In pursuit of the legendary golden trout

Thursday , September 07, 2017 - 5:00 AM

SPENCER DURRANT, special to the Standard-Examiner

I stood on a ridge high in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains. Wind whipped furiously at my clothes while I gulped mouthfuls of air that was short on oxygen. My buddy Hyrum and I had climbed nearly 1,000 feet in a half mile to reach this ridge. Our packs – stuffed with everything we’d need for five days of backpacking in the remote Country of the Winds – hung from tired shoulders while we looked at the lake spread before us.

“There better be goldens in there,” I muttered.

Hyrum didn’t say anything. He just took off down the slope, eager to finally be at the lake where we felt certain that we’d finally find the treasure we’d come searching for.

Golden trout – commonly called goldens – are a cousin of rainbow trout, native to a tiny drainage in California. Years ago, goldens were planted in the Wind River Mountains (and in Utah, too) where they’ve since become the stuff of legend. The world-record golden trout came from the Winds. At 11 pounds, per the IFGA, it’s hard to imagine that record being broken.

Hyrum and I weren’t looking for a new world record. We just wanted a decent golden. Here in Utah, the record golden trout is 14.5 inches. Between the two of us, I figured Hyrum and I had a decent shot at cracking the 20-inch mark.

A lot of anglers make a trek to the Winds, at least once in their lives, looking for golden trout. They’re so beautiful, and rare, that the lore surrounding them often overshadows the fish itself. Add to that the relatively undisturbed wilderness in which they reside, and lakes deep enough to hide monstrous trout for years on end, and you’re left with what feels like the last great American trout hunting adventure.

This wasn’t my first time in the Winds, though it was my first in this particular basin. As I followed Hyrum down the slopes of the steep ridge to the lake, I glanced at the altimeter on the GPS. We were just under 12,000 feet above sea level, and I was feeling the lack of oxygen. I wondered, though, if the tightness in my chest had more to do with worry about my buddy Alex and the mounting pressure to find golden trout.

We were on the fourth day of the backpacking trip, the last of which we’d be able to fish. To that point we’d caught nothing but brook trout – tiny ones, at that. The day before, when we’d made camp at 10,000 feet, my buddy Alex got hit with altitude sickness. He spent most of the afternoon throwing up and lying in his tent, while Hyrum and I fished in vain for goldens.

The other people on the trip weren’t in much better shape. Broken packs, sore heels, and exhaustion had set in. The Winds are notoriously rugged, and even for people like us who’d been born and bred in the Rockies, hauling a pack for 20 miles at 10,000 feet zaps the remnant of any energy you thought you had.

I got to the lake a few minutes after Hyrum did. He was already fishing, casting into a merciless wind. I rigged up my rod, thoughts still on Alex and the rest of our party. That morning, we’d decided to split up. Those in worse shape were descending to 8,500 feet to rest, while Hyrum and I continued upward. We’d agreed to meet at the lake where we’d spent our first night in the Winds.

I wasn’t in great shape, mind you. I’d broken my toe, rolled both ankles, and sprained one. Bulging discs in my lower back gave me enough pain to take prescription pain meds for the entirety of the trip. But I could still walk and fish, so I kept looking for goldens.

We fished until the last possible moment that we couldn’t, eventually leaving that lake with nothing to show for it. Neither of us caught anything, and we arrived back at camp nearly two hours later than we’d promised. Alex was in much better shape – smiling, cracking jokes, asking how the fishing was – but I’d finally found my limits.

As I fell asleep that night in the silence of the Winds, I wondered what to call this trip. A bust? A success? We’d all caught fish, but we hadn’t found what we came for. Sickness and injury derailed a lot of our carefully-laid plans, and we couldn’t have done anything to fight that. Those things happen to the most seasoned of outdoorsmen.

In shortest terms, this latest adventure was simply the trip that just wasn’t.

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, novelist, and sportswriter from Utah. He’s also the Managing Editor of The Modern Trout Bum. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.

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