Want a new fishing adventure? Check out Idaho’s alpine lakes

A hiking angler approaches an alpine lake in the Gospel Hump Wilderness.
A hiking angler approaches an alpine lake in the Gospel Hump Wilderness. Special to the Idaho Statesman

The trail in the Gospel Hump Wilderness kept going and going through heavy timber and tall brush.

It dropped about a 1,000 feet from the access road and although the hike in was fairly easy, the trek out was going to be a bear.

What kept going through my mind was, “Is there really a lake up ahead or will this fishing hike be a bust?”

The trail kept going and the switchbacks crossed back and forth over a small creek. Where there’s a creek, there’s got to be a lake, right?

Then, through the evergreens was a spot of blue. Finally, the 5-mile hike paid off. A wilderness lake and hopefully mountain trout.

Getting closer and closer to the lake, it was easy to see that it was boiling with circles from surfacing trout that were feeding on some insects or other aquatic critters.

I rigged up my spinning rod and put on a small brown Rooster Tail spinner. The first cast was right on target. A nice cutthroat hit it in a flash and took off like it had never seen an angler in its lifetime.

Within 30 minutes, I had three trout for dinner. It was fabulous fishing.

Fishing Idaho’s alpine lakes is adventure fishing.

First you’ve got to hike one to five miles on mountain trails, many of them in wilderness areas, to get to the lake. The hike can be moderate to strenuous and you’ve got to be in good shape.

Then, you never know what you’re going to catch — brookies, cutthroats, rainbows. And, what size will the fish be?

High lakes can be finicky, too. You never know if the fish will bite or when the hatch will come off. I hadn’t even arrived at the lake until 11 a.m. Talk about sleeping in.

But despite the mystery, fishing alpine lakes is one of Idaho’s most popular pastimes, mainly because it combines hiking, scrambling and fishing. It is also popular because it combines fitness and solitude.

The choice is wide open, too. Idaho has more than 3,000 mountain lakes, according to Idaho Fish and Game. Even though some are too small and shallow to have fish, more than 1,300 alpine lakes are stocked with trout or have naturally producing fish.

The history of stocking alpine lakes is fascinating. Most mountain lakes were barren without fish. Fish stocking started in the early 1900s with rangers packing in fish in milk jugs and on mules.

Now fish are stocked once every two or three years on a rotation, mostly by aircraft. Tiny fish produced in hatcheries are placed into plastic bags filled with water. Oxygen is then pumped into the bags and the bags are sealed for flight.

Anglers also turn to them in the heat of the summer when it’s too hot to fish some lowland reservoirs and streams.


The window of opportunity to visit high elevation lakes is relatively small. Some years, alpine lakes are frozen into late June and early July. The trails to them can be covered with snow in June and then again in October.

Where to go? Several authors have written trail guides to Idaho’s mountains and a majority of the hikes to lakes. Read up on high lakes.

Pick a lake that fits your fitness. Most trail guides give mileage and elevation gains.

Some lakes are located near developed campgrounds and close to roads. The Trinities, north of Mountain Home, offer easier places to reach.

The McCall area has a large concentration of alpine lakes that only require short hikes. The advantage of hiking in the McCall area is that anglers gain elevation on backcountry roads and a lot of hikes are lateral in elevation.

The Sawtooths and Ketchum areas are very popular for high lakes and trails are well-marked.

Lakes located in parts of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, especially in Idaho’s Bighorn Crags, offer very challenging terrain for hiking anglers.

After deciding what lakes to head for, get a good topo map and also a national forest map for the area. You can call U.S. Forest Service District offices for more detailed information.

To find out what type of fish a lake may have, check with Idaho Fish and Game’s website:


The best fishing gear for high lakes is a spinning rod travel kit. The rod breaks down in five pieces and the reel is small, ideal for 4- to 6-pound line. The soft carrying case has compartments cut out in foam to contain the rod pieces, reel and a small lure box.

Expect to pay around $50 for a fishing travel kit. They fit easily in a day pack.

The best lures are Mepps, Rooster Tail and Panther Martin spinners. Kastmaster spoons are ideal because you can cast them clear across the lake. Black, brown and green spinners with gold or silver blades are a good bet. Go as small as you can, such as a  1/16-ounce or  1/8-ounce.

A fly and a bubble also enables spin anglers to fly fish. Fly rods are difficult to use along brush banks lined with trees. You can use the same flies as a fly angler with the bubble rig. Put a clear plastic bubble (bobber) on your line about 18 inches from the end. Then tie on a fly. The weight of the bubble allows you to cast the fly out pretty far.

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