Backcountry Fly-Fishing for Golden Trout

Fly-fishing for golden trout is a time-consuming, obsession-creating adventure of a time. Golden trout are most often found in remote, alpine drainages over 9,000 feet in elevation. Generally you can’t just do a quick day trip for these ornate fish. Rather, you need to strap on a backpack and hiking boots and hit the trails for a few days at a time. This September, I found my way into a remote area to fish for golden trout off trail. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my fishing career. Here are a few things that contributed to a successful trip.

Researching Waters

My golden trout backpacking trip involved two years of scouring internet pictures and forums, Google Earth maps, and emailing biologists to hone in on several lakes that warranted a closer look. My research revealed several lakes in the same drainage that spanned the numbers/size spectrum. Before you commit to taking time off, and miles of effort, do your research! Biologists are often willing to talk about lakes in their region that are producing. As a starting point, both the Wind River Range in Wyoming and Beartooth Wilderness in Montana have lakes with strong golden populations. Read online articles and fishing guide books, and then reach out to biologists with questions. Do some homework before emailing, as this will show the biologist you aren’t just out looking for a free handout. As far as time of year is concerned, fish early (June), or in August or September when the bugs have died and the fish are feeding and putting on winter weight. Late August is my preference, as the weather can turn bad in September and cut a trip short.

Shallow river running through Rocky Mountain wilderness

Getting There

Hiking into golden trout water is no picnic. Goldens generally inhabit the highest reaches of drainages. This is no mistake, as biologists maintain populations in this manner to ensure that fish populations above them in the drainage don’t wreck their genetic purity. Oftentimes they are the sole fish in a lake, for the same reason. As a result, most decent golden water requires a multi-day trip. My last trip required me to use a different trailhead after I found out my first choice was closed for maintenance. This added two miles and hundreds of feet of elevation to an already long day. If I hadn’t of been in good shape, this extra effort could have sidelined the trip permanently. Prepare for your trip with a few shakedown cruises to find your stride and error-proof equipment choices. Opt for ultralight gear to keep your pack weight under 30lbs if possible. This will allow you to travel in relative comfort, leaving enough energy to fish effectively when you arrive. For more information on backpacking light and general wilderness skills, take a look at Ultralight Backpackin Tips by Mike Clelland.

Flies and Techniques

Prior to my big trip, I had done lots of reading on what makes golden trout tick. I had also done a few quick trips to lakes with smaller goldens to test out my theories. On my first trip, I only caught a couple. By the second and third trips I was catching up to ten fish per day. My starting point for information was a book every dedicated alpine anger should own, Fly-Fishing the Rocky Mountain Backcountry by Rich Osthoff. His sections on fly selection and tactics should be read, re-read, and dog eared.

Golden trout underwater, catching onto a fly

Lakes and streams with lots of smaller goldens will fish well with dry files such as hopper and caddis patterns, but lakes with larger fish generally dictate a subsurface approach. Think intermediate lines, sink tip lines, and scud patterns. My top producing alpine lake pattern is Rich’s weighted scud pattern (Mega Scud) in size 8. This oversized, orange flashback pattern is a must-have and has accounted for my best brook and golden trout in the mountains. Other patterns that I have found fish well are olive scuds and black seal buggers. These three patterns accounted for 90% of the fish on my recent trip. My favorite approach is to walk the lake shoreline, looking for cruising fish. Once fish are spotted, cast several feet in front of them and slowly strip the fly to get their attention. Be prepared, as many times goldens rush the fly, only to stop and stare at it from inches away. If you see a fish has done this and you aren’t sure if it has taken the fly, set the hook very slowly and then firmly once you feel resistance. Walking the banks of golden trout lakes looking for feeding fish is more lucrative than just blindly fishing, although at times this may be your only option. Concentrate on inlets and outlets, as feeding fish tend to congregate in these areas. If you find fish are not responsive, try not to spook them and change patterns and sizes until you find what they are interested in. Don’t be afraid to do this many times a day, as goldens seem much more picky than other trout.

Golden trout, out of water, laying next to a fly fishing rod

These are a few things I learned over the past few years. I hope they contribute to your success in the hallowed high elevation waters that contain one of the finest and elusive game fish around, the golden trout.