By Steve Cook
(Published April, 2002, Utah Outdoors magazine)
As a young boy, I was fascinated by fish and fishing. I was given a book of freshwater fish that fired my daydreams. The publication had color illustrations of American game fish and I kept flipping back to the page that held the most colorful fish of all. Flanks of pure gold, emblazoned with a crimson band and blood-red belly captured my imagination. Yet the purple oval parr markings spaced down the side pushed this image over the top - an improbable riot of color in the classic trout form.
This was the golden trout. The most rare, and, to my mind, the most precious of all the fish.
These incredible fish were absent from my native Michigan, and in college I learned that they were only native to a small handful of drainages in California, first found by miners in the high Sierras in search of other gold. Well adapted to a high altitude environment, someone had the insight to provide golden trout fingerlings to Finis Mitchell back in the 1930s. Mitchell, who opened the Wind River Range in western Wyoming to fishermen, would pack trout by horse into many high lakes that had been previously devoid of fish. Many of these lakes proved ideal for golden trout, with Cook Lake producing a world record fish in 1948. This monster was 28 inches long and weighed more than 11 pounds.
Although I had heard about the Wind Rivers, I was unprepared for my first glimpse of them. We drove past the west side of the range, which present their most rugged and impressive face. The image of improbably jagged peaks covered in snow lingered in my mind. As soon as I got home I bought books and maps and began to plan a trip to the Winds in search of golden trout. The first trip exposed me to the incredible vistas of these craggy mountains, and I caught my first goldens. Far from satisfying, it left me with an aching that grew with each step down the trail on the way out. This ache reawakens every time I talk about the Winds or look at photos of past trips. Long journeys through this vast range have done more to feed this yearning than relieve it, and there is a part of me that will never feel complete away from the high country.
Two years ago I was gifted with another book that rekindled my fire for big goldens. It was Rich Osthoff's "Fly-fishing the Rocky Mountain Backcountry." Rather than illustrations, this book had actual photos of giant golden trout, and, more astonishing, it held detailed descriptions of the string of lakes that had produced some of these big fish. I dug out old maps and began comparing Osthoff's depiction with an area I had been near in 1990, but had not quite reached. Sure enough, everything fit and I began to lobby my wife to join me on an extended hike into this remote area. It would be my deepest penetration into the Wind Rivers and the longest, most strenuous pack trip of Lisa's experience.
Our route would take us 30 miles into some of the most remote country the Wind Rivers has to offer and we would have to negotiate the trailless and rugged Angel Pass to cross over the Continental Divide enroute to our final goal. I had some doubts, and Lisa had more, but we made plans for a 10-day trip and began to gather together the things we would need.
We assembled a huge pile of food and gear, and then reviewed each item, removing everything that was not absolutely essential. Eventually the pile was reduced to the point where everything would fit inside the packs, but Lisa still could not lift hers. We shifted some heavier items to my pack and dumped another five pounds of food. Now ready for the trip, we drove up to Pinedale, Wyo., that afternoon and checked into a hotel so we would be ready to leave the trailhead at Elkheart Park early in the morning.
The first steep mile of trail proved to be an agony for both of us. While Lisa was uncomfortable and worried about her ability to carry her pack for miles, I was frustrated with our slow progress. But we eventually settled into a rhythm and covered 12 miles before stopping to set up camp. Mosquitoes weren't much of a problem until we stopped, and then they came out in droves. We just covered up, put on our head nets, caught a few brook trout in the nearby stream and enjoyed our first evening in the mountains.
In my experience, the second day of any long backpacking trip is always the worst, and this trip was no exception. A missed turn, some poor route choices, tired bodies and swarms of insects all combined to make for a trying day. We stopped early just underneath Angel Pass and set up camp in the lee of a large boulder. We watched a group of hikers descend from the pass, which relieved some of our worries about the route. We awoke rested-if not reassured-and were quickly packed and under way, wanting to get over the pass before the sun got too high. While the route was challenging, it was within our abilities. Once we reached the top we rested in the sun on smoothly sculpted granite on top of the Continental Divide. A small cairn of rocks held a waterproof container with notes from others who had crossed Angel Pass. We read several of the messages, enjoying the connection with the others who had come this way before us.
The rest of the day went well enough and we awoke the next morning to the knowledge that our goal was within easy reach and we could set up camp for several days of rest and fishing. The final few miles were an agony of anticipation for me, but we finally reached the unnamed lake we had set our sights upon. The deep blue waters and encircling mountains were so inviting that we promptly named it "Home Lake." A short hike around the shore to the outlet stream brought us to a perfect campsite that would indeed be home for the next four days.
With the tent up and packs unloaded, there was nothing to keep me from exploring with my flyrod. I had seen no signs of fish in Home Lake as we hiked down to the outlet, so I decided to head downstream below an impressive waterfall where the outlet stream dumped into the next lake in the chain. I kept searching the water with different flies, moving my way upstream then finally connected with a small trout. Bringing it to hand, I was relieved to see that it was in fact a golden. They were here after all. I moved farther upstream, looking carefully into the tail-out of the big pool below the falls, and suddenly, there he was. I made out the brilliant red sides of a large golden, easily bigger than any I had ever seen. I cast a weighted prince nymph upstream from the fish. He charged forward to intercept the fly, then immediately took to the air when he felt the hook. I felt confident that my 4X tippet would be enough to subdue the big trout, but the impressive fight of this wild fish finally earned his freedom when he went down under a sharp edged boulder that shredded my tippet.
Rather than feel disappointed over losing the biggest golden trout I had ever seen, I was excited about the prospect of camping by this wonderful pool for the next few days. During the remainder of our stay, Lisa and I returned to our "Honey Hole" below the falls many times. It was perfectly set up for the two of us. One could fish from two well-placed rocks while the other rested on a large flat boulder with the camera ready to capture the moment. We caught many beautiful goldens, and, while we fished, the big trout that I had lost earlier was often visible and I hooked him again on a large orange scud that drifted deep. He took the fight to the air again and dislodged my fly from his jaw after nearly half a dozen spectacular leaps, again escaping my grasp. This time I took it hard. I had lost this fish twice, and despaired of finding another as big.
On our last day at Home Lake, Lisa and I walked down to the Honey Hole for one last visit. This time I crossed the stream to reach the violent waters at the base of the falls. After settling my feet I scanned the water in front of me, and there he was again. Holding in shallow water, he was feeding on the surface, most likely on the stoneflies we had been seeing for the last few days. I cast a good imitation to the fish and as it passed him he turned to eat, but the current was so fast the fly was pulled out of his reach before he could close his jaws upon it. Time and again he followed the fly without quite reaching it before it left his small lie.
I experimented with mending and casting from different angles and finally got it right. The fly landed a foot above him and slowed just enough that he grabbed it and I set the hook into him for the third time. He jumped and ran with the wild abandon he had shown before. But this time luck was on my side, and I eventually brought him to hand. He was a 19-inch buck with big shoulders and vibrant colors, a far bigger golden than I had ever caught before.
We did not see very many fish in Home Lake itself during our stay, but as we began our hike out I heard a loud splash. Turning to look, I watched a huge golden trout make a second leap from the water. It was clearly much larger than 20 inches; thick and muscle-bound as it remained stiff in the air like a football-shaped tuna. We never got a good chance to cast a fly in front of one of these heavily-built fish in Home Lake, but the memory of the big golden hanging in the air occupied my thoughts on the long hike back to the world.
I am sure that those memories will draw me back again when the deep winter snows melt away and golden trout feed again in the remote waters of the Wind River Range.