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Five alpine lakes to find cold water and plenty of fish

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A backpacker reels in a small fish at an alpine lake in the Spanish Peaks. With rivers already stressed by low flows and heat, EBS fishing columnist Patrick Straub suggests fleeing to these gorgeous spots to fish.

By Patrick Straub EBS Contributor

With our abnormally low stream flows, it’s important we consider a variety of options to ensure our fisheries can sustain for the long term. As a veteran of fishing in the heart of summer on our local waters, these hot, dry conditions make this summer challenging…and we’re not even to the half-way point. 

The number of flights servicing Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport serves as proof that our area waters are experiencing a level of angling pressure never seen before. Fortunately, we live in a place with a diversity of angling opportunities. These options to beat the heat and ease the pressure on our creeks and rivers can be found in many of the region’s alpine lakes. 

Here are five high-altitude lakes to fish this summer. 

Ramshorn Lake

This lake is the reward for a 6.5-mile hike high into the Gallatin Range. With healthy populations of cutthroat and golden trout, the reward is worth the effort. Back dropped by Fortress Mountain and Ramshorn Peak and surrounded by pine trees, the lake is as picturesque as it is fishy. With a hike through meadows, spruce and lodgepole pine, and a variety of boulder and scree fields, anglers desiring a unique experience should visit Ramshorn Lake. As with most of the lakes on this list, be sure to pack your bear spray. The best flies to use here are the beadhead Prince Nymphs in size 12 and 14 and Parachute Adams in size 16. 

Lava Lake

A 3-mile, one-way hike, Lava Lake gets its fair share of traffic. However, most of that traffic occurs as the “Big Sky brunch crowd” so any angler that can get an earlier start will enjoy this beautiful lake in relative solitude ‘til around midday. With an elevation gain of 1,600 feet one would think the casual hikers would be weeded out, but the beautiful lake sits in a beautiful basin surrounded by jagged peaks of the Gallatin Range and is motivation for all to keep on trekking. The nearly 50-acre lake is home to rainbow trout that are best caught slowly stripping size 16 to 20 beadhead nymphs. Look for fish cruising along the deep drop-offs. 

Grebe Lake

This large lake ticks in at just over 150 acres. The hike into Grebe Lake is an easy 3-mile, level stroll. However, the fishing at Grebe Lake is an adventure. In 2017 the National Park Service poisoned the lake to eradicate non-native rainbow trout, then re-introduced native grayling and Westslope cutthroat trout. Reports have been good, but Grebe Lake still remains somewhat of a little mystery in its current state. Because of this it’s a good destination for any intrepid angler seeking to potentially rediscover a unique fishery. Arctic Grayling is the main draw at Grebe Lake and for most anglers fishing Grebe Lake proves fruitful. 

Pine Creek Lake

After hiking 5 miles and gaining over 3,600 feet in elevation, anglers at Pine Creek Lake often need a little rest before casting to the numerous native Yellowstone cutthroat trout swimming in this lake’s crystal-clear waters. The first mile of the trail is mellow and busy, but most hikers are simply heading to Pine Creek Falls. Past the falls is when the effort is required for the remaining four miles. Pine Creek Lake fish see little pressure, so a size 12 beadhead Prince or a size 14 Parachute Adams typically gets the job done—just watch your weather because an afternoon thunderstorm can make the return hike across the numerous exposed scree slopes a little nerve-wracking. 

Hidden Lakes

The name of this collection of lakes is little deceiving—they are anything but hidden. Five of these lakes hold golden or rainbow trout, and some hold both, and the trail to access these lakes is a 3-mile moderate stroll with a gradual elevation gain of 1,200 feet. Because a road exists to the trailhead, even though it is a rough road, the Hidden Lakes have been found. However, because there are a variety of lakes, anglers can still find a spot of their own. The best flies for these waters are size 18 beadhead Pheasant Tails and size 20 Parachute Adams. 

Compared to feeling the rush of a river or stream against the legs, fishing a lake can seem mundane. But the lakes in the high country, anglers can enjoy exhilarating hikes with expansive views and be rewarded with wild and native trout. 

Patrick Straub has fished on five continents. He is the author of six books, including “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing” and has been writing the Eddy Line for nine years. He was one of the largest outfitters in Montana, but these days he now only guides anglers who value quality over quantity. 

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