch a few days later and make your life unpleasant if you are unprepared.

Bug juice is helpful but there are these few million pesky bugs that don’t seem affected by it. Fortunately, there is an easy solution. Cover up. Wear long pants, a long sleeve shirt, don a head net and a pair of light gloves. You’ll be protected and comfortable.

If you are really unlucky and its super buggy retreat from the calm lakeside and find a place where there is a breeze, usually up on a ridgeline. Be sure to top off your water bottles first! It’s usually dry up high.

Lighten Your Load

A pack that feels manageable in your garage or at the trailhead will often get really heavy after a few uphill trail miles.

While most of us have heard it’s a good idea to cut the handle off your toothbrush, trim the corners of maps and such, these are small things and don’t really add up to much weight savings.

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To really lighten your load you need to do two things. First, learn to get by with less stuff. To do this, make a list on paper of everything you took and at the end of your trip cross off the stuff you didn’t use and don’t bring it the next time.

Second, you need to focus on “the big three” heaviest items; these are your pack, sleeping bag, and tent. First, practice setting up and sleeping under a tarp at the local State Park. This will save you four pounds. Next, the average sleeping bag weighs 4 pounds. Find a superlight sleeping bag or better yet a sleeping quilt under two pounds.

Finally, once you wheedle your pack’s base rate to around 20 pounds or less then you can ditch your heavy pack that has a hip belt and suspension for an ultralight backpack. This will save another five pounds. The base weight of my current ultralight setup is under 10 pounds and this light load is a lot easier on my 50+-year-old body than my old 40-pound pack.

Walking is just a lot more fun when you’re not loaded down like a moving van!

Conservation

It should go without saying that you should pack out whatever you pack in.

Consider packing out whatever garbage that you may find on the trail as well. These days I’m not bitter when I find litter; I was not a perfect teenager so this is one way to make up for being a somewhat reckless youth.

Only kill the fish that you can eat for dinner that night. High lakes fishing is one of the few trout fishing experiences left where you can keep and eat trout that, if not completely wild, taste that way because they were planted as fingerlings and not last week. It’s okay to leave some for the next person.

cook trout fire fishing fish firepit smoke

If you build the fire, take extra care to make sure it’s dead out. Only use established fire rings and don’t build a fire in a place where you can’t drown it out with plenty of water.

- written by Dave Kilhefner

Author Dave Kilhefner has been hiking into lakes the cascade foothills since the early 1980s. He contributed a chapter on the High Rocks Wilderness Lakes in the book Fishing Mount Hood Country.

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1 comment

  • I found the article “high lakes trout fishing” very interesting because that’s the only kind of trout fishing that I used to do back in the last century when I was a lot younger & I agree with everything said except the crawdad thing and the choice of line weight. I fished the high sierras, generally above 8,000’, and none of the lakes or streams I fished had crawdads. I used to trap nymphs and insects for natural bait and I can’t remember ever seeing a crawdad and I loved to eat crawdads I caught in lower elevation rivers while salmon fishing. I used to use 2 lb test on my ultra light spinning outfit because it made tossing night crawlers & natural bait with no additional weight possible and the high mountain lakes I used to fish didn’t have any trout over about 4 lbs plus the fish were generally right along the shoreline so long casts were not necessary. (Isn’t it interesting that a trout will take a night crawler when there are no night crawlers populations anywhere near a high mountain lake?)

    Doug Diehl

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