Tuesday Tip: How to Choose the Right Flies for Wilderness Fishing

Written by: Ryan McSparran, Peak Outfitter Marketing


Hiking into the backcountry to catch wild trout is one of the joys of summer in Colorado.
Photos by Ryan McSparran

The 2015 fishing season is off to a great start here in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. Water conditions are ideal as we enter the middle of July. Colorado has received a record amount of rainfall through the spring and early summer. That moisture is making for excellent wilderness fishing.

With full lakes plenty of clear, cold water, we are looking forward to a great summer. Water temperatures have begun to warm up, and fish are active and hungry. The cutthroat spawn is wrapping up and fish are cruising opportunistically along the shorelines, taking advantage of worms, scuds and early mayfly hatches.

Fishing these high country waters isn’t very technical. But having the right fly selection can definitely make a difference. Here are three tips to remember on your next wilderness trip:


Plan to fish the same patterns you’d used weeks before at lower elevations.

1. Hatches Come Later at High Elevations
If you haven’t fished in a high-country wilderness area before, it’s important to know that our primary hatches happen later than they do on rivers at lower elevations. For example, blue-winged olive hatches are common through March and April on many of Colorado’s well known rivers. Our BWO hatches in the Flat Tops become heavy in June and well into July. And while caddisfly hatches begin in May on many lower elevation waters, our hatch usually begins around the middle of July. It’s common to see stonefly hatches on our wilderness waters in August.

The one consistent factor is hoppers and terrestrials. High country cutthroat and brook trout will take hopper patterns anytime, but the terrestrial fishing typically improves as the summer goes on.


Although attractors work well, you can often do better by matching the hatch.

2. Be Prepared With Attractors and Specific Patterns
While the fishing in these wilderness waters isn’t very technical, these fish can be surprisingly picky at times. On most days, you could fish a Yellow Humpy all day and catch plenty of fish. But being prepared to more closely match the hatch can mean the difference between a good day and a great day.

Right now, anglers should plan on bringing small blue-winged olive patterns, such as Sparkle Duns, Parachute BWOs, and Parachute Adams. Caddisfly patterns will also start becoming effective in the next few weeks. Standard Elk Hair Caddis or foam patterns are good choices. We also recommend bringing a handful of attractor patterns. Stimulators, Wulffs, Humpies, and Amy’s Ants are all good choices. When it comes to terrestrials, Morrish Hoppers, PMX patterns, and Hippie Stompers are some of our favorites.

Nymph selection is usually simple. Be sure to cover your bases on mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies. Mayfly patterns like Pheasant Tails and other variations are essential. Both caddisfly larvae and pupae are useful. Buckskins and Graphic Caddis are two of our favorites. Small stonefly nymphs are also effective. Princes and Iron Sallies are a couple of examples. You will want to be ready with a few good attractor nymphs too. Hare’s Ears, Copper Johns, and worm patterns are all helpful.

On alpine lakes, be ready with Woolly Buggers, Thin Mints, and other small streamers. Callibaetis and midges are also present. A Tungsten Thin Mint trailed by a Hares Ear can often be a deadly combo.


Midsummer is prime time for fishing high mountain lakes.

3. Don’t Hesitate to Change Your Setup
If your setup or fly selection isn’t producing fish, don’t hesitate to change things up. There’s no use pounding the same flies over and over with no results. Keep changing your rig until you find one that’s effective.

All too often, anglers have a tendency to keep covering more water, rather than changing flies. Usually, the latter should be done more often. If you’ve put your flies in front of a few fish with no results, it’s time to change the bugs before you try out new fish. In addition to trying new bugs, don’t forget to adjust depth. Pay attention to where the fish are feeding in the water column.

One of the best things about fishing small headwaters streams and alpine lakes is fishing to willing and unpressured fish. Fishing these wilderness waters is often very simple. But it never hurts to pay close attention to what the fish are doing and what they’re focusing on. Sometimes, that can be the difference between a good day and an exceptional day.

Ryan McSparran operates Peak Outfitter Marketing in Colorado.

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