Imagine hungry trout rising among a backdrop of snowy mountain peaks, verdant alpine meadows, and scree-lined slopes that are populated by playful pikas. If the idea intrigues you, plan a trip to a high mountain lake – some so remote that trout are stocked via horseback, llama, or helicopter. Reaching these idyllic settings requires little more than a sense of adventure.
Mountain landscapes come alive following the late spring snowmelt period when longer, sunlit days lead to warming of surface waters and prolific insect hatches. Summer is when nature’s synchrony increases your chances of hooking a mess of hungry rainbow, cutthroat, brown, or brook trout.
The goal of this article is to whet your appetite for the high lake fishing experience. Of the six water bodies that I highlight, two offer early season vehicle access and have public-use campgrounds. Four occur in designated wilderness areas and require one-way hikes of less than 8 miles. Organized from low to high elevation, access to some lakes may be compromised by snowpack until mid-summer
Indian Lake, Blue Mountains
You could do no worse than to start your summer trout experience in northeastern Oregon. Because the Blue Mountains were not glaciated, they have few if any natural lakes. Near the crest of the Blues, at 4,200-foot elevation, Indian Lake was created in the late 1960s by damming tiny Jennings Creek. Owned and operated by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the lake is located 34 miles southeast of Pendleton. Drinking water, 43 fee-based campsites with fire pits, and an RV disposal station are available for public use. A reservation fishing permit is required. (See ctuir.org)
Much of the open shoreline is accessible by well-worn trails. However, wading can be difficult because of submerged aquatic vegetation that lines the bank. I visited Indian Lake with a group of military veterans affiliated with Heroes on the Water in June 2018. We spent the weekend camping in the shelter of lodgepole pine and learning the fundamentals of fly fishing. Trolling flies and spinners from pontoon boats and kayaks led to good success for feisty rainbow trout up to 14 inches long.
Echo Lake, Norse Peak Wilderness
Echo Lake, elevation 3820 feet, makes for a great early season trip when many other Cascade Mountain lakes are snow-bound. Located approximately 30 miles from Enumclaw, Washington off Highway 410, the trailhead is accessible to hikers from May through November. The heavily forested Greenwater Trail 1176 follows a rushing Greenwater River along the valley bottom, climbing gently for the first 5 miles. You reach a high point at 4100-foot before dropping the length of a football field to 51-acre Echo Lake.
Echo Lake offers good angling for coastal cutthroat trout up to 10 inches long. Much of the shoreline is open meadow and marsh. Submerged logs provide cover for trout that cruise the shallows looking for something to eat. A side trip to scenic 17-acre Lost Lake, where brook trout and the occasional cutthroat are found, is also possible. Both Echo and Lost Lake are considered “over populated” and have liberal catch limits.
Deep Lake, Alpine Lake Wilderness
Next up on the late spring thaw list is Deep Lake, located on the east slope of Washington’s Cascade Mountains at an elevation of 4,400. Access this lake via the scenic Cathedral Rock trail. Your adventure begins at the Tucquala Meadows trailhead, 15 miles north of Salmon La Sac. An easy 2.3-mile “warm up” trek to Squaw Lake and stocked rainbow trout is available for day hikers. Two more miles of hiking and an 800-foot elevation gain leads to Cathedral Pass and the Pacific Crest trail. Continue downhill through a series of switchbacks another 2.9 miles to reach 52-acre Deep Lake.
According to District Fish Biologist, Marc Divens, Deep Lake has a naturalized, self-sustaining population of cutthroat trout. Several campsites can be found in the open forest adjoining this picturesque lake. Divens also shared that a cross-country trek to nearby Circle Lake should be included for the “very adventuresome” angler.
East Lake, Deschutes National Forest
East Lake, one of two popular trout lakes nestled in the caldera of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, is 35 miles southwest of Bend, Oregon. Along with adjoining Paulina Lake, East Lake is known for its abundant rainbow trout population and trophy-size brown trout.
At 6,381 feet elevation, ice-out usually occurs by late May, when the access road is plowed. Submerged hot springs on the southeast corner of the lake attract all species of fish at that time. A rich insect population promotes opportunity for fly fishers that ply their skills near abundant weed beds. Lures and flies that imitate small baitfish can lead to catching voracious brown trout up to 20 pounds, although those over 16 inches must be released unharmed.
East Lake is stocked in June and July each year with fingerling-sized rainbow trout, brown trout, and kokanee. Catchable-size rainbows add to the bounty. When I asked ODFW fish biologist, Erik Moberly, why anglers flock to this lake, he replied, “Fish grow quickly due to the lake’s high productivity.”
Because of a limited shoal area around the lake, most anglers rely on a floating device. Three launch sites are available. Pet-friendly East Lake Resort has lakefront cabins and campsites.
Strawberry Lake, Strawberry Mountain Wilderness
You may find no easier high mountain trek than the 1.3-mile hike from the Strawberry Camp trailhead to Strawberry Lake. A 4-mile side trip to Slide Lake is also possible. Located 14 miles south of Prairie City, Oregon, Strawberry Camp has running water, fire rings, picnic tables, and camping for RVs and tents.
Rainbow and brook trout up to 14 inches are abundant in 34-acre Strawberry Lake. On a previous visit to the 6,380-foot elevation lake, I found that larger fish had pink-meat from a crustacean-based diet. Stand under Strawberry Falls, 1.2 miles farther up the trail, to wash off the dust and sweat. Traverse a switchback to the top of the falls and a short side trip to diminutive Little Strawberry Lake where small brook trout are quick to rise to a fly.
Chimney Lake, Eagle Cap Wilderness
Chimney Lake is found in a special part of northeastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains that locals refer to as “God’s Country.” Because of its 7,600-foot elevation, plan for a mid-July to early August hike. To get to Bowman Trail 1651, drive 14 miles south of the town of Lostine, on Lostine River Road. A well-traveled trail zigzags up a series of switchbacks, providing a clear day view of Marble Point and Eagle Cap. Take a well-deserved break at when you enter Brownie Basin, a broad alpine meadow at mile 3.3, turn right on Trail 1659 at mile 3.8, and hike past Laverty Lakes to reach picturesque Chimney Lake at mile 5.0.
The surface of this small alpine lake is sprinkled with small rock islands. Steep talus slopes and a scattering of alpine trees are backdrop to crystal-clear water that dimples every morning and evening with the rise of brook trout.
I first hiked Chimney Lake as a Boy Scout. On another trip with my son, Matthew, we climbed the saddle above Chimney Lake to Hobo Lake, where large, finicky rainbows lurked, and to Wood Lake where we cast for, but failed to catch mythical golden trout. An optional week-long backpacking trip can involve a circle tour of John Henry Lake, Minam Meadow, Steamboat Lake, Swamp Lake, and back to the Lostine River.
High Lake Angling Tips
Most fly fishers favor a 4- to 5-weight rod. Long leaders, up to 10 feet long, with a fluorocarbon tippet, work best in pristine lakes. Standard surface patterns include Adams, Royal Wulff, and Dark Elk Hair Caddis. You might nymph with a Hares Ear, Pheasant Tail Nymph, or Zug Bug on a sink-tip line when surface action slows. Trolling a Wooly Bugger from an inflatable device and still-fishing a chironomid pattern under a strike indicator are other proven techniques.
A 6-foot medium-light action rod and open face reel with 6-pound monofilament will serve spin casters well. Small lures such as Dardevele, Super Duper, and Roostertail are effective. Replace treble hooks with a single Siwash to decrease hooking mortality for fish that you plan to release. I often revert to a casting bubble to get my offering out to where trout rise out of reach of the fly rod.
Trout tend to congregate near inlet streams and adjacent to rocky drop-offs. Shoreline points allow for more casting room, particularly where deeper water occurs on one or more sides. Another option is to find a beach or open shoreline and position yourself with the wind at your back. One-person inflatable rafts, some weighing less than 3 pounds, are now available for backpacking. (See outsideonline.com)
Both the Washington and Oregon Department’s of Fish and Wildlife websites are loaded with information about high-elevation lakes and the fish that live there (Google ODFW and WDFW “high lakes fishing”). Regional fish biologists are understandably proud of these fisheries and eager to share what they know. A plethora of hiking books are also available for anglers who crave more geographic detail.
Important Guidelines for Hikers
Always contact the closest U.S. Forest Service office for information on wilderness and national forest access permits before you venture forth. Snowpack information is available from U.S. Department of Agriculture websites.
According to The Seattle Mountaineers, ten essentials for backcountry hikers include extra clothing, extra food, sunglasses, knife, fire-starter, matches, map, flashlight, first aid kit, and compass. While the odds of a bear attack are low, insect repellent should definitely be on your list. Be prepared to treat and/or filter drinking water and don’t count on your cell phone for anything other than for the time of day. Above all, follow the “leave no trace” rule, which means packing out waste, no campfire, and pitching tents in designated areas – never within 100 feet of water to protect fragile vegetation.
If you are like me, fishing is the goal when it comes to high mountain lakes. Having the option to fill your frying pan with tasty trout at the end of a day’s hike will both ease your pack load and raise your spirit. Consider the advice given in a popular northeastern Oregon website (josephflyshoppe.com) that states, “fry your bacon, cook your pancakes, then fry your fish – in that order.”
What About Arctic Grayling?
Arctic grayling were planted in several locations across Oregon and Washington in the early 20th century, but local populations rarely took hold. One exception is Upper Granite Lake, a 144-acre glacial basin in the North Cascades, where a self-sustaining population has existed since their introduction from Yellowstone Lake in 1946. Adding this beautiful fish to your life list will not be easy, however. The 7-mile hike to remote Upper Granite Lake, mostly cross-country via old logging roads, has been described as a “bear run full of wet brush to bust through.” Two creek crossings and a 3500-foot elevation gain add to the challenge. Mature fish up to 15 inches long move into a nameless inlet stream to spawn after the ice-out period, timing which can range from mid-June to early August. Small spoons and flies that include Renegade, Adams, and Beadhead Nymphs work well. Fishing is catch-and-release, but that’s okay because grayling are too pretty to kill.