High Lakes Fly Fishing (Stanislaus)

by Andy Burk

There are a few important tactics for angling high mountain lakes that will help you to make your next trip to the high country more productive and fun. I have found that these tactics work in just about any stillwater environment that you end up on.
One of the most important things about angling the high country is your selection of gear. A properly outfitted angler in the high country will not have the need for anything more than an adventureous spirit and the desire to catch just a few more trout with each trip.

GEARING UP
Rods and reels for the high country angler need not be complicated, the four or five weight rod you use for trout anywhere will be a fine choice. If you become really serious about high country angling you will want to invest in a three, four, or five piece travel rod. Multi-piece rods are easy to tie to or carry in your pack and are far less cumbersome. Reels should operate smoothly although it’s not neccesary that they have the stop a Marlin drag system. Just make sure that it will operate smoothly should you run into a fish that is bigger than those normally encountered in the High Country.

I have found that a two fly line system consisting of a floating line and a slow sinking or intermediate line to match the rod I am fishing will do the trick in all the waters that I have fished. The floating line is the ALMOST all of the time line, I find that it handles most of the tactics I will discuss as we progress. Occaisionally a particular area or water type will call for the use of the sinking line.

I always make sure that I carry in enough leaders and tippet material to more than cover the duration of my trip. I figure on a leader a day when I am angling. This means that for a six day trip I will bring eight leaders, one for each day I plan on fishing and two just in case one of my angling partners didn’t bring enough in or I bungle one to the point that I need a new one. I also like to have a fresh, unused spool of tippet material in each of the following sizes, 3X, 4X,5X,6X and 7X. I will often bring two spools of 5X and 6X for the same reason I bring a few spare leaders…..just in case.

As a general rule it is good to take a minimalist approach to angling high lakes as you are usually limited on what exactly you can carry with you. You want to make sure that you have floatant, a pair of nippers, split shot, indicators and all those other items you find indespensible on any of the other fishingf trips that you take. I always carry more stuff than is ever neccesarry but that is just my nature. A friend of mine has an excellent rule to keep in mind though. Never take so much fishing stuff that you have to cut down on the amount of food that you carry! Makes good sense to me.

WHERE ARE THE FISH?
Okay we have our gear and our food and all the other stuff that we need for High Lake fishing now we are faced with one more little problem….. Where the heck are the fish? This is usually not too much of a problem in the lakes that I have fished. I look for fish in several different areas that I know that they like to frequent, there are to things to keep in mind here. Fish need the safety of deeper water and the food sources found in shallow water. This said we can already begin to seek out areas that will have reasonable populations of fish. Any areas that have shallow shelfs or weedy areas with deeper water nearby are naturals for fish to live and feed in. The majority of trout foods are found in shallower water so look for shallow areas first and then look for the combination of shallow water bordered by deeper water. Areas that offer both are natural zones for fish to live and feed in.

A really good pair of polarized sunglasses will make all the difference in the world when it comes to finding perfect areas for the fish to be in and of course to see the fish themselves as they cruise along looking for food (your fly) to eat.

There are several other key places to put on your where to find the fish list. These are a few of my favorite you will find more of your own
as you fish the High Country.

SHOALS
A Shoal is basically an island that didn’t quite make it to the surface or is covered because of high water conditions. Shoals are areas that fish will immediately gravitate to because they are basically shallow areas surrounded by deep water. I always like to cast into the middle of a shoal and retreive my fly into deeper water.

WEEDBED
Find the weedbeds and you will find fish. There are many different food sources that live in and around weedy areas and any time you come across an area with aquatic growth you are likely to find some nice fish cruising aroud looking for an easy meal.

SHORELINE TREES AND OVERHANGS
Any shoreline areas that have trees, overhanging vegetation or any type of structure, plant growth or rock that hangs over the water will be on the list of places to go for every fish in the area. Lots of different critters live in near and around these areas and if you watch carefully you will see that fish will often cruise by looking. They are looking for any little critter that might have fallen or been blown into the water. These are great places to fish terrestrial fly designs and attractor style flies. Fish that cruise these areas are used to a real mixed bag of food so we can catch ‘em on a whole bunch of different stuff.

ROCKY SHORELINES
Rocky shoreline areas are some of the most overlooked and underappreciated areas of any stillwater ecosystem. These areas provide refuge for a number of different critters including scuds, crayfish, baitfish and a variety of other organisms. These areas are great for probing with a intermediate sink line and small streamer imitations. Some of the nicest fish I have caught in high country lakes have come from these types of areas.

STREAM INLETS AND OUTLETS
Stream inlets and outlets are some of my favoriet places to fish as the moving water that they create can lead to some excellent fishing opprotunity. Moving water will carry food to the fish whether they are at an inlet area or outlet area. These are places where fish can lazily feed on whatever food the current sweeps to them. These are usually the first place that I look for in any stillwater. Easy food sources usually mean the largest fish in the lake will feed there!

HOW TO CATCH ‘EM !
I have found that there are a few techniques that work exceedingly well in stillwaters and I will share them with you now. These are just a few methods and I would encourage you to freely experiment with tactics that you are not familiar with and be willing to change at the drop of a hat. The wiillingness to experiment will lead to many more productive days on the water.

DRY FLY FISHING
Dry flies are probably one of my favorite ways to fish a high country lake. Is it the most productive way to fish a high country lake? Usually not. That said I will state that I still love to fish dries as often as possible in the high country. It’s just way too much fun seeing a plump little trout spot your floating bug and rise up to eat it.

My favorite method with dries is to cast to rising fish, intercepting their cruising path. This requires precise casting and nerves of steel to not pick up your fly and cast it towards another riser before the fish you just cast to has had a chance to inhale your fly. If possible try to lead the fish by a foot or two so that they don’t get spooked or put off by your fly hitting the water in front of them. That said it is often very productive to have a fly that plops onto the water with a buggy splat. This is particularly effective when fishing lakes that have a lot of terrestrials around the shoreline. Fish key into the splat that a beetle or large ant will make as it hits the water.

If you are able to spot cruising trout it is a real blast to cast a dry in their path of travel and watch them rise up to eat it without any hesitation. Look for areas where you can stay camoflaged and away from the fish so that you have the opprotunity to study their movements before tossing a fly in front of them. If you can watch a trout long enough to see the path it travels in you will be rewarded with many productive days on the water.

NYMPHS AND STREAMERS
If you really want to clean up while fishing small stillwaters put on the intermediate line and some of the flies that I discuss in the “Flies
for High Country Lakes” article on this very same web page. These flies coupled with an intermediate line will help you to catch so many fish that it can be embarassing to tally up your total catch at the end of the day.

I was fishing a rich little lake a few years ago with a friend in the fall and we found an imense school of Brook Trout in a very weird pre-spawn “eat anything that move mood” I fished with several flies until the feisty little buggers had chewed them away to nothing. I was catching them on a few turns of thread, with a dangling piece of ribbing and a mangy looking tuft that used to be a Hares Ear nymph. Suddenly without any warning my angling buddy reeled up and walked away.

Since we had been into the feeding mele’ for several hours and it hadn’t showed any signs of slowing I immediately began to wonder what had gone wrong. After a few more fish it really began to bug me so I walked back to camp and asked my buddy what was up. “Nothin” he replied, “ I just thought a hundred seemed like a good number to stop at!” Enough said.

High country fish are very willing biters especially when a juicy little bug or several bugs swim by in front of them. I like to fish a two fly rig with both flies being a size 14 or 16 and sometimes even 18. These small bites are easy fro fish to deal with and will cause them to inhale with a no suspiscion take. These fish are used to seeing small water beetles and the like as they cruis along looking for food so any fly that is reasonably sized (small), stands a very good chance of being eaten. I like to fish my flies with a fairly quick retreive consisting of two or three inch short pulls that will make the fly come to life and look like food.

Undersized streamers, leeches and Wooly Buggers can be very effective flies to use in a wide variety of conditions in the High Country. I like mini wooly buggers and leeches and even tiny baitfish imitations. These are particularly good around stream inlets and outlets. I don’t fish streamers on every trip but I do fish them often enough to make sure that I have got a good selection of them along.

WHAT ABOUT THE FLIES?
You have surely noticed that I havent mentioned any specific flies in this article. I haven’t forgotten them though. Check out the Flies for the High Country article on this same web page to track down my favorite High Country Flies and their recipes.

FINAL NOTES
One of the most important elements of any trip is the planning and there are no better folks to help you plan a fun and sccessful trip in the High Country than the folks at Motherlode Fly Shop. Staffed by serious anglers Motherlodes staff can answer all of your angling questions and help to outfit you for any trip into their area and beyond. A call to Pat and gang at Motherlode will make the most of your trip and they’ll make sure that you have the right stuff to catch ‘em once you get there!