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Trouts Journal

High-Country Exploration 201

Will Rice / Jul 19, 2021

“Ka-sploosh! Ka-sploosh! Ka-sploosh!”

That’s how I started an article published in the 2021 CURRENT about strategies and tactics for fishing creeks and lakes at higher elevations here in Colorado. The story began with a quickly-stripped deer-hair hopper in front of aggressive and hungry cutthroat trout at 11,300 ft, high in the White River National Forest.

To get to that lake: a four-mile hike and 2800 ft. vertical ascent with all of my fishing gear. Quite a bit of work for a day trip.

In addition to a few basic concepts for someone who is new to high-alpine fishing, I mentioned that adding a backpacking component to your program can greatly increase your range as well as your ability to see more remote and beautiful places.

“Once you have a few successful trips under your belt, you can think about extending your range by including a multi-day/night backpacking element into your program. This will increase the amount of water you can cover, but it will also increase the complexity of your planning as well as your due diligence required to ensure a safe trip.” – The CURRENT 2021

I’d like to take some time to expand on this backpacking and fishing concept as an alternative option as we press into the hotter months of the summer. For anyone who has done significant multi-night trips in a tent, I’m not going to cover too much new ground here. But, if you have not spent much time under the stars in the high country or want to get a better understanding of the basics…. Read on.

A plan coming together in the high country.
Start with a plan

As mentioned in my first article, there are a lot of great resources to point you in the right direction from a “where to” perspective. Doing your own research is key.

Obviously, you want to target creeks or stillwaters where you will have somewhat easy access to fish once you’ve completed your trek and set up your camp. Take the time and do your research (more on research and getting started below) – it will pay dividends from a fishing and pay-off perspective. Also, realize that different areas have different rules about camping – and it is your responsibility to understand and follow those rules (including fire bans and restrictions).

One strategy I like is to focus on is targeting a single lake and use it as a “basecamp” where I set up my tent – and then for follow-on days venture further out to different creeks or lakes as day trip opportunities. Or, you can get even more detailed and plan an out-and-back multi day trip or a loop if you can piece together a number of different potential fishing targets along the way.

The options here in Colorado are literally limitless.

Make Sure Your Gear Supports the Plan

Below is a fairly straightforward list of backpacking gear that you can use as a checklist. I try to balance the amount of weight I have to hump during a five to eight-mile hike with the creature comforts I enjoy at camp. For example, do you really enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning? I do. You can go super lightweight and bring instant coffee – or you can grind out a hike fully loaded with a French press coffee maker. Depending on how many miles you plan to cover and the days you will be in the backcountry, you might make different weight-based decisions.

And yes… I’ve been known to carry a French press.

The same weight-based philosophy goes for food and beverages. I’m usually willing to hike in a more premium dinner for the first night knowing once consumed, that weight disappears. For follow-on nights I’ll use a much more basic and lightweight backpacking meal.

You’ll also need to make sure you have a solid water filtration plan and a backup plan for hydration. This usually consists of a water filter as you’re A-game and iodine tablets for a B-plan (in case your filter fails or breaks – trust me, it happens).

Print is not dead

Make sure to do your research ahead of time so you understand where you are going and what are you getting into. Four miles over 1000 vertical foot gain is a whole different ball game then 3 miles over 3000-foot altitude gain. Take the time to purchase a topo map for the area you are going to explore and take the time to learn how to read it. GPS units are great but I suggest carrying both a physical topo map as well as a digital device.

Case in point: I just ran into a guy who was on a multi-day trip as I ascended a trail going toward a new lake. He asked ‘Hey, do you know where the XXX trailhead is?’ We were at least five miles from the trailhead and parking area he was looking for. He said ‘I’ve been out here for three days and I left my GPS on my first night and it ran out of batteries.’ He didn’t look panicked – but he looked a bit tweaky and out-of-sorts. I was able to explain the basic route back to where he needed to go for a safe egress from the backcountry.

Gear

The below is a fairly basic checklist of backpacking gear you can think about to support your high-country multi-day aspirations. You can certainly add to this list as well as shave a few pieces off if you want to travel as light as possible. This list does not touch on fishing gear, for a quick review of that hop back to my original article in the 2021 CURRENT (available digitally or pick up a copy in the shop).

Equipment

  • 3-Season tent (and lightweight plastic ground tarp)
  • Down or synthetic sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad
  • Backpack
  • Pillow (or stuff sack you can convert into a pillow)
  • Waterproof backpack cover

Navigation

  • Topo map of the area you are exploring
  • Compass
  • GPS
  • Watch
  • Whistle (in case you need to call for help from others in the distance

At Your Camp

  • Rechargeable headlamp (extra batteries)
  • 3 ft duct tape
  • Small/light First aid kit
  • Pocket knife / multi-purpose tool
  • Toothbrush/toothpaste
  • Camp soap
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellent
  • Small towel
  • Small shovel/waste removal system
  • Toilet paper
  • Stuff sacks/dry bags (for clothing or gear)
  • Bear spray
  • Lightweight lantern/flashlight
  • Lightweight camp chair
  • Hammock (optional – but nice to have)
  • Journal/pen or pencil (record conditions and results)

Food & Water

  • Meals, snacks (I plan for three meals a day)
  • Food storage bags and anti-bear food storage system
  • 40-60ft rope, large sack (for hanging food)
  • Water bladder/water bottle
  • Water filter or water treatment drops or tablets (see above)
  • Gas/canister stove
  • Lighter / matches
  • Cookware (i.e. titanium or ultralight aluminum cookpot with lid)
    Mug, fork/spoon

Clothing

  • Backpacking boots (you’re going to be carrying a lot of weight – sneakers won’t cut it)
  • Polypro or merino wool underwear and socks
  • Polypro or merino wool base layer top and bottoms
  • Midlayer top - fleece or puffy jacket
  • Goretex rain jacket and pants
  • Hiking pants / shorts
  • Gloves/beanie Sunglasses
  • Gaiters (for the hike in and out)
  • Fishing/wind shirt
  • Flip-flops / camp shoes
" One strategy I like is to focus on is targeting a single lake and use it as a “basecamp” where I set up my tent "
Getting Started

If you’re looking for a general area to explore with hiking, backpacking, and fishing options - where a lot of online and print resources are currently available - you can start to research Rocky Mountain National Park. Please note: from May 28 through October 11, 2021, visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park will need a timed entry permit and an entrance pass to recreate in the park. For more on RMNP backcountry rules and options CLICK HERE. If you’d like a more detailed book to begin your research journey you can pick up a copy of A Fly Fishing Guide To Rocky Mountain National Park by Steven B. Schweitzer either in the shop or via our online store. The book contains “Over 150 fishing destinations in Rocky Mountain National Park have been detailed with topographic maps, trail profiles, fishing tips, destination notes and photographs.”

One last friendly public service announcement, if you plan to explore the backcountry on your own make sure to let someone know your game plan. Let them know where you are going, what trailhead you plan to leave from, how long you plan to be gone and what day/time you plan to return.

Get out there and explore fish, and enjoy Colorado’s natural resources!

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