I spent the spring and summer of '03 with my
trailer parked in my favorite RV park in west
central Idaho. I fished eight of my favorite
drive-to trout lakes and spent time revisiting
four alpine lakes I had fished in the past.
Although I had an enjoyable season, partly because
the weather at Donnelly is about a dozen degrees
cooler than the Boise area (which was plagued with
one of the hottest summers in history), the fishing
in general was below par.
My favorite trout lake in the area, Horsethief
Reservoir, produced less than 50-percent of the fish
it did a year ago. Several other important drive-to
trout fisheries in the area were off also. Brundage
Reservoir and Little Payette Lake, both managed for
trophy trout, were extremely spotty. The alpine lake
fishing, on the other hand, fared much better. According
to the guides I talked with in the area, fishing at a
number of the high lakes they regularly took clients,
was up considerably over last season.
But alpine lake fishing is a sport unto itself.
Catching fish is only a small part of the equation.
The scenery is a big part of the allure. Just
getting to some of the better lakes is a challenge,
making later rewards all the more heady.
But if I were to pinpoint the single most important
reason most alpine lake anglers are so devoted to
their sport, it would be one word: Solitude. Thinking
back over my many treks to the high country, it occurs
to me that for the most part my party contained the only
fishermen at the lake. Since most of my active alpine
backpacking took place between 1944 and 1980, I decided
to revisit some of my favorite alpine lakes this summer
and see what's happening in the area of solitude in 2003
(more about my findings later).
My initial experience at high lake fishing took place
on a fall hunting trip. We were camped at central
Idaho's Riordan Lake - on a 1944 deer hunt - and part
of my camp chores was providing trout for myself and
three other hungry hunters.
The legendary Lafe Cox (owner of Cox's Dude Ranch in
Yellowpine, Idaho) had packed us in and we had traveled
very light. Dad had allowed me to take along a telescoping
steel fly rod, a fly reel, and a small selection of
snelled flies. As I remember they consisted mostly of
Black Gnats, McGintys, Gray Hackle Yellows, and Brown
I fished mostly where Riordan Creek enters the
lake and had little trouble catching all of the
trout my group needed. While the other members
of the party were strictly deer hunting, I had
my first taste of what would later be referred
to as "casting and blasting." (I did manage to
bag my first mule deer on the trip).
My most productive flies were the McGintys and
Black Gnats. This trip was my indoctrination into
alpine fishing and for years these were the only
patterns I used in fishing high lakes. I probably
caught fish more because of my persistence than
because my flies were the right patterns. It
probably also helped that in 1944 Lafe said we
were only the third party he had packed into
Riordan Lake that season. We were in the middle
of WWII and travel for recreation was somewhat
Although many fly rodders fish dry flies exclusively
in high lakes, they should keep open minds on the
use of sub-surface patterns. When I'm able to use
my float tube in my high lake fishing, I've found
the techniques I use at lowland reservoirs are
The mental image most anglers have of high lake
fishing is of floating lines; and I will admit
I use one much of the time. However full sinking,
high density lines will put my sinking flies down
where the big ones are more apt to be feeding.
These sinking lines are difficult to fish from
shore at alpine lakes and some type of floatation
device - a float tube or raft - is necessary if
the method is to be successful.
Contrary to what many alpine lake purists believe,
the entomology of high lakes is similar to the more
productive lowland reservoirs of the west. The
hatches in high lakes will be sparse, because of
a short growing season, but we will see mayflies,
caddisflies, damselflies and dragonflies. We will
also see scuds, snails, leeches and backswimmers;
as well as terrestrials such as grasshoppers,
beetles and ants.
MY FAVORITE CENTRAL IDAHO ANT HATCH
In the area in central Idaho where I summer, we
have an awesome cinnamon ant hatch through most
of August and part of September. I was float tubing
one of my favorite trout reservoirs on August 10th,
catching a fish now and then on a deep sinking damsel
nymph. At about 1pm I noticed an ant or two on the
surface. While I normally have my cinnamon ant box
in the pocket of my float tube, on this particular day
it was 20 miles away in my 5th wheel. I had taught
some locals to tie my favorite ant pattern the night
before, and forgot to load the fly box back in my tube.
Within 15 minutes the lake was absolutely covered
with size 16 flying cinnamon ants. Since it was the
first ant hatch of the season, I knew the fish would
And they did. I managed to trim down a black and orange
woolly bugger pattern I carry in size 14, and had marginal
action. The following day I went back to the lake armed
with my ant box, and low and behold, the ants failed to
make an appearance.
I've done a fair amount of research on this type of
problem. How can we have an absolutely massive hatch
of ants on one day, then with the same weather conditions,
clouds temperature, barometer, etc. etc., on the
following day, nothing hatches. I've observed this
phenomenon many times with mayflies and caddisflies.
Another phenomenon I run into all the time: The
weather conditions are identical on two consecutive
days. On the first day, every fish in the lake seems
to be trying to eat my flies. On the following day,
every fish in the lake seems to get the message "not"
to eat. It's like a wall switch has been turned off.
I've never been able to figure out how every fish in
a lake can get this same message. You would think a
small percentage might either miss this "signal" not
to eat...or become obstinate and refuse to comply.
When I can figure this problem out, I will be able
to write a best seller on when "not" to go fishing.
But, back to my alpine lake theme. I managed this
summer to fish the lake mentioned at the top of this
column. Where in 1944 Lafe Cox said he packed only
three parties to Riordan Lake all summer, I saw more
than two dozen anglers there on the weekday I fished
this past summer. And it is still a 3 or 4 mile hike
to the lake.
I fished three other (nameless) blue ribbon alpine
lakes in August and found similar pressure. Oddly
enough, I found less pressure during the same time
frame at several of the drive-to trout lakes I
regularly fish in the area.
I still love the alpine country. But after my
experiences this past summer, I must admit, I will
probably spend more time with my cameras on future
trips than with my fly rods. I can almost always
find some scenery and/or game to photograph on my
high country trips, but I find it is more and more
difficult to find back country lakes that aren't
dotted with float tubes.
Since I have authored two books on float tubing, I
guess I have only myself to blame for part of the
pressure. ~ Marv
You can reach Marv by email at
firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: 208-322-5760.