BOZEMAN — On the last page of the 2014 Montana Fishing Regulations is a list of the state’s record catches. The first fish listed is arctic grayling. The angler who caught that grayling — a 3.63-pound, 20-inch fish from Washtub Lake north of Cooke City — is Glenn Owens.
Owens, of Belgrade, began fishing mountain lakes in 1997. He was on an early season elk hunt in the Beartooth Mountains when he hiked by a lake and saw a bunch of fish.
“I got curious and bought the fishing guide to the Beartooths,” Owens said. “It was all over after that.”
Montana’s Rocky Mountains harbor thousands of high-country lakes that offer anglers the chance to catch trophy fish. Owens said each lake is different, and the challenge never disappoints. To date, he’s caught 12 Yellowstone cutthroat trout over 7 pounds. He’s lost count of how many fish he’s landed over 5 pounds fishing in the alpine.
“I can’t even remember the last time I fished a dry fly,” Owens said. “About the only time I will throw a dry fly on is during a flying ant fall or for sedges. Those are about the only bugs that will get an 8-pounder looking up.”
State fish and game employees stocked many of Montana’s mountain lakes in the early 1900s, often with the assistance of sportsmen’s groups. The aim of these early stocking efforts was to create sport fisheries in the mountains. Fish were typically packed in on horseback and released in lakes. Some developed self-sustaining populations that remain today.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologist Mike Vaughn said high-country lakes with the right characteristics can hold fish.
“Lakes must have sufficient water depth to prevent winter kill,” Vaughn said. “I can’t give you a hard and fast number, but they need to be sufficiently deep. Once a layer of ice forms on the lake, you are sealing that lake and the amount of oxygen in that lake until ice out in the spring, especially once you get a layer of snow on top of it.”
Vaughn said self-sustaining mountain lake fish populations are not uncommon. Fish require a spawning inlet or outlet and some running water to spawn.
“We certainly have a lot of high mountain lakes like that, but the problem we have is overabundance,” Vaughn said. “There is a lot of competition for food. It makes for good fishing, but not great size.”
Vaughn, who worked with the mountain lake program in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, said stocking cycles in mountain lakes vary. The standard stocking protocol for Yellowstone cutthroat trout during his tenure with the program was 100 2-inch fish stocked by helicopter every eight years. By the time those fish reached 4 or 5 years old they generally had achieved adult size. By 7 or 8 years most of those fish would have died out and given the lake some time to recover.
Vaughn said those same lakes are now stocked on a nine- to 10-year cycle, unless there is a lake that is heavily fished, in which case stocking may occur every four to six years.
FWP only stocks lakes in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness that were stocked prior to wilderness designation. The debate over stocking mountain lakes is a hot topic across the American West. Introducing fish has impacts on the alpine ecosystem.
“It is a bit controversial,” Vaughn said. “In the Beartooths we are fortunate. There are probably 1,000 lakes in the area and only a third are stocked. We have the best of both worlds — we have maintained wilderness character and we have fish.”
Owens said when targeting large fish, he looks for alpine lakes that support very limited reproduction.
“It takes a lot of time to find lakes like that,” Owens said. “It may sound strange, but lakes are constantly changing. A lake I fished in the ‘90s had big fish, but then they figured out where to spawn and the size plummeted.”
While many anglers envision Yellowstone cutthroat trout when they think of fishing Montana’s high country, some of the best fish are golden trout and brook trout. Owens said among lakes with self-sustaining populations, it is far easier to find trophy golden and brook trout than it is cutthroat. When it comes to stocked lakes, the opposite is true.
One thing that’s certain, having success in the high country isn’t easy.
“It takes a lot of patience,” Owens said. “When I sit down and read these stories that say mountain lake fish are easy to catch, they aren’t fishing the same lakes I am.”
Owens generally begins the fishing season in April when the first lakes ice out. He’ll fish through the season and wrap up the year in the third week of October, weather permitting.
“For the past 13 years, I would always do a nine-day trip,” Owens said. “Then my buddies quit going and then I had kids. You go more than nine days and you don’t want to come home.”
High mountain lakes require different tactics from rivers, or even low country lakes. Owen said he uses sinking lines and a slow retriever to target large trout. He prefers 10-foot rods for their ability to cast longer distances. Callibaetis nymphs, chironomids and leech patterns are among his go-to flies.
Even after exploring more than 230 lakes, Owens said reaching a fishery and then figuring it out is always a challenge.
A good fish is a fine reward.
“You get to the point where you thrive on the pain — sore shoulders, sore feet,” Owens said. “But once a guy figures a lake out, you’ll catch more fish more often.”