Fall is Coming to the Alpine Lakes

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By: Frank Day

The month of September brings cooling weather and with it, insect hatches and more aggressive fish. Trout in alpine ponds and lakes normally go on feeding binges for a while after ice-out in the spring and during cooling water before lakes freeze in the fall. Many lakes get pretty warm during the summer. Trout slow down but feed in the perfect temperatures in the transition time. There are several weeks in the fall when fish and insects both wake up. Fall colors can be spectacular.

Some anglers enjoy a day of fishing for the plentiful stocked rainbow trout that are found in the lakes around Mt. Hood, but other anglers seek out the less accessible hike-in lakes and ponds. Here the fish often average somewhat smaller in size than the stocked trout, but what they lack in size they make up for in strength, beauty, and intelligence. Get off the beaten path and you can find water that gets very little human pressure. For some anglers, the solitude and quiet of natural surroundings is worth as much as catching fish. For basic research on where these local lakes are located, obtain a Mt. Hood National Forest Map.

Many alpine lakes in Oregon were once stocked by ODFW with Eastern brook trout, which is actually a char native to watersheds east of the Mississippi River. In some watersheds they now coexist with populations of wild coastal cutthroat and/or native rainbow trout. There are now many self reproducing populations of these eastern char. Trout and char don't cross breed in the wild. ODFW has stopped planting Eastern brook trout. The populations that remain in lakes and ponds have likely lived there during their whole lives. They have fought for their survival against predators and other fish. Their more foolish brothers and sisters were eaten by predators or outcompeted and these remaining fish are the cream of the crop, the strongest and most intelligent of their generation. They are sure to bring a smile to the face of any angler who feels their pull.

Some alpine ponds were so isolated that they contained no trout of any kind before they were stocked. Others which did contain native fish were located above barrier falls so that salmon and steelhead couldn't reach them. Many of these kinds of headwater streams and lakes became the abode for native coastal cutthroat trout. Who knows how they got there?

Most headwater ponds and streams are nutrient poor, and at higher elevations they have short growing seasons, so most fish don't grow very fast or get very large. Native cutthroats can become breeding adults at nine inches long, or even smaller. These trout don't normally become very selective feeders, so they may bite a wide range of fly patterns. but they are often very shy, so pinpoint casting skills are required. One bad cast can send them racing for cover, not to be seen again for several hours.

The ideal rod set up to fish in alpine ponds is a 3-4 wt rod with a weight forward floating line. I like the RIO Gold Line because of the increased head length, which allows for longer roll casts as natural alpine ponds often have dense vegetation surrounding them. A 7.5’ 6X tippet is perfect for these smaller fish; I personally prefer the RIO Powerflex Tippet for dry fly fishing, and a RIO Flouroflex for any sort of a dropper.

Mid to late September and its cooler temperatures will bring out the late hatches of Callibaetis mayflies: a small, dark mottled winged fly commonly found in beaver ponds. Hatches usually occur in the early afternoon. A size 12-16 Parachute Adams and purple Parawulffs are successful dry fly patterns. A Super Flash Nymph or Gold Rib Hares Ear in a size 16 can also be incredibly successful when stripped back with a slow twitching motion. Also, throughout the summer, one can expect evening midge hatches and a Suspender Pupa is deadly when fished in a size 18-20. The rise of a fish on this particular pattern is generally not of the large showy type. Sometimes the fish will not even break the surface at all and boil beneath it as it takes it from within or just below the surface film.

Ponds that are surrounded by trees usually get a lot of terrestrial insects falling on the water any time the wind blows. Ants, beetles and bees are staple trout foods throughout the summer in many timbered high elevation lakes of all sizes.

There are also a number of highly successful subsurface patterns such as damsel fly nymphs or goat hair leeches or any small streamer pattern. They are unweighted, but fish fine on a floating line in still water. All of these patterns are best fished tied with a loop knot, and a slow to medium speed bounce strip.

Nymphs can also be fished in high alpine ponds with great success. Smaller size 18-14 Hares Ears, Pheasant Tails, Copper Johns, and Prince Nymphs take fish quite regularly. On a final note, these hike-in lakes and ponds are, for the most part, no longer stocked and because of this the populations are self reproducing and cannot handle excessive harvest. Because of this, catch and release should be encouraged. As always, pack out what you pack in and be respectful of other anglers and hikers.

Large impoundments, such as Timothy Lake in the Mt. Hood National Forest, are regularly stocked with catchable trout, which regularly winter over in these deep man made lakes. They provide great fishing in the fall and then again during the early spring months. In the fall, there can still be lots of terrestrial insects blown into the water until freezing nights put an end to them. However, there are midge hatches as long as lakes aren't frozen over. Both weighted and unweighted midge pupa are important flies to have in your box. Woolly Buggers in a variety of colors and sizes are always important flies. Crayfish, sculpins and leeches may slow down as the water temperature drops, but they are still active, even during the coldest weather.

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