By Lee Harrison | Photos by Ryan McSparran
The snow is disappearing from the high country in the west. Summer is here and with that comes summer fly fishing – including wilderness areas that are usually only accessible during the warmer months. Exploring wilderness waters fills the day dreams during winter tying sessions of thousands of anglers, however, not everyone is sure where to start when pursuing the wild trout that inhabit these places.
Here is a kickstarter to get you prepared for your adventure:
First, let's go over some housekeeping. Designated wilderness areas are limited to foot and horse traffic only. Do not expect to rip up to a high-country lake on your dirt bike or in your newly pimped out Tacoma. This brings some sizable challenges when trying to explore an area.
Do Your Homework
Before you spend a day or two walking or riding in on horseback you should be prepared with a rough layout of the land. We suggest using OnX Maps to scout, mark, and map out routes of destinations within their mobile and desktop app. On your smartphone, you can download and save the topo maps are aerial images of the area, allowing you to view and navigate without cell service once you’re in the backcountry.
If you do not wish to purchase the app’s yearly subscription you can always use the old faithful — Google Earth. Both apps can give you crucial information like elevation, distance between two points, and wilderness boundary markers.
What to Look For
Topography features on maps allow anglers to determine the fishability of a stream or river. If you are unfamiliar with how topography works just think of it like this. The closer the lines are together the greater the slope on a landscape. For example the image below shows a flat valley floor with a meandering stream running through the middle, flanked by steeper hills on either side.
You’ll notice I edited out information that would give away it’s exact location. However, it provides a good example of what to look for. You’ll see a consistent increase in line spacing leading to the creek from the hill on the left, with no topo lines until you reach the small hill on the right. This means the elevation in the creek bottom is relatively unchanged. This will make for slow and deep water for fish to hole up in.
Another great “Know Before You Go” tool is historic rainfall. Not only will this information dictate your wardrobe during the trip but also help you identify when water is fishable. I’ve hiked up to lakes only to find they are too low to hold fish in August, due to lack of yearlong runoff and rainfall, one too many times to let you fall victim to it. Getting a spreadsheet of historic rainfall can help you avoid dry creek beds and empty lakes.
I’ve made it. Now what?
Once you get boots, or hooves, on the ground the expanse of wilderness can be overwhelming and often give you challenges you’ve missed while looking at maps. After arriving at the creek, river, or lake you’ve planned on fishing, approach it just like you would your local waters. Target water features that are most likely to hold fish. Keep your eyes peeled for tributaries, bends, inlets, and holes. The rules of fishing remain true while away from the crowds and technology.
Most importantly, be nowhere else while spending time in the wilderness. There is not much of it left, so to spend time chasing its fish, watching its wildlife, and taking in its sunrises is truly a great privilege. Good luck, tight lines!
Recommended Rods for Wilderness Fly Fishing
Hands down, our favorite fly rods for wilderness waters are the Au Sable series. Designed for light line situations where dry flies are the norm, these rods are perfect for the backcountry. At just 8’ 3” long, the shorter length makes these rods very packable and perfect for brushy creeks. The shorter length promotes accurate casting to those wild trout sipping dry flies in pocket water and beaver ponds.
Alternatively, take a close look at our Reaper X in the 7-foot 3-weight or the 8’ 6” 4-weight. Again, the shorter length in these light-line rods promotes accuracy and easy handling in delicate casting situations.
Lee Harrison is an outdoor writer and fly angler from Colorado now living in Montana to explore new fisheries. His favorite species to target is native cutthroat trout at high elevation lakes. Follow lee at sparkmediahouse.com.