Trout Fishing in Washington's High Elevation Lakes
Created by colliding tectonic plates, and carved by glaciers and ice, high mountain lakes in Washington offer anglers a recreational experience unmatched by any other waters in the state. The fishing is spectacular in these high elevation gems but the experience is punctuated by fantastic camping, hiking, wildlife watching and the scenic vistas taken in during your stay, and travels to and from these unique angling opportunities. Without a doubt, high lakes trout fishing is one of Washington's premier recreational opportunities.
There are about 1,600 lakes that are considered "high" lakes, at elevations of more than 2,500 feet above sea level in western Washington. East of the Cascades, nearly 950 lakes lie above 3,500 feet, which qualifies them as high lakes. Only a small percentage of our high lakes have introduced fish populations. Some are self-sustaining trout populations, while others are stocked periodically with a variety of trout species. However, the majority of high elevation lakes remain fishless.
Trout-stocking in high lakes has been a long tradition, beginning around the turn of the 20th century when miners, loggers, woodsmen and the U.S. government transported fish to lakes in buckets and large milk cans by horseback or on foot. Stocking became more systematic in the late 1920s, when county governments began managing fish and wildlife, and has continued without interruption since the Department of Game was created in 1933. The high lakes trout-stocking program peaked from a fish stocking perspective in the 1960s to the early 1990s. Due to budget cuts and an increased awareness of the ecological impacts of stocking trout in high lakes, the program was re-evaluated and reduced in scope to its current level. Stocking still occurs in hundreds of high lakes statewide. But fisheries managers consider the timing, number and species of fish stocked to ensure conservation of high lakes aquatic communities while providing quality recreational opportunity.
Fish reproduction occurs in some high lakes, though most lakes do not have the right conditions for self-sustaining trout populations. Most trout species need inlet or outlet streams that flow over gravel, year-round. The lack of reproductive capability in most high lakes means WDFW has to stock fish to provide for recreational fishing. However, fish densities can be controlled by limited stocking numbers and frequencies.
Most high lakes are stocked during the summer, from June to September, on a rotational basis with small trout fry ranging in size from one-half to two inches in length. The lakes are stocked every two to five years, but some are stocked only once a decade. The interval between trout stocking varies by lake based on fishing pressure, lake productivity and the species of fish for which a lake is managed. Rotational stocking is done to maintain trout populations at a low density, single age-class structure. Since fishable populations can be maintained in most high lakes by stocking small trout fry infrequently, and at low densities, the high lake recreational fishery is one of the most cost-effective fisheries managed by WDFW.
Research on high lakes ecology indicates that low density, single age-class trout populations have minimal impact to native high lakes fauna. In addition, not all high lakes in Washington are stocked with trout; many are left fishless to avoid impacts to sensitive aquatic communities found in naturally fishless high lakes. Preserving the native fauna that exists in fishless high lakes and protecting it from competition with or predation by trout is critical to maintaining unique aquatic communities.
As a result of this fish management paradigm, trout abundance and size in stocked lakes varies from year to year. A high lakes angler has to do some homework to discover the hot spots. Checking WDFW high lakes stocking plans, examining topographical maps and having a willingness to walk long distances are as important to high lakes angling success as having the right fishing tackle.
Historically, many species of fish have been stocked in high lakes including: rainbow trout, coastal cutthroat trout, westslope cutthroat trout, brook trout, bull trout, Dolly Varden, brown trout, lake trout, golden trout, Atlantic salmon, and other sub-species of these fishes. In the early years of fish stocking, fishery managers did not consider interactions between native and non-native fish species, which sometimes resulted in ecological or biological damage. For example, brook trout that were stocked in many high lakes eventually migrated downstream where they competed with native cutthroat and bull trout. Based on historical fish stocking practices there is a clearer understanding of potential biological impacts. Current fish management strategies carefully consider the species and stocks of fish that are stocked into high lakes to avoid undue risk to native fishes and other aquatic fauna.
Rainbow Trout(Oncorhynchus Mykiss)
Rainbow trout are native to Washington State. WDFW usually stocks Mount Whitney rainbow, or triploid coastal rainbow into high lakes. Mount Whitney rainbow is used because it’s unlikely to reproduce in high lakes. In recent years triploid coastal stock rainbow have been stocked into multiple lakes. This species also has minimal reproductive potential in high lakes.
Westslope Cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi)
Westslope cutthroat are known for their willingness to take dry flies and their colorful markings. This species is a popular sport fish in the high lakes fishery. Native from the west slope of the Rocky Mountains to the east slope of the Cascades, this fish is only stocked into high lakes on the east slope of the Cascades, where it is native.
Coastal Cutthroat(Oncorhynchus clarki clarki)
Coastal Cutthroat are native to the coastal portions of southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and Northern California. Coastal Cutthroat are stocked only into high lakes on the west slope of the Cascades. They can at times be mistaken for heavily spotted rainbow trout but the telltale red slashes on the underside of the jaw belie them as a coastal cutthroat. These are favored by anglers for their beautiful markings and willingness to take artificial lures.
Golden Trout(Onchorhynchus mykiss aguabonita)
Native to a few streams in northern California this subspecies of trout thrives in cold high elevation lakes. These fish are popular with anglers because of their relative rarity and their bright unique coloration. Finding one of these high elevation gems will take some dedication on the part of a high lakes angler.
Brook Trout(Salvelinus fontinalis)
Brook Trout are popular with many high lakes anglers for their brightly colored spots and willingness to take a lure or bait. Historically, this species was stocked all over the western United States in streams and lakes of all elevations. Due to the fact that they are non-native and have far-reaching impacts on native fish, brook trout are used very little for stocking into high lakes. This species can compete with all native trout species. Brook trout are only stocked as triploids or into closed system lakes where they have no possibility of negatively affecting bull trout/Dolly Varden. Despite misgivings, many anglers love to fish for brook trout and routinely request that WDFW find low “conservation risk” places to stock them to provide for recreational fishing opportunities.
Brown Trout(Salmo trutta)
Used very little for stocking in high lakes this species is popular with many high lakes anglers for attaining trophy size (greater than 20 inches). However, brown trout compete with bull trout/Dolly Varden, making for limited stocking opportunities. In recent years, this species has been illegally stocked into a few high lakes in the Cascades. This illegal stocking activity is causing stress on bull trout, which is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Catching the Fish
Fishing Rules and Recommendations
The rules typically allow fishing year-round in nearly all high lakes. To be certain of all applicable rules and regulations, consult the Washington Sport Fishing Rules pamphlet.
Conditions and weather also determine when you can fish high lakes. 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 and weather.
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 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.
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. The main concern of using such typical rods is transporting to and from the lake. Medium-weight lines (5 to 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 to 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 to 12, bobbers or bubbles for weight and flotation, and slip-sinkers plus split shot.
Backpacking rods that break down to shorter 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 to 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 while in a raft or other water craft, as a puncture in mid-lake means 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.
Tips for Successful
Land fish as quickly as possible; avoid playing them to total exhaustion.
Leave fish in the water while removing the hook. Avoid bruising fish or rubbing off their protective "slime" coating.
Release fish only after they can maintain their equilibrium. If necessary, gently cradle the fish in the water until normal "breathing" resumes.
For fish so deeply hooked that the fish hook cannot be removed without drawing blood, cut the line and leave the hook behind; many hooks will eventually rust out.
In streams, release fish in quiet water.
Use single, barbless hooks. Barbless hooks are easy to make by squashing the bard with a pair of needle-nose pliers.
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 likelihood 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.
When You Go
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 to 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. 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.
The "Leave No Trace" Ethic
Proper wilderness recreation etiquette is mandatory for these mountain adventures. With hundreds of thousands of anglers and hikers roaming Washington's high country each season, care must be taken to minimize human impact. Backcountry meadows and shorelines are often extremely delicate.
Alpine fish populations are often equally fragile. Thoughtful anglers keep just one or two for the pan and release the rest for others to enjoy.
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 viscera from any fish kept, or dispose of it in water 25 feet deep. Burying it at least 100 yards away from lake, trails or camps, is also acceptable.
Be mindful of damaging fragile vegetation, both along the shoreline and in campsites.
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.
Even for day trips, carry rain gear, 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.
Portions of this document were originally published in SignPost for Northwest Trails, April 1986. It was edited and reprinted by the Department of Wildlife from 1987-1994. This version was adapted from a revision by Gerry Erickson of the Washington State Hi-Lakers, Bob Pfeifer and Susan Ewing of WFDW and revised by Chris Donley of WDFW in June 2014.
Photos provided by Bob Pfeifer of WDFW, Eric Anderson of WDFW, Jim Cummins of WDFW, Brian Curtis of Washington Washington State Trail Blazers and Rex Johnson of Washington State Trail Blazers.