I am not a dedicated fisher of alpine stillwaters. I have never planned a fishing trip where these destinations were the main focus. On the other hand, I am an enthusiastic hiker who is always on the lookout for spectacular scenery. Not surprisingly, some of the most scenic trails wind up on the shore of a high mountain lake. And I am dedicated enough to tote along my fly rod
I have to admit that the fishing on these expeditions has been largely hit and miss, with much more emphasis on the “miss” portion. Many mountain lakes – because of short growing seasons, limited forage, winterkill, and a lack of spawning habitat – do not support large trout populations. Other mountain lakes have a decent trout population, but while I’m fishing, which is usually close to noon in the middle of summer, the trout are hunkered down and uninterested.
Nevertheless, if there is a lake at the end of the trail, I am going to toss a few casts. Occasionally, it pays off, like this past summer…
My girlfriend Deb and I were in Waterton Lakes National Park in southern Alberta. We decided to hike the Alderson-Carthew Lakes trail; the word from the Visitor Info Center was that the views were stunning and the fishing was off the charts. We set off at 9 AM, carrying day packs loaded with rain jackets, lunch, and fishing gear.
For the first six miles of trail, the only scenery was the forest pushing in on either side of us. It was an uphill trudge through swarms of horse flies. When the sign for Alderson Lake came into view, we were ready to stop. About the same time, a hiker from the opposite direction told us that the trout in Carthew Lake –3 more miles up the trail – were going crazy. So we decided to keep going.
At this point the trail started to climb into a truly amazing alpine environment. We were soon looking down at Alderson Lake and up toward the peaks that hid Carthew Lake:
In another hour, we were at Carthew Lake. It was how you would hope all mountain lakes would look, especially after hiking 9 miles to get there. Better yet, there were trout rising sporadically. The sun was high in the sky but the lake was cold enough that the trout – and whatever they were eating – welcomed the warmth. I threw a small Adams beyond the sun-drenched shallows to the darker, deeper water. It was engulfed immediately.
And so it went. Every cast to the edge of the deep water brought an instant fish. They were native, colorful cutthroats. Most of them were eight to ten inches long and a couple stretched out to twelve. I was pleasantly surprised by the size; to be honest I was expecting hordes of stunted six inchers.
Casts that fell on the shallow, clear water were even more entertaining. Although a fly that landed on the shoreline shoal was never gobbled instantly, a cruising trout would notice it within a minute. Then I would have the pleasure of watching the entire take.
The trout were just as active subsurface. Deb was using a spinning rod and a tiny spoon. At any given time, she had a fish on and two or three others chasing it.
The fishing certainly wasn’t challenging, but it sure was fun. After about an hour, we started to make our way back down the trail. The scenery was just as gorgeous on the way back.
A couple weeks later, we were further north in Alberta, on the road between Banff and Jasper National Parks. We hiked into Helen Lake, a tiny tarn sitting amongst the usual array of peaks and meadows. We left the fishing gear in the car, figuring that the lake was so tiny and so high that its fish population would be zero. Wrong!
From the shoreline we could see dozens of cutthroat finning through the shallows and rising with semi-regularity. It would have been a sight-fishing dream. The moral of the story: Always hike with fishing gear!