Fly High

Fishing alpine lakes.

When one fantasizes about fishing in southwest Montana, it’s usually of rivers like the Yellowstone or Madison, and our excellent selection of alpine-lake fishing gets overlooked. Fact is, Bozeman is surrounded by mountain ranges on all sides and—not surprisingly—most of these ranges are dotted with alpine lakes.

The first step in alpine-lake fishing is deciding where to go. Backpacking and fly-fishing guidebooks will give you some ideas, but the biggest tool at your disposal is the Montana FWP fish-stocking lists. These provide information on fish species, dates, quantities, and size of fish planted. Trout at these elevations only have a few months to bulk up for the long winter ahead, and since they don’t receive as much pressure as their river-dwelling counterparts, they’re eager to bite. This also makes for some easy and exciting fishing for kids and beginners.

When fly-fishing alpine lakes, you only need to bring a few patterns with you. Go-to dry flies include elk-hair caddis, beetles, ants, and hoppers. Some reliable wet-fly patterns are leaches, soft-hackle pheasant tails, damselflies, caddis pupa, and callibaetis nymphs. For spin fishing, try a #2 Mepps Aglia, #1 or #2 Blue Fox, or 1/8- or 1/4-ounce Rooster Tail. If you prefer bait, putting a nightcrawler on a single hook is sure to produce fish.

Fish will often cruise around the lake on the edge of a drop-off or shelf. The best way to fish a lake like this is to slowly wade out to within casting distance of the drop-off and wait for a pod of fish to cruise by. Cast your fly out in front and wait for a strike! If there are any creeks entering the lake, there will usually be fish hanging around picking off bugs deposited by the stream.

There are literally hundreds of fishable alpine lakes in the many mountain ranges of southwest Montana; unfold a map or boot up Google Earth and let the daydreaming begin. To get you started, here’s a list of reliable alpine lakes near Bozeman.

For a quick, easy day-trip, check out Lava Lake. This 2.5-mile hike tops out at a gorgeous, high-alpine lake filled with good-sized cutthroat. Access Lava Lake from Hwy. 191, between Big Sky and the mouth of Gallatin Canyon.

A great overnight fishing trip is Heather and Emerald lakes, in the Hyalite recreation area south of Bozeman. Emerald Lake holds cutthroat trout and Heather holds grayling, giving you the opportunity to fish for two different native species. These lakes are just over a five-mile hike in, making for a reasonable one-night trip, or even a long day-trip for those in good shape.

Spanish Creek Trail and the Spanish Lakes in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness offer up a multi-night adventure with several different fishing opportunities. There are a number of lakes on this loop, and I really enjoy spending each night at a different lake. As with any backcountry adventure, proper planning and preparation are key.

Jake Adelman guided for Montana Troutfitters in Bozeman and has been fishing high-mountain lakes for decades.