It may not have been pure; it may not have been holistic, my initial inspiration to strap on a backpack and head to the hills. It was an urge hewn from a mostly lowland-induced addiction: fishing. Namely, fly-fishing.

Sure, I knew about the esthetic rewards I would find while stumbling about scree fields amidst whistling marmots, watching the sun turn tarns and lakes into glistening gem fields while eating lunch on a boulder at water’s edge, or marveling at a meadow splashed with lilies, shooting stars, camas or lupine against the backdrop of a glacier or granite wall touching the sky.

The call of the alpine was evident to me, but not predominant. It was the notion that fish in high, remote places must be a bit less suspicious of hooks adorned with yarn, bird feathers and buck-tail than those in waters pummeled everyday by anglers far below tree line.

©Brad Strancer

In the time I have spent either corroborating this notion or disproving it, I have ruminated on every success with rod and line, every disappointment, every epiphany and every mystery.

In conveying this preoccupation with some of my fellow hiking pals, one or two become inquisitive. It’s not that they are bored with their alpine encounters; they just wonder what it might be like to include fresh fish on the food list for their next backpack.

I try to tell them the disappointment they risk of sometimes finding fish in the high country that are smarter than their kin in lower places. Just stick to what you are doing, I say. You enjoy the high country already. Don’t mess with a good thing.

But I have been victim to the fishing bug since I was 5, and I can detect the disease merely by the questions that a fellow hiker may throw at me. For instance: What kind of rod do you take with you when you go up?  This is a slam-dunk kind of question that tells me there is no arbitration. My hiking friend is unwittingly about to tilt on its head their one universe of solitude and self-reflection in this otherwise upside-down world.

They know not about flagellation with the rod tip after realizing the only leader you brought is the one that a rainbow trout has cleverly woven over and through a bird’s nest of sunken twigs and logs 15 feet below the tips of your hiking boots.

They know not about the destitution of bushwhacking down to the only rock on the lake that allows one to back cast a fly line and finding that the rising fish are upwind of 15-20 mph gusts.

They know not the humiliation of catching only one tent-pole-wide fish of seven inches when returning to camp where your three trail buddies have been drooling at the thought of eating something not in a boiled pouch.

They know not about the trepidation that trembles straight through your boot sock when walking a mile back to camp with a couple fish slung on a twig, telling every black bear in the Cascades that supper’s ready.

On the other hand, they have yet to experience the flavor of a freshly caught, pink-meated cutthroat trout on the last night of a backpack trip, or the fact that they have just caught eight colorful brook trout in a span of a half-hour with a pattern they picked randomly from the fly box.

©Brad Strancer

I feel I owe something to these wanderers of new territory, a territory as full of psychological peril as any physical peril posed by mountain trail, snow field or glacier crossing. So here they are: the Ten Essentials of High Lake Fishing:

1)     Low expectations. Don’t let fish fever spoil the easier-to-bag luster of the high alpine. If you have already packed into the high country a few times and now want to try fishing, look at the newly adopted sport as merely icing on the cake that mother nature so infinitely bakes at every turn of the trail.

2)     Friends in high places. Okay, so you are having a hard time packing the first essential into your bag. Well, if you are going to get serious about fishing then get to know some key people. Climbers can be great resources to some of the most bountiful waters in the high country because they are usually going where the casual hiker does not go. Of course, those are only the climbers who have the fishing bug as well. I have learned about some of the best trout lakes I have ever fished from climbers. You could go one better by befriending a volunteer with either the Trail Blazers or Backcountry Horsemen of Washington. They help the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) plant trout in high lakes. Perhaps, over a beer or two, loose lips may ensue and one of the otherwise secret locations of fish plants unveiled. Even better, why not inveigle a Fish and Wildlife fish biologist over a beverage? If you have exhausted your beer budget with nary a hint of one lake that might be brimming with trout, go the straight and narrow path. The WDFW website hosts a page that covers the basics of high lake fishing and even a list of lakes that are normally stocked.

3)     The rules. Don’t be a fishing slob and ruin the backcountry for all others. The average high lake is not a fish factory. This is why most are planted; the long winter freeze and depth of these lakes just doesn’t allow enough oxygen to provide habitat for trout. Take sparingly; catch only enough fish to tame the appetite. Don’t cheat; buy a state fishing license to support the cost of planting these lakes. And if you are fishing with bait, leave no remnants behind. Finally, especially with the swath that my usual back cast covers when fly-fishing, cast a glance behind you for the unsuspecting hiker who frequently has no idea you are there or why the heck your arms are flailing about.

4)      Good casting skills from shore. Leave the raft at home. Better yet, don’t waste the money on it. Granted, most high lake rafts are lighter than a float tube and accouterments (fins, chest waders, booties), but some of the lakes you will he hiking in to will be much easier with a load on the light side. Another factor to consider is that most of these rafts, which will run close to $100, will be punctured or worn out within three to four years if not sooner. If you are a fly fisher, learn how to roll cast or cast sidearm on those lakes where it is nearly impossible to find room to back cast.

5)     A backpack with side pockets. I have carried my rod and rod holder various ways in my pack: compressed beneath the top compartment of the pack in a horizontal fashion, simply pressure strapped to the side of the pack vertically, and by tucking the base of the rod holder, vertically, inside an exterior pocket at the bottom of the pack with straps tightened around the remaining length of the tube. The latter method is by far the best. Carrying the rod and holder horizontally keeps you wondering if the thick brush you just crashed through, or that log you had to duck underneath on the trail knocked your $300, four-piece fly rod to the ground without your knowledge. Unless you have eyes in the back of your head, the question will be haunting you miles and miles down the trail. Carrying it vertically without a pocket at the bottom is even worse. The holder will eventually start sliding down the side of the pack.

6)     Hemostat or small needle-nose pliers. These fish will not be as large as most fish you catch in the lowlands, thus easily injured by a deeply set hook and the abrasive skin on your hands. When you have caught the fish or two you want to cook for your mates at camp, use the hemostat or pliers on the rest of the fish you catch. Grip the hook and pull it out while leaving the fish in the water. Try to avoid touching the fish, but if it is absolutely necessary, cradle the fish’s belly in the cup of your hand and then pull the hook out. Let the fish then slide, free of hook, from your hand and into the water. If it just lies dormant, place your hand at the tail and move the tail sideways until the fish finds equilibrium and swims away.

7)     An eye for the weather. Check the temperatures of the region and elevation zone where you are aiming to hike and fish. Too many warm days in a row can mean that fish have been eating mightily and are no longer hungry, no matter how well you present your fly, lure or bait. If the warm days happen to start only a day or two before you leave for your trip–or better yet, the day your arrive–then the only reason for not catching fish is your lack of angling prowess.

8)      Mosquito dope. This could easily be listed as the first essential but if you eat a lot of garlic with your fish, it may find validity as No. 8. This is a no brainer. More than 90 percent of a trout’s diet is bugs. Guess what percentage of those bugs are mosquitoes? As lightly as I try to tread on trail and along the lake, I do not go nature-light with the repellent. Mosquitoes crave me. Not the kind of magnetism I like. What I do like is Sawyer’s family mosquito repellant. It has deet but the deet is released over a longer period of time than the harsher liquid deet repellents. It also wears well on your skin when in the water. I have tested Sawyer’s in one of the most mosquito-laden environments on the planet, the cayes and backwaters of the Caribbean in Central America. It works.

9)     Foil. Incredibly easy to forget, so that’s why I am listing it. Always tuck some extra foil inside your cooking essentials bag or container. Whether over a campfire, when they are allowed, or over your backpacking stove, the foil is an essential, as are your favorite seasonings and cooking oil—also so easy to forget.

10) Plastic bags for entrails. Offal can be awful on the alpine environment. Don’t scatter the guts of the fish all over the shoreline or up on the trail. Don’t even try to cast them into the water, unless you know how to sink them 25 feet or deeper while standing on shore. Fish remains attract four-legged critters, namely bears. Enough said. Therefore, bring enough small bags so that you can seal the entrails inside them. And remember to hang them high on your bear line if staying overnight, or sealed inside your bear canister.

A final note: Most importantly don’t forget the real Ten Essential Systems, tried and true since The Mountaineers first established them nearly 80 years ago.


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