By Phil Cooper, Wildlife Conservation Educator
If you want some relief from the high temperatures we have had recently, consider taking a hike to a high mountain (alpine) lake.
The window of opportunity to visit high elevation lakes is a small one. Many are frozen well into July. The trails to them can be deep in snow by mid-October. If you can time it right (now!), the rewards are well worth the effort to get there! And, many mountain lakes have excellent fishing.
There are more than 3,000 mountain lakes in Idaho. Some are too small and shallow to hold fish. Other alpine lakes are more than a mile long. Of the lakes that hold water every year, more than 1,300 contain stocked fish or naturally reproducing populations of fish.
Mountain lake fish stocking on a significant scale first started in the early 1900's and was done by horseback. Aerial stocking saved time and money and started in the 1950's. Milk jugs full of water and fish were used for transporting fish into the backcountry lakes. People still occasionally find a jug in shallow water that was accidently dropped or fell out of a pannier.
In early fish and wildlife management, the importance of maintaining native strains was not widely recognized. Although most of the species historically stocked were native to Idaho, they were not always native to the drainage they were stocked in. Non-native brook trout were stocked into many lakes in the 1920's to 1950's and they established naturally reproducing populations. Rainbow trout that were planted in Idaho mountain lakes were of non-native stocks. Current practices prioritize the use of native strains and species.
Stocking is now done every one to three years, and is coordinated with the US Forest Service, as most Idaho alpine lakes are located on national forests. Tiny fish produced in hatcheries are placed into plastic bags filled with water. Oxygen is then pumped into the bags. Weighing 15-20 pounds each, the bags are carried to mountain lakes in backpacks. After sitting in the lake water along the shore until the water temperature in the bag matches the lake temperature, a corner of the bag is cut open and the fish swim out into their new surroundings. Some are gobbled up by larger fish in the lake, but others survive to sizes that provide great fishing. More than half of mountain lakes in Idaho are left fishless to maintain natural conditions for native amphibians.
There are several hiking guides that have useful information about the locations of Idaho alpine lakes and detailed information about the hike it takes to get to them. As one might imagine, some are cakewalks but others are grueling adventures on steep rocky trails. Information is also available from US Forest Service or USGS topo maps, and on the fish planner page of the Idaho Fish and Game website: http://fishandgame.idaho.gov/ifwis/fishingPlanner/
Alpine ecosystems are fragile, so it is very important that visitors take care to minimize their impact. Due to the short growing seasons at high elevations, shoreline vegetation takes a long time to recover from any damage. Be careful to avoid trampling or damaging plants in alpine zones.
Use of backpack cook stoves avoids the impacts and risks that result from building a fire for cooking. You can even relax in front of a cook stove just as you can by a campfire.
Pack out all trash and any you find from previous visitors. Fish entrails can be punctured and thrown into the lake well away from shore to return nutrients to the system.
Solid human waste should be covered with dirt at least 200 feet from the water and away from trails.
Many of the people I run into at mountain lakes do not bring fishing rods. While hiking for the sake of hiking is great, there is no more beautiful or pleasurable place to fish than the Idaho high country. Catching a fighting trout from an Idaho mountain lake is a joy to remember!
I have had the best success at mountain lakes when fly fishing, but many lakes are surrounded by trees that make casting dificult. Another option is spin fishing using a bobber followed by a fly. Any small fly pattern that is mostly black with a little red seems to work best. I recently hiked into a mountain lake and started out using rooster tails and panther martins with limited success. When I changed to a clear bobber and a fly, I caught far more fish.
If you decide to make a trip to a mountain lake, be sure to take insect repellent. These lakes are high enough in elevation that the mosquitos are just coming out.