image of Catalpa Lake
Statewide

Fishing Oregon's high lakes

June 18, 2018

Fishing Oregon’s high lakes is not just for dedicated anglers. It also appeals to hikers and backpackers who head to the backcountry with a sense of adventure and a yearning for quietude.

ODFW stocks trout in hundreds of high lakes – mostly in the Cascade and Wallowa mountains – to create unique hike-in only fisheries. Trips can range from easy, family-friendly hikes of less than a mile, to mountain-goat-friendly challenges covering miles and days.

Trout are stocked as 3-inch juveniles and can reach 8-inches in about two years. That’s IF there’s enough food, and IF the lake doesn’t experience winter kill, and IF the lake doesn’t dry up in the late summer…. Lots can happen to these small fish before they have a chance to grow up, but when and where they survive the fishing can be excellent.

Find high lakes stocking information

When to go

image of Prospect Lake in Eagle Cap Wilderness
Prospect Lake, Eagle Cap Wilderness

High mountain lakes may be open to fishing all year per regulation, but weather will dictate the fishing season for high lakes. Most years, lakes will be snow and ice-free from June through October. However, some can be snow-free in May while those at higher elevations may not be accessible until early July.

Within this window, some of the best times to fish the high lakes include:

  • As soon as the snow is off the trails and the ice is off the water. Fish are hungry after a long cold winter and can be feeding aggressively.
  • When it gets hot in the valleys, and weed and algae growth make fishing tough, it’s time to head to the cooler mountain areas where waters stay cooler and clearer.
  • After the first frost in the fall when the colorful foliage can enhance already spectacular scenery and, most importantly, the mosquitoes have died down.

Planning your trip

Fishing Oregon’s high lakes isn’t hard, but it does take a little initiative to research and plan your trip. These high elevation locations, often hidden by surrounding forests, don’t always reveal themselves easily.

ODFW does not promote “recommended” or “best” places for hike-in fishing. Many of these lakes are within fragile ecosystems and rather then concentrate traffic in just a few places, we invite anglers to explore and develop their own list of favorite places to fish.

In addition to fishing opportunities, you’ll want to consider the length and nature of the hike to get there. Here are some of our favorite resources for planning a high lakes fishing trip. Use the stocking and trail information in combination to plan your trip.

  • ODFW high lakes stocking locations – organized by district, these schedules list the lakes that have been stocked, their location, depth and size, and links to many trailheads.
  • U.S. Forest Service web pages – most of Oregon’s high lakes are within national forests, many of which have websites that give directions to trailheads, describe current conditions, and more. Where possible, we’ve included links to USFS pages in our stocking schedule to help you get started.
  • Google Earth or Google Map – these programs give a bird’s-eye view of a lake that can help you find inlets, deeper areas, underwater structure and other places likely to hold fish.  
  • Traditional and online trail guides describe trail distances and conditions. Many online sites also include recent user updates about trail access, snow conditions, wildflowers in bloom, etc.

Fishing gear

In general, you can fish a high mountain lake the same way you would fish any other lake. However, the crystal clear waters of high lakes often demand stealth and light tackle. And unless you’re willing to pack in a lightweight float tube or inflatable boat, you'll be fishing from the bank.

Most high lakes anglers prefer light/ultra-light spinning rods/reels, or fly-fishing gear. Here are three popular set-ups:

Spinning tackle

image of rod, spinning gear and flies
A versatile set-up for hike-in fishing.

A six-foot spinning rod for four-pound line can be a good place to start. Most rods will break down into two pieces making them easier to carry. Travel rods, which can break down into four or more pieces, are even easier to put into a day- or backpack but they aren’t necessary.

A lightweight spinning reel with four pound line offers a good balance between strength and stealth.

A handful of spinners and spoons can complete your tackle. Every high lakes angler will have his or her favorite style and colors. Recommendations include Rooster Tail, Panther Martin and Mepps spinners in black, brown and green; as well as Dick Nite, Krocodile and Kastmaster spoons in silver, gold or rainbow trout colors.

You can make it easier to release fish if you replace the standard treble hook on most spinners and spoons with a single Siwash or other open-eye hook. Or, some anglers simply cutoff two of the three points on the treble hook.

Bait also can be very effective in the high lakes, whether you’re fishing it just off the bottom or under a bobber. However, bait is not recommended if you plan to release the fish you catch. Fish tend to swallow bait deeply – making it hard to unhook them safely.

Fly-fishing

Using a float tube on a high lake
Some fly anglers pack in a lightweight float tube.

Fly-fishing is a popular way to fish high lakes, and if you’re already a fly-fisher you’ve probably already got the gear – a general purpose trout outfit with a long (9-12 feet), thin (4x-5x) leader.

Dry flies, nymphs and streamers all can be effective. If fish are feeding on the surface, good choices include a black ant, Adams or elk-hair caddis. If you don’t see any surface activity, go subsurface with a woolly bugger, hare’s ear or Carey special.

Many of the high lakes are in forested areas with limited room for back casting. A view from Google Earth can help you assess the casting conditions before you go. If there isn’t much room to cast, consider packing in a lightweight float tube. Or, use a spinning rod to cast your fly.

Casting flies with spinning tackle

Perhaps the most versatile gear for high lakes fishing is a spinning rod and reel that can cast spinners, spoons and, with the help of a casting bubble, flies.

image of flies and casting bubbles
Flies and casting bubbles allow you to cast flies with a spinning rod.

Casting bubbles are clear plastic bubbles with a removable stopper through their center. They add weight to your line (so you can cast farther) and can act as a strike indicator.

You can adjust the weight and buoyancy of the bubble by removing the stopper and adding water. For dry flies add just enough water so that the bubble floats just above the surface. You can add a little more water for nymphs, but add too much water and the bubble will be too low to see as a strike indicator.

To rig a casting bubble, pass your main line through the center stopper and attach a small snap swivel. Tie a loop in the end of a 5-6 foot leader and snap it in the swivel. Tie your fly to the end of the leader.

Casting with such a long leader can take practice. Generally a side arm cast will work better than an overhand cast.

Finding fish

image of angler at Shellrock Lake
Shellrock Lake, Roaring River Wilderness

Trout in lakes spend much of their time cruising around looking for food, primarily insects. Cruising trout tend to look for food near structural elements like shoals, drop offs, logs, rocks and overhanging vegetation.

At other times, trout may hold at inlets waiting for the current to bring food to them, or near the cover of rocks or logs waiting for something edible to come their way.

Trout will often cruise in the shallow waters near shore because it’s often the first water to warm up in the spring or after a cool night. However, as the summer wears on, and solar radiation makes the shallow a little too warm (especially by mid-day), trout will retreat to the deeper parts of the lake where the water is a little cooler.

Regulations

Adults 18 years and older must have a fishing license. Young people 12-17 years must have a $10 youth license, and kids under 12 can fish without a license.

Most hike-in lakes are open year-round, with a daily bag limit of five fish at least 8-inches long. Bait is allowed, but is not recommended if you plan to catch and release.

Many inlet and outlet streams and creeks also are open to fishing, but the regulations differ. The daily bag limit is two fish, the use of bait is not allowed, and many closed from Nov. 1 to May 21.

Always check the Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations for exceptions to these rules.

What you’ll catch

Oregon’s earliest efforts to stock the often fishless high lakes centered on brook trout – a hardy non-native species of char (actually) that survived well in the harsh conditions, offered good sport to anglers, and provided fine fare for the frying pan.

More recently, the cutthroat and rainbow trout have been added to the stocking mix to offer anglers a more diverse fishing opportunity.

Brook Trout

a drawn image of a brook trout

Today, only triploid brook trout, which are incapable of reproducing, are stocked to minimize the ecological impact a permanent population of brook trout might have. However, high lakes anglers can still find naturally reproducing populations of brook trout – remnant populations from earlier stocking efforts.

Brook trout are easily identified by the worm-like pale yellow markings on the backs, red dots with blue halos, and white borders on their lower fins. Many fish will struggle to reach legal length is some waters, while 14-inch fish are not uncommon in more productive lakes.

Cutthroat Trout

a drawn image of a cutthroat trout

These feisty fish get their name from the red slash mark on the throat of adults. The most common variety in Oregon is the coastal cutthroat, which are used to stock high mountain lakes where the water stays cool throughout the summer.

These fish are known for their aggressive bite and enthusiastic fight.

Rainbow Trout

a drawn image of a rainbow trout

This is the most widely stocked and distributed trout in Oregon. They occur naturally in many rivers and streams, and each year ODFW stocks millions more in lakes, ponds and streams. Their preference for clear cool waters make them a good candidate for high lakes stocking.

In general, the rainbow is bluish-green on the back, has a generous sprinkle of black spots on the back and fins, and a pinkish band along the sides.

Be safe out there

There is always an element of risk when entering the backcountry – even for a short hike. Every hiking angler should be prepared to deal with minor injuries, getting lost and unexpected changes in the weather.

To start, let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return. If you’re seriously overdue, they can call for help. (For this reason, also be sure to let them know that you got home safely.)

In addition, carry the “10 essentials,” gear that can help you weather unexpected circumstances:

  1. Navigation (map and compass, GPS)
  2. Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
  3. Insulation (extra clothing)
  4. Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
  5. First-aid supplies
  6. Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
  7. Repair kit and tools
  8. Nutrition (extra food)
  9. Hydration (extra water)
  10. Emergency shelter

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