High Country Gold
Searching for Golden Trout
The mountains and their natural treasures have always fascinated me. Having fished most of my life, I got into backpacking as a means of sampling the trout waters of the high country. As many others have also discovered, I found the wilderness to be the lost entity that my soul craved to embrace. Visions of warm granite, blue shadows, dwarfed pines, and cool, clear waters invade my consciousness regularly, but what stands out most brilliantly is the gold of the high countrythe golden trout. The golden trout is, in my mind, synonymous with backpacking and high country because it only thrives in the realm of true wilderness.
The golden trout (Salmo aqua-bonita) is a cousin of the rainbow trout but is much more brightly colored. Imagine the basic outline of a trout. Cover it with iridescent gold on it's flanks, a bright crimson belly, violet oval bars along its lateral line system, an olive back, ink-black spots covering the tail and upper back, fins of orange with white tips and black edges and a gill plate of gleaming yellows and reds and you have a pretty good idea of what a golden trout looks like.
Now place this image of a beautiful trout in the cold waters of a crystal clear lake where it fins around ice fractured granite boulders and sandy banks of glacial debris. The refracted sun plays in complex and ever changing patterns on the lake bottom and on the trout as it cruises in search of its favorite dietaquatic insects. Next, rise above the surface into the sun that reflects on the waters, breath the clean clear air and let your spirit rise as high as the spires and ridges of the rugged skyline. All around are natural meadows of cool grass and bright flowers interspersed with glacier etched granite flats, mounds and boulders. The timberline is nearby and the twisted, stunted pines belie their quiet ancient pride. Fluffy white clouds course over the summits leaving shadow trails that give the geosphere a feeling of life force. If mental images like these are appealing to you then you are probably ready for a trek into golden trout country.
The Upper Kern River drainage of California is the golden trout's native range but it has since been successfully stocked in most of the western mountain ranges that have lake elevations of 9,000 to 12,000 feet. Washington, Oregon, California, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Colorado all have golden trout populations.
Now, don't confuse these trout with the yellowish, albino rainbow trout often stocked for visibility or the sunapee golden trout of New England, which is a brook trout. And, don't get the goldens confused with the brilliantly colored cutthroat trout that grace many of the high elevation lakes in Utah.
The main distinction of this trout is it's isolation and altitude. Golden trout reared in low elevations tend to don the coloration of a rainbow trout, interbreed with them and lose their identity. Therefore, the search for golden trout must be done in isolated, high elevation lakes and streams. I will leave it up to you to discover the golden trout waters in your area. I prefer not to mention any specific waters because overfishing can decimate the population of fish in a particular drainage. A slow growth rate and minimal spawning habitat combined with too much fishing pressure has lead to the decline and near extinction of certain populations of goldens that were mentioned in national publications. So, just do a little research through fish and game departments and some of the excellent trail guides that are published. Do your homework and you will have a good idea of what to expect and where to go. And, please be sure and practice proper catch and release on these unique and beautiful fish.
Because of the high elevation where they are found, most golden trout lakes aren't iced off until mid July so plan your trip between then and mid-September. By late September you can expect cold fronts and snow storms to blow into the high country very suddenly so plan your trips carefully.
The equipment needed to backpack into the high country must be lightweight and durable. Packs that conform to your body and move with you are good as are sleeping bags that are lightweight, well designed and cozy. Your cook kit and clothing system should be compact and versatile. Don't let materialism interfere with the pleasure of the trip, become a minimalist. Lay out everything you think you might need and then try to cut that in half. Everyone's list of essentials will be a little bit different so keep notes and decide from one trip to the next what is necessary and what is not. I always allow myself two luxuries after getting down to a minimum. These are my fly rod outfit and my camera. Just remember that ounces count when you're having to lift a heavy pack up a mountain trail, one step at a time, for miles.
Horse packing is an alternative if backpacking is too strenuous for you. Though pack trips are generally expensive and stay on the well beaten trails, special arrangements can be made to have someone guide you to a golden trout area.
Once on a golden trout lake or stream, you may find the trout eager to take anything you throw at them but more often than not, they will be hard to catch so here are a few fishing suggestions. Golden trout feed primarily on small aquatic insects, namely caddie flies, midges and mayflies. When available they will also feed on scuds, leeches, minnows and terrestrial insects like flying ants, grasshoppers and beetles. Fly fishing is by far the best method of imitating these things but small spinners and jigs fished slow and deep may produce results.
When fishing with a fly, observation is the key to success. Are the fish rising to the surface? Is there any place like an inlet, outlet, bay, point or drop off where the fish are likely to be concentrated? Are the fish rejecting my fly becuse it is too big, too small, the wrong color?
When fish are rising, scan the water surface to see if you can trace the insects they are feeding on and then tie on an appropriate imitation. Most golden trout prefer small, dark-colored flies but medium-sized attractor flies also work.
When few or no rises are seen, go subsurface with a weighted nymph or wet fly. The best nymph technique for goldens, that I have found, is to cast the weighted nymph into the lake on a long, tapered leader. Allow the nymph to sink for 30 to 60 seconds. Strip in the line 5 or 6 times (about 12 inches each strip), then allow it to sink again and repeat the process. This method causes the fly to look like a nymph ascending to the surface and the trout love it.
Goldens are normally only 6 to 12 inches in length, but in some lakes they can get much larger. The world record is 11 pounds. If you suspect bigger trout, try a streamer pattern and fish it like an injured or frightened minnow or a swimming leech.
An 8 or 9 foot rod for a 5 or 6 weight line works well and 71/2 foot to 12 foot tapered leaders of 2 to 6 pound test work great.
If you are after the bigger fish, try the lakes, but if they're slow, the streams flowing into or out of the lakes usually provide better fishing for smaller goldens.
Dry flies usually work well in the streams. Nymphs fished with a strike indicator and a micro split shot also do well.
Other gear you should take is fly floatant for the dry flies, a hemostat for taking hooks out and pinching the barbs on hooks down. Polarized sun glasses to cut the glare on the water surface and also from glaciers or snow pack that you might cross. For a spinning rod, carry several types of small spinners, spoons and jigs. A clear casting bubble that you can fill with water for weight works well when fly fishing with a spin rod. Put the bubble 4 to 6 feet from a small dry fly or merger pattern and cover the water with a slow retrieve.
The high country contains many delicate ecosystems and all conscientious back country travelers now practice minimal impact camping. That is, few fires and then only in existing fire pits, leave no trash (not even someone else's), pick campsites that won't kill natural vegetation and place them away from streams and lake shores, don't cut across switchbacks (it causes erosion) and release (unharmed) most fish.
This modern philosophy can be summed up in the saying, "Leave only footprints, take only pictures." Only if we all practice these conservation measures will we be assured the wild places will remain throughout our lives and those of our children.
I feel that the golden trout need more protection by fish and game officials, but they are reluctant to change laws to protect the fragile fish because of enforcement problems. I, however, feel that if they would change the laws so that only one or two goldens may be harvested by a person, then social pressure and the general public's conscience will allow the golden trout to survive. As with all conservation measures, I believe that if people know the reasons, they will want to help out in any way they can. Those who know have the responsibility to let others know. I've found word of mouth and peer influence to be more effective than lots of laws in protecting remote areas where enforcement is difficult. In general, wilderness travelers and outdoors people are very conscious of their impact on the environment and this will be the decade of conservation awareness.
What is the value of a cool, clear trout stream or a breezy meadow with dancing pools of color? What value can we give a remote mountain range where wild things can live as they have for generations, unmolested by the interference of man? We've finally arrived in a time where technology can totally and irrevocably wipe out nature. We are now exterminating living things at the rate of 3 species a day and it's accelerating, all in the name of progress.
The search for my trout of gold in the wilds has taught me some important things about myself and it would be a shame if the next generation had no place of retreat to gain their own self-realization.
The golden trout experience is much more than just catching fish. You enjoy nature because you are a part of nature. You need wilderness because part of what you are comes from the primordial wilds. Without it, part of us will be lost forever.
Whenever I smell a clear breeze fragranced only by mountain meadows or feel the clean rain on my face or the current tugging on my pant legs in a steam where trout thrive, I cannot imagine a world without them and so must follow my conscience in doing all I can to protect them and their environment. And to let others know of its pleasures so they too, will want to be involved in its future. That is the real gold of the high country.
"Set the hook, stupid," I say to myself. The rod comes up awkwardly and too fast. I feel a momentary pressure and a surge pops the cobweb-like tippet. A pounding heart and hands shaking like I've got delirium tremors makes tying on another fly in the fading light an interesting challenge. On the next cast the fly barely hits the water and an imploding slurp inhales the feathered deception. This time I'm more lucky and the deep bend in the long slender fly rod shows I've connected firmly. The fish bolts and takes slack line from my fingers and then steals a few yards of line from the reel, too. The drag slows the fish and he exits, walking on the water in a shower of spray, breaking the tranquil lake surface. The rod throbs a few more times, as the trout shakes its head and then grudgingly allows me to bring it in. In shallow water the low sun reflects the iridescent reds and gold from the fish's flanks. Could there be a more beautiful fish in a more beautiful area? Admiring the fish, I think not, then gently release it to fin back into its aqueous abode.
The mountains and trees around me are bathed in a warm fiery red, caressed by the last rays of light from father sun. Moses also saw a burning bush on a fiery mountain. Such sights have been known to change the destiny of man. How? That is for us to decide.