Trout Fishing in Washington's High Lakes
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High lakes trout fishing is one of Washington's premier recreational pastimes. Geology pressed its thumb into some of the state's most gorgeous places when it laid in the alpine lakes. Trails into remote mountain potholes wander across flowered meadows and pass through shady forests of cedar, fir and hemlock. At trail's end, trout grow plump on mayflies, midges and other minute delectables.

Western Washington has about 1,600 lakes that are considered "high" lakes, above 2,500 feet elevation. East of the Cascades, nearly 950 lakes lie above 3,500 feet, which qualifies them as high lakes. A small percentage of our high lakes have self-sustaining trout populations, while others are stocked periodically with a variety of trout species. Still others are purposely left barren.

Some lakes are stocked every two or three years, while others may be stocked only once in a decade, dictated by average fishing pressure and lake productivity. These rotating stocking schedules cause a lake's trout abundance and size to vary from year to year. Finding the season's hot spots is part of the fun: topographical maps, good hiking equipment and a willingness to get out and explore are as important to high lakes angling success as the right terminal tackle.

The "Leave No Trace" Ethic

Special alpine etiquette is mandatory for these mountain adventures. With approximately 100,000 anglers and a million hikers roaming Washington's high country each season, care must be taken to minimize human impact. Alpine meadows and shorelines are often extremely delicate. Ill-planned camps or focused foot traffic on fragile near-shore vegetation can easily leave near-permanent scars. Wilderness resource users must educate themselves on the simple, but essential, principles of no-trace camping and hiking. The U.S. Forest and National Park Services offer several excellent brochures on this subject; pick one up at your local USFS Ranger Station or Park Service district office.

Alpine fish populations are often equally fragile. Thoughtful anglers practice catch-and-release fishing (see "Tips for Successful Catch-and-Release Fishing"), keeping just one or two for the pan and releasing the rest for others to enjoy. Often, it's a long way back to the car on a warm summer day and the fish may spoil on the way out. What would have been a delicious meal in camp or a larger fighting fish for another angler is no better than garden fertilizer by the time you get home.

Although fish entrails are biodegradable, a respectful alpine angler will never discard them in lake shallows where they can be seen by others. Pack out viscera in a zip-lock bag, or dispose of them in water at least 25' deep. Never bury or try to burn fish parts near the lake; the remains may attract sharp-nosed bears. Burial at least 100 yards away from the lake, trail or camps is an acceptable alternative.

Please remember the following tips for responsible use of our back-country:

  • Take the time to learn both fishing and land-use regulations for the area you plan to visit.
  • Pack out everything you pack in; if possible, take out any litter from less-thoughtful hikers or anglers.
  • Maintain water quality by keeping human waste and waste water away from lakes and streams. If possible, camp at least 200 feet from the nearest lake or stream.
  • Where campfires are legal and safe, use an established fire ring and only dead and downed wood.
  • Pack out the offal from any fish kept, or dispose of it in a manner that will not attract wildlife or harm the aesthetics of the area.
  • Be mindful of damaging fragile vegetation, both along the shoreline and in campsites.
The Fish and Fishery

Most fish stocked in our high lakes are rainbow, cutthroat or eastern brook trout. ("Brookies" are not a true trout, but actually belong to the char genus.) Other trout or char that can be found in some lakes include brown trout, mackinaw or lake trout (another char) and bull trout/Dolly Varden (also char). A few lakes have been stocked with golden trout, Kamloops-strain rainbows, Montana black-spot (a cutthroat sub-species) and Atlantic salmon.

The primary rainbow stock used is Mt. Whitney, of California origin. Cutthroat plants include several varieties: coastal (mostly on the west side of the Cascades), westslope (stock from Twin Lakes near Leavenworth), and Tokul Creek (from the hatchery of the same name near Snoqualmie, and originally from Lake Whatcom).

The Department of Fish and Wildlife continues a long tradition of fish stocking that began around the turn of the century when miners, loggers, woodsmen and the U.S. Forest Service transported fish to lakes in buckets and large milk cans by horse or mule. Stocking became more systematic in the late 1920's when county governments began managing game fish and wildlife, and has continued essentially without interruption since the Department of Game was created in 1933 (since changed to Department of Wildlife in 1985, and to Department of Fish and Wildlife in 1994).

The stocking program has come a long way from the milk can days. The department now uses airplanes and helicopters to stock up to 20,000 fry at a time in the large, more heavily-used lakes. It's not all high tech, however. A large percentage of all fry stocked are carried to the lakes on foot, and hand-stocked by groups such as the Seattle-based Trail Blazers or various Backcountry Horsemen of Washington chapters. Considerable effort is spent on accuracy and precision in maintaining the "put-grow-and-take" recreational fishery in order to ensure that these more sensitive aquatic ecosystems are not overtaxed.

Not all high lakes are maintained with fish populations. Many are left fishless to avoid impacts on the aquatic communities found in naturally fishless lakes or tarns. Many of these lakes contain invertebrate and amphibian populations that serve as genetic reservoirs throughout Washington's subalpine and alpine ecosystems. Fish do not eliminate these species, but they can alter numbers. Thus many lakes are preserved as sites for scientific and educational purposes.

Although there is natural reproduction in some high lakes, most do not have the right conditions for a self-sustaining population. Besides correct timing of sexual maturity, most trout species need inlet or outlet streams that flow over gravel, year-round. This is an advantage for managing a quality high lakes fishery, as fish densities can be controlled by limited stocking numbers and frequencies, resulting in maximum growth to the lake's potential.

Eastern brook trout and some strains of cutthroat and rainbow are more adaptable and prolific in their spawning habits, sometimes using springs or upwellings. A number of northern and western Cascade lakes have excessive, stunted populations of brookies or westslope cutthroat. Some of these lakes have management regulations that provide for more liberal harvest; others are stocked with predator species to bring these populations under control.

Since attractive, fishable populations can be maintained in most high lakes by stocking small fry infrequently, and at light densities, the high lake recreational fishery is one of the most cost-effective fisheries managed by WDFW.

Regulations allow fishing year-around in nearly all high lakes. (Note: As a general rule, lakes are considered "high" when over 2,500 feet in Western Washington or 3,500 feet in Eastern Washington.) Although some high lakes are ice-free in May, most clear in late June and July. These same lakes begin to freeze anytime from early October on, depending on elevation, exposure and weather.

Equipment

For the most part, fishing high lakes can be done effectively using the same techniques that are productive in low lakes. One major difference between lowland and high lakes is water clarity. The gin-clear water of high lakes requires light leader tippets (usually 4 pound test or less) and a stalking approach as the fish can see out of the lakes extremely well.

Fishing vies for attention with Sloan Peak in the Monte Cristo area of Snohomish County.

Fly fishing can be very effective in the high lakes under many weather conditions. Back-casting room is often a problem, though, unless you go to the effort to bring in a small raft or float tube. Typical fly rods and reels that you would use in low lakes or streams will work, with the main concern being rod length when broken down while hiking. Medium-weight lines (5-7 wt.) will handle most conditions for casting and presentation, while long leaders (12'+) work better than short ones. Leader tippets should be as small as possible, while maintaining 2-3 pounds breaking strength. Where fly-casting is impractical, tossing flies with a light spinning outfit and casting bubble can be equally productive.

Standard spinning rods and reels can be used very effectively to fish with spinners and spoons or with bait. Light or ultra-light weight tackle is recommended. A vest or small tackle box containing a dozen or more spoons and spinners of different sizes and color patterns will usually be sufficient. For bait fishing you should obtain egg hooks in sizes 10-12, bobbers or bubbles for weight and flotation, and slip-sinkers plus split shot.

Backpacking rods that break down to short lengths to fit within a typical pack are available at most sporting goods or hiking equipment stores. Some backpacking rods will double as spinning or fly rods fairly well. Very little rod effectiveness is sacrificed for spinning or bait-casting, but most combination rods are only moderately good (at best) for fly fishing. Trolling flies can be easily done with these outfits, or casting the fly-and-bubble combination mentioned above.

Trolling requires a raft, float tube or similar device. Medium-priced inflatable vinyl rafts are available at many sporting goods outlets. A one-person raft may weigh about 5-7 pounds and have moderate durability (two to four years). More expensive rafts are available, providing greater durability, carrying capacity and less weight. Be sure to wear additional flotation (a PFD) while in a raft or other water craft, as a puncture in mid-lake creates a sinking feeling and a substantial risk of hypothermia and drowning. This is especially serious as mountain lakes are very cold. Don't count on swimming far in water that's typically less than 50 degrees.

Other potentially valuable gear includes: needle-nose pliers, hemostat or other gripping device for removing hooks; line clippers; knife; point-and-shoot camera; sunscreen; insect repellant; first-aid kit; and all standard hiking safety gear. (See the section below titled "Safety.")

Techniques

Fishing from shore can be very productive. Most fish feed in the shallower water close to shore where insect activity, both terrestrial and aquatic, is highest.

Bait-fishing can be effective, using worms, eggs, artificial paste baits, or combinations. Bait can be dangled downward from a floating bobber or can float upward from a slip-sinker, both of which provide weight to cast the bait outward from shore.

Bait-fishing should only be done when you plan to keep the fish you catch, since the fish tend to swallow the bait and hook, making injury-free release much harder. This is why fish caught while using bait count as part of your daily limit, whether or not you keep them. Also check to make sure bait is legal where you're planning to fish; some lakes have selective fishery regulations or other quality rules designed to improve survival and growth of fish.

Lures, mainly spinners or spoons, can be very effective trolled or cast, especially for cutthroat. Treble hooks can be easily replaced with single hooks and remain effective at catching fish. Releasing a fish from a single-hook spoon or spinner is relatively straightforward and easy, while it can get awkward from a treble-hook. To make release even easier and increase liklihood of survival of the fish, pinch or file down the barb or barbs.

Fly-fishing can be nearly as effective as bait-fishing. Use dry fly patterns when fish are surface feeding, and nymph, leech or other subsurface patterns when little feeding activity is apparent. Effective dry patterns include black gnat, mosquito, Adams, blue dun, black ant, and deer-hair caddis. Wet patterns of choice include wooly worms, chironomids (TDC's), hare's ears, and carey specials.


Spectacular scenery at Snow Lake in King County
Timing

The most effective times to fish are generally early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Midday can be slow, especially in sunny weather. Exceptions are usually related to weather and insect activity. During midday periods, when fish aren't rising, the more effective approach is to use bait or lures near the lake bottom, 50-150 feet from shore.

Insect hatches can produce visible feeding activity at any time. If there is a single type of insect hatching, trout may be very selective and hard to catch with general fly patterns and lures. At other times, trout may be slurping a variety of insects from the surface film. A general pattern fished dead slow or cast to rises may be effective.

Weather has a significant influence on fish and insect activity. If you are heading into your favorite high lake for fishing, it's late summer, the lakes have been ice-free for several weeks, but it's been warm for several days and then cools off (10-20 degrees) just before the weekend, get set for some slow fishing. Insect activity usually rises and falls with temperature, and trout feeding activity seems to do the same. Another bad time is when it has been very warm for several days and the trout have gorged themselves on insects and aren't interested in another bite, however pretty your lure. If your trip coincides with the second or third day of a warming trend, you are likely to have good fishing opportunity at some of the time on your trip. But if the weather turns foul, the fishing usually does likewise.

Safety

The keys to a safe and enjoyable high country fishing adventure are preparedness and a healthy respect for nature. Keep the following in mind when planning your trip:

Solitude is great, but the buddy system is much safer, especially off-trail. Always tell someone where you're going and when you intend to return.

Mountain lakes are too cold to do much swimming in. Check frequently for leaks in rafts. Use an inflatable sleeping pad as insulation under you and as a backup flotation device. Wear a personal floatation device; some PFD designs, such as slim "horse collar" types and inflatable suspenders, are relatively unobtrusive.

Even for day trips, carry raingear, warm clothes, survival blanket, compass, map, extra food, backpacking stove and flashlight, especially when off-trail.

Never walk on a "frozen" lake. The freezing pattern is erratic, so a lake may have some supporting ice below the surface snow/slush in one spot, but be unsupported in another. For this reason, high lakes are generally unsuitable for ice fishing, particularly in Western Washington.

Suggested Lakes

The high lakes listed below are recommended for hiker/anglers who are interested in experiencing trout fishing in the Cascade mountains and foothills. This list is intended as a general guide only. It is by no means complete--nor guaranteed.

Lakes were selected using the combined experience of members of the Washington Hi-Lakers and Trail Blazer clubs and WDFW professional biological staff. These lakes are on maintained trail systems or have road access, and are considered able to withstand the increased fishing pressure that might result from their listing here. They generally have self-sustaining populations of trout, or are regularly stocked by the WDFW. After the county-by-county listing of hike-in lakes is a list of "drive-to" lakes.

These chunky rainbows are typical of what can be produced with proper high lake fishery management.

Several methods are provided to help locate listed lakes. First, an approximate location based on geographic features or trailheads is given. Next are a page number and map coordinates for locating that lake in the Washington Atlas and Gazeteer (DeLorme Mapping Company). Following that, specific township (N) and range (E or W) data are provided, followed by elevation (in feet above mean sea level), both taken from Lakes of Washington, Volumes I and II (Wolcott, 1973). The latest USGS quadrangle maps for the area you intend to visit are usually the most specific and up-to-date source of trail information. U.S. Forest Service district maps are valuable aids for finding lakes and trails that fall within national forests. Specific county maps, such as those produced by the Metsker and Pittmon map companies, are also helpful.

Lastly, species information is provided. Fish species listed are the latest assessments by the review team (see above), but may not be exact or all-inclusive. Fish species and stocking schedules change occasionally because of various biological reasons.

Tables

Material in this document was originally published in SignPost for Northwest Trails, April 1986. It was edited and reprinted by the Department of Wildlife from 1987-1994. This version is adapted from a revision by Gerry Erickson of the Washington State Hi-Lakers, Bob Pfeifer and Susan Ewing of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

All photos by Bob Pfeifer of WDFW.