Skip to content
Giant Brook Trout

Tackling Alpine Lake Fishing This Summer

Written by: Harper Smith



Time to read 7 min

I think we can safely say that the never-ending winter is over and that we are now on the front end of summer. Many people, including myself, are bummed about the high runoff this year and the fact that many of the state’s rivers are almost unfishable. However, as the mountains shed their snow, the resident fish of the high alpine lakes are seeing the sun again, and they are hungry.

While I have made it to a couple of lakes already this year, not all of the lakes are open yet, and the hikes to some of them can involve some postholing through snow and additional creek crossings. About 90% of Colorado's high alpine fisheries will be open by the end of June, and the trail conditions should only improve. If you’re planning on going to a high alpine lake or creek this year, I cannot recommend it enough; however, it is a little more of an undertaking than a trip to Deckers, and it is important that you have a solid plan and are prepared to dodge some of the curveballs that the backcountry can throw at you.

beautiful cutthroat trout


A solid plan is the first vital step to a successful day in the backcountry. The first thing I do is look at the route to the lake so I can know what to expect on the hike. I use OnX Hunt for this since I can download the map to look at while on the trail as well. Once I familiarize myself with the route, I like to look at the weather for the timeframe I’m going to be out. I use NOAA, which allows you to see more locations than the standard weather apps, but take this with a grain of salt. I have had plenty of times where I was expecting a bluebird day, and a smaller, localized storm will cut my day short. This is always a bummer, but there are a few ways to try to work around it. 

Growing up in Colorado, I was always told, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes,” so hunkering down under a tree or rock structure out of the zone of a lightning strike can be a good way to wait out a thunderstorm. Finally, make sure you have the appropriate gear. On the non-fishing side of things, it will depend on if it is an overnight trip or a day trip. I won’t dive into the nuances of backpacking and packing light, but I will mention some essential items that I bring with me no matter what. Ample water is arguably the most important item to bring. In the past, two Nalgenes have been sufficient, but this year I have been using the Grayl Geopress bottle. It has allowed me to pack lighter and not have to worry about running out of water. Some other items I never leave the trailhead without are sunglasses, a hat, a multitool, raincoat, warm layer, headlamp, power bank, and some sort of map, whether that is physical or on your phone. For fishing gear, I typically try to simplify what I carry. Usually, that ends up being a 6 weight rod, 4 weight rod, a reel for each, two boxes of flies, 2x-4x tippet, leaders, nippers, and forceps. All this gear easily fits in my 32-liter daypack or my 70-liter overnight pack.

Cutthroat Trout


I’ll keep this section brief, but I definitely think it is worth mentioning some precautions that should be taken, especially if you are doing solo missions, which I often do. The main thing I worry about in the backcountry is injuries that would prevent me from walking out, such as a rolled ankle or broken leg. Sustaining one of these injuries multiple miles into the backcountry can have much more serious consequences than if it happened on a softball field or dancing at a wedding. Avoiding jumping from rock to rock and taking calculated steps is always important. If a storm rolls in, you don’t want to be above the treeline holding a big graphite rod, so dropping below the treeline and finding shelter is a must. Many people worry about wildlife; however, with the absence of grizzlies in Colorado, I don’t tend to worry about this. Carrying bear spray is never a bad idea, but I don't. The only instance where I am a little worried is if you see a baby bear, mountain lion, moose, elk, etc. In that case, just don’t engage and walk away in a calm manner so that mom doesn’t view you as a threat.

Pretty Golden Trout


Colorado’s mountain ranges provide a lot of high alpine fishing opportunities. As far as the native cutthroat go, there are three major strains. The Greenback cutthroat, which is our state fish, lives on the eastern side of the continental divide. The Colorado River cutthroat lives on the western slope, and the Rio Grande cutthroat lives down south in the Rio Grande drainage. Besides cutthroat, CPW also stocks brook trout, tiger trout, grayling, and golden trout, which can be found in select spots that have no particular rhyme or reason.

Fishing lakes can be intimidating at first just because the areas that fish hold in can be less obvious than in rivers. When I get to a lake, I tend to walk around the majority of the lake and observe what fish are doing or sometimes I won't even see fish. Areas that I like to target first are the inlets. Fish often enjoy the cold, oxygenated water flowing into the lake and will stack up here. After that, I fish the outlets. There have been times where I’ve seen more fish stacked here than in the inlets. From there, I will target cruisers and structures. If all else fails, I will turn to a deep nymph rig or a jigged streamer. Lakes with the biggest fish can oftentimes present as fishless because they have ample food but it is deep in the lake where you can’t see.

Big Golden Trout


Nymphing on a still body of water can sound a little unusual at first but still follows the same general concept as nymphing a river minus the moving water. I use an Oros strike indicator and in-line hook-to-eyelet connections. Generally, I am trying to find the depth that cruising fish are feeding at. This can be 6 inches to 15 feet depending on the depth of the lake and the time of year. I do this by using multiple flies at different depths, which helps me key in on what pattern and depth fish in a given lake may be favoring. If you have friends with you, it's always a good strategy to have everyone vary their rig in depth and fly a little so that you can test patterns and depths more effectively. For the most part, I find success on chironomids, leeches, and damselflies. Snow cone chironomids represent a wide range of aquatic insects in a lake and are a good option to start out with. Having other patterns like a jumbo juju, ASB’s, and zucchinis can be the difference between a slow day and a banner day. For leeches, I like to use balanced leeches. Generally, I find olive to be the best option, but definitely have black and white in your box. Having a hot head version of each of these also doesn't hurt.

Dry Flies

In the alpine, I tend to keep my dry fly selection pretty simple. The flies that I catch the most fish on are a mini chubby, parachute ant, griffiths gnat, and a parachute adams. At some lakes, the fish will key in on hatches and be rising consistently, but even if they aren't rising, throwing an ant or hopper pattern out and slowly skating it back towards you can elicit a strike from a hungry fish. Aside from blind casting and skating, dry flies can also be a great way to sight-fish for cruising fish. I try to lead the fish by 5 - 10 feet and they will often come up to take a look. If you happen to be fishing a high alpine creek, dry flies are often the only way that I fish. Because of the average size of alpine creeks, many fish are often held up in small rifles and pocket water and will eat any fly that lands near them. A double dry rig can be a great way to throw more patterns in front of the fish and can help you see smaller dries like the griffith's gnat.

nice cutthroat trout


I’m sure many of you have heard of people throwing articulated streamers at fish in the springtime at certain lakes. I am here to tell you that is not an effective way to fish alpine lakes, and you don’t want to be the guy who pulls in a beautiful, bright red cutthroat that got hooked in the side by a giant streamer. With that being said, one of my favorite ways to fish in the alpine is using small jigged leeches or Woolly Buggers. The jigged profile along with the large tungsten bead is a great way to fish deeper and cover more water than with a nymph rig. A lot of the time I have found that fish are much more aggressive when you add in movement to the equation. Like the balanced leeches, olive seems to be the way to go, but again, having black, wine, and even brown can be key to success at times. The hot head also remains a deadly variation to have at your disposal.

The fish in the alpine are great, but for me, the whole experience is what makes it worth the early morning drives into the mountains and the cold nights under the stars. It is a great way to get out and explore the vast wilderness at your disposal here in Colorado and offers far more solitude than most fishing ventures within the state. It is a great way to get the family out for a hike and doesn't have to be purely a fishing mission.

I hope you enjoyed this iteration of the blog. While we probably won’t give you our best spots, feel free to come into the shop and ask me or any of the other guys questions about gear, flies, or anything else in order to prepare for your alpine adventures. I also will be selling some alpine flies that I tie in the shop so while I can’t promise that all of them will be in stock those flies will be available throughout the season.

Harper Smith

If you have any questions and can’t make it to the shop, email me at or call the shop at 303-330-1292.

Leave a comment

Liquid error (layout/theme line 610): Could not find asset snippets/smile-initializer.liquid