Bucket lists. Everyone has them, but outdoorsmen seem to have more items on the list. Fortunately over the course of a lifetime, I’ve been able check off the majority of items on my bucket list, but one persisted- to catch a golden trout.
Relocating to Wyoming gave me a better chance of catching a golden. It just so happened that a friend, Erick Kirchner, who’d I’d known since he was knee-high to an elk, ran an outfitting service (www.aceintheholeoutfitters.com) out of Pinedale. I made my desires clear that if he ever had an open saddle on one of his wilderness horseback trips into the Wind River Range, I would love to tag along.
Ironically the following summer, the booking agent that I worked for had a father and son that wanted to experience the Wind River Range. We booked the trip with Erick and he said I was more than welcome to come along.
People outside Wyoming really don’t understand how wild, ominous and foreboding the Wind River is. It is a stark and barren land where winter lasts nine months of the year. The land was so desolate that trout didn’t even exist in the high-country lakes there until pioneer Finis Mitchell and his family planted trout in them via horseback and five gallon milk cans. Over a period of eight years in the 1930’s, the Mitchell’s stocked more than 300 lakes in the Winds. Their efforts were somewhat self-serving because the Mitchells started a guide service in the Wind River Range, which wouldn’t have been possible with lakes that had no trout in them. Trout numbers exploded in the virgin waters and eventually spread to more than 700 lakes in the Wind River Range.
The trout that were planted by Mitchell included rainbows, brook, cutthroat and golden trout. Grayling and lake trout also exist in the lakes of the Winds now. Native to the Serra Nevada Range in California, golden trout stocked in Wyoming came from the Kern River system. Wyoming goldens now grow bigger than anywhere else in the world. The state record is an 11 lb. 4 ounce brute caught in Sublette Country’s Cook Lake in 1948, but goldens surpassing the record swim in Wind River lakes. The outrageous, shockingly colored trout are a stark contact to the austere shades of the Winds River Range’s topography and gunmetal gray crags. Goldens exist in lakes in the Winds above 9,500 feet. Planting them in the highest alpine lakes was intentional in hopes of keeping them isolated from other species and to keep the stain pure.
The window of opportunity to catch a golden trout in the Winds is relatively small. Lakes are ice-covered until late June or early July when the meadows explode with wildflowers. Trout quickly spawn in early summer before gorging voraciously to make up for a long winter fast. The binge lasts through September, when Kirchner is not only guiding anglers in search of trout, but sheep hunters who are lucky enough to draw a tag.
Even thought the golden trout in the Winds see few anglers over the course of a season, they can be as finicky and persnickety as a Henry’s Fork rainbows. It’s takes stealth, a calculated presentation and attention to detail to fool them consistently as we quickly found out.
Our group met in Pinedale and we followed the horse trailers over an increasingly rough trail to Spring Creek Park. Kirchner, his son Hunter, and wranglers Chan Weller and Josiah Romano busily unloaded steeds, saddles and gear and went about packing and weighing scabbards loaded with the essentials that we’d need to spend four days in the wilderness. Balancing the scabbards was critical to making it easier on the horses and to make sure everything we needed made it to camp.
I wasn’t sure about the prospects of a tough six or eight hour 15-mile trail ride. I hadn’t ridden a horse in over 40 years and I’d not conditioned my buttocks for the adventure. My friend advised me to slather on Desenex and wedge myself into a pair of panty hose to survive the trip, but I chose not to subject myself to the indignity.
It took a good part of the morning to ready everything. Once loaded, Erick gave us a briefing on the horses, how to handle them and what to expect. My horse, Dream, was a beast and it took a strategically placed stump or rock in order for me to get into the stirrups.
The first part of the trail was leisurely, but that quickly changed. It was obvious that the horses were seasoned veterans at negotiating the rocky trails. The horses would stop to survey outcroppings that looked like sure ankle breakers and then deftly pick their way up the path. I can’t begin to recall how many times a pine branch whisked the hat off my head. Soon we learned to look ahead to dodge clasping limbs or to quickly take your hat off and duck. One sharp snag escaped detection, spearing my shirt ripping it wide open and leaving a nasty gouge. We passed a group of hikers headed on a minimum of a one- or two-day hike into the Winds. They looked dejected and envious of us perched on our horses.
The trail went from lush meadows where you knew elk visited in the evenings to feed, to steep rock inclines affording just enough room for the horses to slide through. One time we dismounted and walked the horses though a particularly treacherous portion of the trail. Every so often we’d pass a lake that just shouted “Trout!” but we kept going in our search for gold at the end of the rainbow.
Just about the time when your saddle-sore butt and aching back told you “I’ve had enough,” we reached camp. Chandler instructed us to find a flat spot to set up our individual tents while he and Hunter set up camp. Erick and Josiah took the horses to a meadow below for the night. We gathered firewood and once we had a blaze going Chandler set about preparing one of his fabulous meals in the Dutch oven. We lined up chairs around the campfire to enjoy a well-deserved adult beverage.
I’ll admit to having never seen a more picturesque campsite. Gazing across the canyon probably a mile distant, I thought I could make out a tiny bridge on the side of the hulking crags.
“Is that a bridge I can see across the gorge?” I queried as I pointed a finger across the chasm.
“Yep,” came Erick’s reply. “We’ll be crossing that tomorrow.”
Thank God for horses I thought.
After a hearty breakfast we set out for the remote golden lakes. It was probably three or four hours before we crossed the distant bridge that I’d seen the day before. We had another hour’s ride before we dismounted and grab our gear for another three-mile hike over some rough, daunting terrain. My legs felt like jello and when it came time to jump a gap where a creek rushed through my rubbery legs almost didn’t make it. Erick grabbed me by the shoulder and we both teetered on the edge of the gorge before falling on the rocks on the other side.
Eventually, we made it to a crystalline, boulder-strewn stream that connected a chain of lakes that held a good population of golden trout. While we flopped down to rest, Erick crept up on a Volkswagen-sized boulder and peered into a pool. He waved me up to his side and pointed. There was probably 15 or 20 fat goldens holding in the pool. Some were pushing 5 or 6 pounds. Erick a cast a fly through the pod a half dozen times but got no takers. By then, I had my spinning outfit together and flung a Panther Martin spinner into the pool and let the hardware swing on a wide arc. I’d barely turned the handle when I felt a sharp “thump” and saw a trout twisting and rolling in the current. I quickly wrested the trout into the shallows and pounced on it. I had my first golden trout. The mosaics of hues on the trout were surreal.
A second cast produced an even bigger golden. It seemed no two were the same. Some would have dark spots against the flaming sides; other would have none. Smaller specimens retained a barred arrangement of contrasting blue parr marks.
Erick said they were going to take the clients to the next lake up the chain. I could see the lake in the distance.
“I’m perfectly happy here,” I grinned. Experience told me to never leave fish to go find more fish, especially when your legs are screaming, “No Mas!”
Four hours passed in the blink of an eye. I saw the clients picking their way through the boulders back downstream on the path along the stream.
“How was the fishing?” I queried when they arrived.
“It sucked! “ came the reply from the obviously disgruntled father.
“We only caught one trout,” added the son dejectedly.
“Really?” I skeptically replied.
“Did you catch any?” questioned the son.
“I think I caught 14,” I countered. Both looked at me incredulously and wide-eyed.
“See that boulder over there,” I pointed to the Dad. “Go over there, get on that boulder and cast out into the pool and retrieve across the current very slowly.”
He grudging made his way to the boulder and half-heartedly cast his spinner into the pool. You could tell his heart wasn’t in it as he nonchalantly began to retrieve the spinner. He’d only turned the handle on the spinning reel a couple of times before his rod tip began jabbing towards the stream’s surface.
Sometimes even the wildest trout are not suicidal, especially Wind River goldens.