Washington’s high lakes offer fresh scenery, and you might be the only angler on the water.
ALPINE LAKES WILDERNESS — My lungs and legs were burning as I climbed over the ridgeline and caught my first glimpse of Lake Ingalls. As I descended into the lake basin, Mount Stuart towered to my right. The evening sun lit the jagged, 9,415-foot peak, and its colors shimmered on the windswept surface of the water.
I sat down and unpacked my fly rod, tied a Parachute Adams fly onto my leader and began casting while the sun disappeared behind Ingalls Peak. It’s a special feeling when a glacial lake reveals itself at the end of a long, challenging hike. Casting into the lake and reeling in a trout is the only thing that can possibly heighten the experience; at least, that was my theory — a relative newcomer to fly-fishing, I’d been skunked in a handful of attempts to catch an alpine-lakes trout.
But I’d read all about the high-lakes fishery on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) website and in the pages of David Shorett’s primer, “Washington’s Central Cascades Fishing Guide.” Many of the state’s high lakes — defined by WDFW as lakes that lie above 2,500 feet west of the Cascades and 3,500 to the east — are stocked periodically with cutthroat, rainbow, brown, brook and golden trout, while a handful of others have self-sustaining populations.
Summer at the pass
Last summer, when I was fortunate to live at Snoqualmie Pass and spend a few days a week hiking, I had seen fish rising on Lodge Lake just out of the reach of my cast, and had watched enviously as a spin fisher pulled trout out of the Kendall Peak Lakes. On a particularly vexing afternoon, I stared at a fish hovering beneath the surface of one of the Twin Lakes, but it repeatedly ignored my fly. The clear water is one of the challenges of high-lakes fishing: If you can see the fish, they can probably see you.
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This trip would be different, however. For starters, I was traveling with Kyle Johnson, an experienced fly fisherman and professional photographer. Kyle had pulled plenty of trout out of Washington’s high lakes, including Ingalls. At the very least, I thought, I’d witness someone catch a trout on a fly line. I’d also landed several fish in Montana and Idaho since my last lakes attempt, so it wasn’t like I was a complete failure.
Lake Ingalls appealed to us for a number of reasons. The mostly rocky, treeless shoreline of the 16-acre lake provides plenty of room for back casting, so we didn’t need to carry a pack raft or float tube, which are necessary for fly-fishing at lakes bordered by forest or other vegetation. The trail, which is generally open from June through October, was in good shape according to recent trip reports on the Washington Trails Association website (wta.org), and the 9-mile round trip was a reasonable proposition for an overnight. WDFW’s site indicated that the lake was stocked with cutthroat trout in 2011, and golden trout in 2012. According to WDFW, trout reach full maturity in two years, so both populations were likely in good shape.
We left Capitol Hill at 1 p.m. on a Sunday in mid-August and headed east over Snoqualmie Pass. As we marveled at the westbound traffic jam, which extended from the Pass all the way back to Cle Elum, we were reminded of one of the many appeals of high-lakes fishing: In our ever-growing region, many lakes still offer a bit of solitude. On previous trips I’d seen hikers, but only one other angler.
By 3:15 p.m. we were at the Esmeralda Trailhead, roughly 10 miles up a dirt road that connects to North Fork Teanaway Road. We were on the trail by 3:30, ascending in the August heat first through a pine forest, then up switchbacks — steep at times — that carried us along rocky slopes speckled with wildflowers such as penstemon and paintbrush. Stands of alpine fir trees offered occasional shade from the sun as we made our way toward Ingalls Pass at 6,500 feet. About an hour into the hike, the snowy peaks of Mount Adams and Mount Rainier emerged in the distance against the clear blue sky.
Alone on the lake
We reached Ingalls Pass, 2,500 feet above the trailhead, in two hours, and hiked lower Lake Ingalls Trail to our campsite while admiring views of Mount Stuart. There’s no camping in the lake basin, so we ditched the bulk of our gear for the challenging last stretch of the hike. We crossed Headlight Creek and made the final climb over the ridge to the lake, scrambling at times as we followed cairns up the rocky slope. By 6:15 we’d assembled our rods and made our first casts; we were the only ones there.
A steady breeze rippled the water’s surface, so no fish were rising for flies. We cast both surface and subsurface fly patterns as the sun went down. Kyle caught the trout of the day, an 11-inch cutthroat, on a dry fly, then released it back into the lake. The temperature dropped and we fished until our fingers were numb from the cold, then walked back to camp as the sunset turned Mount Stuart a burnt shade of pink. After we ate and drank a couple of beers we’d chilled in the lake, the wind sang us to sleep under a bright, waxing gibbous moon.
The next morning, we fished as the sun came up over the Stuart Range. As the air warmed, there was a fly hatch, and for the next hour fish rose all over the surface of the lake. I can’t say we pulled in a monster with every cast, but I did finally hook an alpine-lakes trout. Fish were still rising as we reluctantly left the basin. A marmot lumbered under a boulder just down from the lake, and mountain goats watched us from a few feet away while we broke camp. During our descent from Ingalls Pass, I started plotting my next lakes trip.
If you go
Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife’s High Lakes web page is a great place to start for history and background, rules and regulations, and information about when the lake you want to fish was last stocked with trout. WDFW encourages catch-and-release fishing, and keeping only those trout you plan to eat in the backcountry. wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/washington/highlakes
Gear you’ll need
A four-piece fly rod that easily straps to a backpack works well for lakes fishing. A standard, five-weight rod is all you need, along with basic dry and wet flies. A float tube or raft are necessary if you plan to fish lakes with shorelines that offer limited room for back casting. Local fly shops such as Patrick’s (patricksflyshop.com), in Seattle, and Creekside Angling Company (creeksideangling.com), in Issaquah, are good sources for recommendations.
Check with WDFW; most of Washington’s high lakes are open to fishing year-round.
Yearly Washington State freshwater fishing licenses cost $29.50 for residents. One-, two- and three-day licenses are also available. See fishhunt.dfw.wa.gov.