Scouting for Trout: Exploring Tahoe’s High Lakes

In anticipation of moving from Colorado into a full summer working at the Tahoe Fly Fishing Outfitters, it made sense to shelf my dog-eared John Gierach books in favor of a new local fly fishing demigod: Ralph Cutter. Before arriving, I’d worked my way through a good chunk of Cutter’s book Fish Food , which revolutionized my appreciation for understanding bugs. I was amazed, as a relatively new fly fisherman, how someone could take something as potentially dry as an in-depth look into entomology, and create a page-turner of a guide that actually made me laugh out loud. His work has taken the intimidation out of stopping by the fly shop to pick through the hundreds of tiny bins of flies, and has certainly made me more confident in sharing my excitement for the “fly” part of fly fishing with our customers.

As an avid backpacker and someone with an acute interest in exploring my new high altitude backyard through the lens of fly fishing, Cutter’s chapter on Upslope Blow-In grabbed my attention. It’s a short passage about struggling to find – and nearly giving up on the search for – a storied lake full of chunky goldens who feed on unexpected fare. His small midge emergers are refused repeatedly until he stops, skims the surface, and is stunned to retrieve a handful of PMDs, carpenter ants, beetles, grasshoppers and caddisflies; all of which are lower altitude insects that get blown in from miles away.

This lake, in his words, “did not want to be found”, which provided a suitable challenge for my last two days off. I paired down my usual busting-at-the-seams fanny pack of fly boxes (a hard move for any well-accessorized fisherman who is ever fearful of not having “that one bug”), grabbed my 6 piece backpacking rod, and drove up to the trailhead for an overnight trip I’d hope could produce some trout. Simply the hike in provided good learning: check the forecast ahead of time for gale-force wind conditions (usually not detrimental when just going hiking), and when approaching a rain-swollen lake that you plan on sleeping next to remember your bug spray. (Oh yeah, it’s June.)

Arriving at the first lake was a good sign, although after quickly taking a look over the map and taking a bearing to our destination lake, we realized this probably was not the lake that “didn’t want to be found”, although it shared the same name. It was too easy to get to, contrary to Cutter’s description. After another quarter mile of navigating around beautiful granite outcroppings and scaling a rock slide, we peered down to see a well-protected tarn that looked ultra-fishy. Suddenly I didn’t care what the lake was called or who’d been there before and written about it; it was gorgeous and I felt certain there were fish in it.


“I’ll set up the tarp if you want to go do your Trout Whisperer thing,” allowed my boyfriend, which made me laugh but also reminded me that I wasn’t on a roiling stream: I did need to approach the very clear, still water with slow, cautious movements. I recalled one of our guides during the shop’s Guide School demonstrating the way to creep up on any clear body of water, so not to spook all the fish. It also dawned on me again that it’s not as obvious where a fish will be in a lake, compared to the streams I’d been learning from lately. You really do need to scout for your trout in these lakes, particularly if they’re not rising up to say “Hey! Here I am!” I proceeded to creep around with my pocket full of new bugs, looking for any sign of which ones to use.

The fishing turned out to be incredibly fun. I found a drop off near a gurgling inlet just tucked out of the consistent wind, put on a size 14 Cutter’s Ant I’d picked up at our shop. I let out some line with a small false roll cast to set up and while reaching up to send line with a real roll cast I missed an unexpectedly explosive strike. This was a real tone setter, it’s on! Every other cast from then on produced beautiful, fat, foot-long dancing brookies that clearly spend their days watching the surface for those blown-in bugs. This was the type of fishing that gets one less worried about size, and more excited to quickly get that bug back out on the water for the next strike. I found myself changing flies just for fun, to see how many different species I’d brought with me that they’d hungrily hit.


One of the many hungry brookies caught on a blown-in bug pattern.

Although Cutter’s hard-to-get-to-mystery-golden-lake-of-the-same-name still stands elusive, I was pleased to head back towards the car the next day after two solidly educational and rewarding fishing sessions, a refreshing night up in the high country, a reminder of how just beautiful those brook trout are and why I’m inspired to get out there and seek contemplative wilderness experiences, now with my fly rod. Gierach captured it completely when he wrote, “Trout are among those creatures that are one hell of a lot prettier than they need to be. They can get you to wondering about the hidden workings of reality.”