These trout aren't stupid
I'm often left scratching my head when I hear some anglers discuss fishing in mountain lakes and streams. Words like "small", "dumb" or "unsophisticated" are commonly tossed around. And while there certainly are small, dumb and unsophisticated fish that inhabit those waters (or all waters for that matter), it's important to realize that the high country holds some of the most beautiful, selective and yes, often very large trout.
So what's the key to finding and catching these high country brutes? I've summarized a quick list of 5 tactics to help you.
1. Assume there are big and likely finicky fish wherever you may go. Many people I think tend to assume the fish are small and dumb, and therefore fail to prepare to catch a decently sized fish in those waters. It's a mindset thing. If you plan the need to hunt these fish, you'll more often find them and you'll bring along the gear and flies to get that job done.
2. Expand your horizons. Get a map, find some water and hit it. Don't assume that every hot-spot on the planet will be prominently featured in the reporting section of your favorite fly fishing forum or fly shop fishing reports. I've found Google Earth to be a huge help in planning my fishing explorations. In addition to that, a GPS and a good set of topo maps can also come in handy. If you're unsure about fish in a given drainage or area, contact your state wildlife management agency. They usually have that sort of information. And most importantly be prepared to get off the main roads, rough it, hike and bush whack. You're less likely to find these "secret" locations near a road that you can drive your Subaru Outback to.
3. Come prepared to fish a variety of methods and tackle. I'll never forget the time we were fishing a small lake at 11,000 feet. The rumors of big brook trout seemed to be just that -- rumors. But as my fishing buddy changed over to a very quick sinking line and started to get into some nice fish, I was on the outside looking in as I had not come prepared to fish that deep. That was the last time, I didn't bring the gear I "might" need. Whether it's floating lines, extra rods, strike indicators or full sinking lines, make sure you have the proper gear to put you into the zone where the fish might be holding.
4. Don't forget you can often put a much higher focus on dry fly fishing at higher altitudes. A book I recommend to everyone I talk to about high country fishing is Gray LaFontaine's "Fly Fishing the Mountain Lakes". In this book, he reviews data that show a high a percentage of a trout's diet at high altitude consists of things they eat off the surface. That's not to say fish dries to the exclusion of everything else, but definitely don't assume that because you don't see trout rising, that they won't feed off the surface. Some of my better days on dry flies have been in the complete absence of fish rising to insects on their own. They're looking up, so give them something to eat! Oh and don't forget the importance of the "anabatic winds". Google that term or read Gary's book. It's one of the coolest things about fishing the high country.
5. Pay attention to the food! This is one of our favorite aspects of this topic. Again, these fish aren't dumb and moreover, they can really dial in sometimes to their food sources. Whether it's damsel adults, crawdads, snails, mice, the lowly chironomid, grasshoppers or whatever, never assume that you can throw a parachute adams all day long and fool these fish. You need to figure out what they're eating, what they might potentially eat and then match it with something appropriate. We spend countless hours each year researching and testing out these "fly fish food" offerings and delving further into the small pea-brain of a trout to find the "why" and "what" of their eating habits.
To wrap up, there are obviously a lot more tips and tricks we could list, but for now this is a good starting point. Just get out and enjoy. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below...