Ice off is a special time of year around here, especially in high mountain lakes. Most of Alberta’s higher elevation lakes are stocked with beautiful cutthroat trout, who thrive in the cold mountain waters. As the ice starts to rot away, the cutthroat begin their transformation into fire belly monsters. Thus, signaling the start of their spawning season.
The high mountain melt doesn’t begin until late May. It ends somewhere in July, depending on the elevation of the lake and other factors like snow depth, sun availability, and ice thickness from that years winter. I’ve had times where I’ve hiked a few hours into my favorite lakes only to find there is still a thick layer of frozen water covering the fish I herald. Other times, I’ve sat upon a ridge looking down at a lake that looks like a mirror only to have the reflection shattered by the rise of a trout. There is something incredibly humbling about fishing high in the mountains. It’s not only the views, but the quiet and solitude that accompanies the beauty that surrounds you.
Now you may think it unethical to fish when the fish are preparing to spawn. However, in most mountain waters the fish are unable to spawn. Rather, they spend their time cruising the shore edge creating mock redds (spawning beds) along drop off edges. This provides an excellent opportunity for anglers to hone their skills, especially those who are just beginners, as the fish move in quite close to shore and can often be sight fished. Though, I must say, an angler should be extra gentle with their catches during this time frame. It’s important not to squeeze trout too tightly and cause them extra stress during their time of “getting down to business.”
When fishing for these cruising cutties I suggest using smaller emerger patterns or chironomids just below the surface. You will often see these cutthroat cruising the shore, creating small rises as they go. They will continue to eat during their spawning times, but there will be a considerable drop in appetite as they get deeper into spawn mode. In early spawn, I often will start off with a balance leech pattern, about 5 feet down from my indicator. I like to use more natural colors, such as browns and blacks when fishing with leeches. I’ve used more vibrant colors but have found limited success during early ice off fishing. This technique can produce good numbers until the fish hunker down and focus on more of what is hatching around them. At this point, small is often the ticket. Using those emerger patterns such as various soft hackles or sparkle pupas can lead to hard strikes just below the surface. When I suspect they are taking something off the surface, I will look to smaller dry fly patterns such as micro may’s or griffith gnats. You will need to use smaller size hooks in these situations, selecting flies that are somewhere between 16 to 24 in size. If you have difficulty seeing your flies on the surface, a good idea is to tie the smaller fly off the hook shank of a bigger and more visible fly. I will often tie a griffith gnat off the back of a elk hair caddis or stimulator and watch for rises right next to the fly before setting the hook. You could use this technique in a dropper situation with your emerger or chironomid pattern tied off below a big dry fly. Watch for those swirls or takes next to that bigger fly and always set the hook, even if you’re unsure. Plus, you may get lucky and have an extra hungry trout rise and eat that large fly of yours.
When looking for areas to target, I usually focus on places where water is entering the lake. High mountain lakes will usually have water sources running into them from several locations throughout the shore line. These creeks will often be too small or have too high of vertical drops to offer spawning habitat for trout. However, they provide an excellent source of incoming nutrients and food for trout to prey upon. If you notice that a creek bed has dried up, still use that as an area to target when fishing. Dried up creek beds will still flow below ground and enter the lake below the waterline.
As the spawn end nears, cutthroat will move into the deeper waters and move tighter to the drop off bottom. However, their appetites will return to full form and voraciously begin to feed on any insect life available. The sun will stay longer in the sky and the cold mountain waters will begin to warm. Incredible hatches will cover the lake and there will be some nights where it looks like the lake is boiling with fish rises. Though the fire belly colors will return to a less vibrant status, the fish in these lakes never cease to be incredibly beautiful. If you have the chance, put the extra effort in and head towards the mountains for an opportunity to catch beautiful fish. There will be opportunities for the young and the old, as not all lakes will require rigorous hikes to find these wonderful cutthroat. Do some research, check the local fishing message boards, and make a plan to make some wonderful memories high in the tree line. If all else fails, there are some excellent guides that will be happy to help you hook into some energetic mountain trout. Without a doubt, you will remember fish like this for the rest of your life.