Fall fishing in the Uinta Mountains
Many trout species live in these tranquil lakes and streams.
Related story: Great fall fishing in northeastern Utah
Matt McKell is the Northern Region cutthroat biologist for the Division of Wildlife Resources. He enjoys the outdoors, spending time with his family and combining the two as often as possible.
THERE AREN’T many more scenic places to fish than the Uinta Mountains — especially in the fall. Summer crowds have dwindled, the fish are biting and you see vibrant colors everywhere, whether you’re looking at leaves or trout!
Many lakes and streams in the Uintas are managed as recreational fisheries, and they contain a large variety of trout species. The mountains’ trout residents include brook, cutthroat, golden, rainbow and tiger, as well as arctic grayling and kokanee. The last two are a stretch to include here, but they are members of the same family of fish as trout (Salmonidae).
The most abundant and widely distributed of the Uinta trouts is the brook trout, which has been stocked in Uinta lakes for more than a century. On the northern side of the Uintas, more than 100 alpine lakes are stocked regularly with “brookies,” while another 60 lakes support wild populations. The frequency of stocking, also known as the stocking cycle, varies from one year to six years, while the rate of stocking is typically around 100 brook trout per lake surface acre.
For decades, Utah’s DWR had a vigorous cutthroat trout stocking program, consisting primarily of Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Stocking records from 1940–1999 show that roughly 200 different lakes in the northern Uintas were stocked with Yellowstone cutthroat trout. This stopped when the DWR recognized that the non-native fish were breeding with native fish and posing a threat to native cutthroat trout recovery. At that point, the DWR began stocking strains of native cutthroat, including both the Colorado River and Bonneville subspecies.
Arguably, the most well-known trout in the world is the rainbow trout. Its characteristic pink streak runs along an olive and silver body that is generously speckled with small dark spots. The DWR primarily stocks rainbows in the Uintas’ high-use, roadside lakes (for example, Mirror, Trial, Butterfly, Bridger and Stateline). This provides convenient fishing for anglers who want a leisurely mountain experience — no hiking or backpacking required. The rainbows are sterile, which protects native cutthroat populations if stocked rainbows escape to nearby streams and attempt to spawn with the cutthroats.
Another frequently stocked species is the Arctic grayling, a feisty little fish with an unusually large, purple, sail-like dorsal fin. The heyday of grayling stocking in Uinta lakes was in the 1940s. For many of those years, the number of grayling stocked exceeded 500,000. In contrast, during four recent years (2005–2008), only 11 different lakes were stocked with grayling, and the highest total quantity in any year was just under 34,000. Grayling fare better in some lakes than other trout because of their tolerance for water with less oxygen. This makes them good candidates for lakes with low water exchange (less circulation) or lakes that might winterkill brook trout.
More recently, a few Uinta lakes have been stocked with sterile trout, particularly tiger trout. The tigers have demonstrated incredible growth in many lakes, even those at elevations higher than 10,000 feet. In some cases, tiger trout growth is several times greater than brook trout growth rates! One advantage to stocking sterile fish is that all of their energy is used for growth, whereas energy in fertile fish is divided between growth and reproduction. Another advantage is that a couple of sterile escapees would not be capable of wiping out native cutthroat populations.
The golden trout, a brightly colored fish splashed with intense yellows and reds — and with large, dark marks on its sides — is one of the most beautiful of the western trouts. Back in the 1930s and again in the 1970s, a handful of Uinta lakes were stocked with golden trout, which are native to a small area of central California. Although no formal surveys in the last 20 years have yielded golden trout, anglers still report catching them. The golden’s absence in gillnet samples indicates an extremely limited population.
Kokanee, a landlocked, lake-dwelling form of sockeye salmon, were stocked in one Uintas lake in the early 1990s. By the late 1990s, formal gillnet surveys indicated that the population had declined sharply, and as a result, further surveys were discontinued. However, late in the summer of 2006, DWR biologists observed kokanee in their bright red spawning colors at a road crossing of the lake’s major tributary, several miles upstream. This occurred again in 2007 and 2008, and it extended several miles upstream of the crossing. The population had obviously rebounded.
So how do you catch all of these fish? Right now, nearly any bait, fly or lure will do — the trout are focused on fattening up for winter and will strike at almost everything. Small spinners like Panther Martins and Mepps work great for spin anglers. Fly anglers can choose from a variety of dry flies, including favorites like the easy-to-see Royal Wulffs, Parachute Adams and caddis. Trout also seem more willing to hit streamers like woolly buggers and leeches in the fall. Bait anglers can drift PowerBait®, worms and salmon eggs.
Don’t wait much longer to head out. Just pack up your rod and visit the Uintas before the snow flies. It’s time to catch a trout you’ve never caught before!