Golden trout are among the most beautiful fish in the world. In spawning dress, goldens have bright crimson-pink bellies that give way to orange and bright yellow along their sides and emerald along their back. Pure white defines the edges of the pelvic and pectoral fins. The trout resemble living sunsets in Technicolor.
Like any precious commodity, golden trout are guarded–tucked deep in the mountains and surrounded by granite walls. The are found only in North America’s most rugged and unspoiled reaches. The golden trout’s surroundings are perfectly appropriate–rare and beautiful.
The Wind River Mountains of Wyoming’s Bridger Wilderness are among the few places these fish can be found. The hundreds of square miles of alpine country have literally thousands of lakes, but only some hold healthy populations of large golden trout. Few of the fish have ever seen a streamer or spinner.
The majority of the Bridger’s golden trout lakes sit above 10,000 feet in stark alpine terrain. These lakes are rarely free of ice before mid-July, and snow fields linger well into August. The best of golden waters hold well back in the mountains below ridges topping 13,000 feet. Reaching these turquoise-colored lakes takes a backpack trip of a couple of days or a very long day in the saddle, up and down ridges each seemingly higher than the next.
Golden trout inhabit approximately 80 lakes in these mountains, and some of the waters are only a few surface acres in size. Yet three areas are particularly notable. None are hard to find, and each offers quality fishing. A serious angler could spend a couple of weeks fishing these waters, and the lakes are all located near each other.
The gateway to this country is Pinedale (population 1,066), located about 80 miles southeast of Jackson on Route 189/191. From Pinedale you take Skyline Drive along the southeastern side of Fremont Lake for approximately 15 miles to the Elkhart Guard Station and the trailhead. Next, you follow a good foot trail, almost always uphill, for a dozen miles to Island Lake. Some big goldens live in Island’s waters as well as cutthroat and rainbow trout weighing several pounds.
The trail forks at Island Lake. Just a few miles north are Upper and Lower Titcomb Lakes, which are prime golden water. If you follow the other trail, which travels over Lester Pass and west past Cook Lake, you will come to Wall Lake, which receives little pressure because of its remote location. There are decent numbers of fat, tough-to-catch goldens here, too.
In all of these lakes, fish of 10 to 14 inches long are common, and a persistent angler can reasonably expect to catch at least a couple of goldens weighing more than a pound (a near-trophy in their native California Sierra mountains). With luck, and that’s what is often needed on high-country waters, a trout of several pounds may strike. The world record of more than 11 1/4 pounds came from the Wind River region (Cook Lake) in 1948.
All trout that swim in mountain lakes are finicky by nature. The fish don’t often feed on the surface of these relatively sterile lake systems. The major food source consists of caddis fly nymphs crawling along the bottom and stonefly nymphs washed into the lakes from tributaries. But finding the fish is one thing, getting them to strike is another. If the fish aren’t cooperating, relax and enjoy the scenery.
Or you can try another plan. Many of the surrounding lakes are inhabited by cutthroat or rainbow trout. When golden fishing is slow, got to a different lake and fish for the cutts, which are suckers for almost any fly or lure.
Fly fishermen should bring along a selection of nymphs imitating caddis flies or stoneflies, along with a good assortment of streamers like weighted Muddler Minnows, Zonkers, and Woolly Buggers. Effective dry flies include Adams, Caddis, Renegade, Mosquito, Red Humpy, Black Gnat, and hopper patterns.
This country is extremely fragile, and lakes are easily polluted. Camp should be pitched at least 200 feet from water. Gas stoves should be used for cooking. A water-purification system provides added protection from the problems such as giardia. Moose, elk, marmots, and other animals frequent the lakes and streams, spreading the parasite. There are no grizzlies to worry about, though.