Sawtooth Wilderness Fishing

Planning or dreaming of a fishing trip in the Sawtooth Mountains? With peaks greater than 10,000’, this mountain range is – I would argue – the most spectacular in all of Idaho. The jagged peaks are easily viewed from the nearby town of Stanley and their seemingly accessible trails rival any national park in terms of beauty. Don’t let the parking lots and lodge at Redfish Lake lull you into complacency, the Sawtooth wilderness is a hard place to get to. 

Leahs Lake, Sawtooth Wilderness Idaho

The mountains are awe-inspiring but their rugged beauty comes at a price. Steep terrain, trails with poor maintenance, and high alpine lakes all lie in the heart of the Sawtooths. From October through early July, these mountains feature snowfields. Many of the lakes stay frozen through June and snowed in trails make them all but impossible to access. During peak summer months, hundreds of hikers take off into the mountains but the vastness of the wilderness area keeps many of the lakes private. 

Alpine Lake Fishing In The Sawtooth Wilderness

Every lake – from as small as 1 acre to some larger than 60 – have fish. Idaho Fish And Game have an aggressive stocking program that has introduced fish into every lake in the Sawtooth mountains. Check out the easy to search database of historical stocking records. Granted, some of the stocking programs took place more than 30 years ago but the fish remain. Species include arctic grayling, westslope cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, and brook trout. The pristine waters allow for healthy fish populations that are now self-sustaining. Deep lake beds prevent the water from freezing all the way through and most fish populations survive the winter months unscathed. 

Finding Your Sawtooth Wilderness Lake

Approaching a fishing trip to the Sawtooths demands preparation. The following is a good list of suggestions to help you find your perfect alpine lake.

1. Know Your Physical Level Of Fitness

The Sawtooth Wilderness is a land of high altitude extremes. Lakes are located in the mountains and the parking lots and trailheads are located at the base of the mountains. If finding trout with every cast is your goal, you need to be able to hike into paradise. Read the topo-lines, and measure elevation gain. A gain of 1,000’+ in elevation is a physically demanding task. 

2. You Are Not The Only Fisherman Out There

Choosing to visit a lake close to a trailhead almost guarantees you will not be alone in the wilderness. This isn’t necessarily a bad proposition, many lakes provide excellent fishing and the “crowds” generally consist of 2-3 small groups of campers. And most of these campers only half-heartedly make attempts at fishing. If crowds are a concern, you can find a lake deeper in the wilderness and off-trail. Or, go during the week and leave the crowds for the weekend warriors. 

3. Backpacking Fishing

This is not your father’s fishing trip. A Sawtooth Wilderness experience can only be accessed by foot or horseback. Pack light and treat the entire expedition like you are backpacking. Bring only what you need and take the ultralight tent. Don’t bring the whole tackle box either, only bring the baits you plan on throwing. 

Idaho Alpine Lake Fishing

After planning the logistics of your trip, the fun begins. Studying the species of trout found in the Idaho wilderness will help you narrow down what type of tackle and fishing gear to bring. If you like to fly fish, try and match the hatch. During the summer months, insect hatches are happening on a daily basis. The growing season is short in high alpine lakes and the insects are breeding at a fanatical pace to keep up with the short summer.

Spin fishermen too need to keep the food sources in mind. Small spoons and inline spinners are usually good bets. Bring a handful of your favorite lures to try out, you don’t want to hike all that way only to get skunked. 

The beauty and appeal of alpine lake fishing is in the ease at which fish are caught. These trout are hungry. They are desperate to eat as much as possible before the ice comes back. It’s not uncommon to catch fish almost every cast. The small size of the lake allows fishermen access to the entire shoreline and most lakes can be fished completely in a single day. 

Fish Species In The Sawtooth Wilderness Lakes

Westslope Cutthroat Trout, Idaho
West Slope Cutthroat Trout
Rainbow Trout in Idaho
Rainbow Trout
Arctic Grayling in Montana
Arctic Grayling
Brook Trout, in Montana
Brook Trout

These are only the species I have confirmed catching. If you experience a different species, please brag about it in the comments! 

Backpacking Fishing In The Wilderness

If you consider yourself a fisherman, you owe it to yourself to take on a Sawtooth Wilderness fishing adventure. The solitude of the mountains combined with the pristine waters make it a once in a lifetime opportunity. Gaze at the darkest night sky in America and enjoy one of the few places that remain untouched by man – the frontier still lives here. Enjoy some of the best trout fishing in the world and while you’re at it, fry a couple up for dinner. 

Good luck and tight lines! 

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