I never was the obsessive type growing up. I fished a lot, camped what felt like every other weekend, and played basketball with the usual crew of neighborhood miscreants. I wasn’t an exemplary student, my mom forced me into piano lessons (something for which I’m now deeply grateful), and I only skirted the edges of trouble. Me and my buddies never got caught toilet papering, but everyone in town knew it was us. It’s sort of obvious when you ride your bikes down to the Family Dollar on Main Street and leave with twenty bucks of toilet paper strapped to your handlebars.
Like most kids, though, I eventually gravitated to a few select activities – music and fishing. By sophomore year of high school, I was routinely cutting class, avoiding chores at home, and calling in sick to my job bagging groceries whenever fishing sounded better than what I should have been doing. It never dawned on me that I needed the grocery job to put gas in the 97 Chevy so I could fish.
It was also during sophomore year that I started recognizing most of the adults I knew were unhappy. I wondered what they had to live for when life was an endless cycle of bills, running kids to soccer or dance practice, and a desk job that existed only to pad some rich guy’s bottom line. The happy adults were the obsessive ones. My top-hat-wearing, mullet-sporting Uncle Mike comes immediately to mind. He’s a virtuoso violinist, carved out a living as a full-time musician, but also tells anyone and everyone – even if they don’t want to listen – that Linux is the world’s superior operating system, and his idea of the day for improving American politics. That he, for years, drove a 1985 Mazda RX-7 only furthered his legend.
Mike is happy, though, because he has two great loves in life – music and skiing. He does both as often as he can, and his lovely wife Rachel (the world’s greatest aunt) not only puts up with but encourages his shenanigans. Once, me and Mike were on a ski lift when I should have been in school. I made an offhand comment about Mike being lucky to have such a good wife who let him ski whenever he pleased. Mike responded that it wasn’t so much luck as it was about reciprocating Rachel’s obsessions. I think it was that moment when I told myself I’d only get married if I found someone as willing to enable my fishing habit as Rachel is to enable Mike’s skiing. Not many 17-year-old guys think about marriage while they’re on a ski lift, but not many voluntarily read Nicholas Sparks books either. I was a weird kid.
Almost a decade after that chat with Mike, me and my wife lay in bed, recapping the day’s events. I’d just started teaching middle school in Wyoming and she still worked in Utah. We rarely saw each other during the week, which meant neither of us planned much of anything on the weekends. That was time to spend together. Since I married such a supportive, wonderful woman, though, when I brought up the idea of taking a coming weekend to go on a long fishing trip, she practically packed my bags for me.
In hindsight, that’s the only time I wish she would’ve handed me a honey-do list, or said she got us tickets to a musical, or that her mom was coming to visit.
Hyrum told me to pitch my tent as far from everyone else as possible.
“You snore like two grizzly bears on a bad date,” he said. “None of us can sleep.”
Pride smarting, I found a clearing at the edge of camp and set up my tent. It overlooked a junction where Pole Creek meets one of seemingly dozens of lakes at the bottom of the Pole Creek drainage in the Wind River Mountains. Rising trout dimpled the slack water, and I was itching to fish. We’d spent the day hiking in from Elkhart Park and I was physically exhausted. The sight of rising trout renewed some of my vigor.
Hyrum, along with Alex, Curtis, and Curtis’ two sons, were busy cooking dinner. I slipped into the icy water that was still high and swift, especially for August. The snowpack in the Winds the previous winter was the stuff of legends, and according to some of the locals at the bar in Pinedale the night before, they’d never seen these creeks running this high.
My legs went numb quickly, and I cast to all the likely trout hidey-holes. Small ones smacked my fly, and I missed them all because I set the hook too quickly. Eventually I got one in the net, a small brook trout that’s a dime a dozen in any of the Rocky Mountains’ high-country waters.
I wasn’t there for the brookies, even if they were prettier than the ones in my local creeks back home in Utah. I was in the middle of arguably the most rugged country in the Lower 48 to find some gold.
As just about every angler under the sun knows, golden trout are native to California. In their native range they don’t grow very large. When stocked into high mountain lakes outside of the streams where they evolved, though, goldens get big. The California state record is a nine-pound fish, while the world record came from Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains. That fish weighed 11 pounds and was caught from the Cook Lakes in 1948. That’s a world record which will likely never be broken.
The Cook Lakes were a few miles upstream of where I stood catching brook trout. I kept looking up the canyon, where I knew the Cooks were, as if staring at it would make the fish swim downstream to me.
Later, I sat in my underwear while I dried out my pants and socks by the fire. The smoke disappeared into the inky night sky and I hoped to strike gold in the morning.
Those who don’t fish often have a hard time understanding the allure of catch-and-release fishing. I can’t blame them, since the whole idea of strapping on your pack for a weeklong trek into the backcountry for a fish you’ll release anyway looks like an exercise in futility.
In the right context, though, this obsessive lifestyle makes sense. Consider the original Gold Rush in 1848. Gold fever swept through California – and most of the modern world at the time – with such force that a local paper in San Francisco had to shut its doors just two weeks after the first discovery of gold in the area was printed. Most folks on the staff up and quit, opting for a life lived by the pan instead of the pen.
The Gold Rush got so serious that San Francisco went from a town of fewer than 500 people in 1847, to over 20,000 by 1848. The promise of gold, of riches literally streaming down from the mountains, was all too tempting to ignore. Dreams of wealth and financial stability prompted thousands to leave their jobs, their homes, and even their countries.
Chasing trout – especially golden trout – doesn’t carry the same monetary reward, but the impulse to do so is eerily similar. Both fishing and gold-panning aren’t mere hobbies, but serious lifestyle choices. Today’s eccentric anglers are the goldminers of yesteryear. They stand in the same rivers, beneath the same mountains, holding onto the same tenuous hope.
We set out for the Cook Lakes the next morning but didn’t get there until late afternoon. Pole Creek was full of hungry, eager fish, and we took our sweet time on the hike.
The Cook Lakes are impossibly huge and deep. How the world record was caught out of there almost 80 years ago doesn’t make sense, because lakes like this in the mountains are both rare and difficult to fish.
Mount Lester and Harrower Peak loomed off in the distance as we picked our way along the west shore, looking for a place to camp. Me and Hyrum dumped our gear a few hundred yards from the lake and immediately set out fishing. There’s a bit of water connecting the upper and lower Cook Lakes – maybe 300 yards long, if memory serves – and it looked perfect for trout. The water was all riffles, pools, and tailouts. If trout were there, a size 14 elk hair caddis would lure them right into the net.
Trout were there, but not what we were looking for. Small brookies – carbon copies of what I’d caught the night before, six miles and a thousand feet below us in the Pole Creek Lakes. I thought about grilling a few for dinner, but I’d have had to catch double my legal limit to have enough for a meal.
That next morning, me and Hyrum got up early and hiked above camp to a pair of lakes just below the ridge of the Continental Divide. Both lakes supposedly had golden trout in them. A few snowdrifts dotted the sweeping glacial valley, despite the early August heat.
This was the end of the trip, and the rest of our group had already started the trek back to Pole Creek. Hyrum and I had a few minutes to fish each lake.
Wind always blows in Wyoming – you get used to it after a while – and especially in the Wind River Mountains. But the wind blowing off the Continental Divide that day was unrelenting. Hyrum and I threw small nymphs and retrieved them slowly, and I seemed to be casting into a headwind no matter where I stood.
The fish never showed up. Hyrum had a few bites, but that was it. After 35 miles and 15,000 feet of elevation change, we had a few small brookies to show for our efforts.
It’s hard to ever call a fishing trip a failure – the real failure is not going fishing in the first place – but that time in the Winds sure felt like one. To top it off, me and a few others in the group battled altitude sickness for half the trek. Growing up in the Rockies, I’d always heard folks complain about the thin air when traveling here, but I’d never experienced its ill effects until that trip.
Despite its ability to turn folks into millionaires overnight, gold had plenty of adverse effects on people and nature alike. Go visit some of the rivers in Idaho, especially tributaries to the Salmon River. Gold mines are everywhere. Abandoned, of course, but still marking the landscape. Still posing a threat to leak fish-killing minerals into the rivers where steelhead and salmon are already clinging on for dear life.
Golden trout don’t have such a detrimental effect, but after getting altitude sickness and packing 35 miles in arguably the roughest country in the Lower 48, I started to wonder if my life was better off without golden trout. Sure, they’re pretty, but did I really need to catch one?
That I kept daydreaming about the fish was answer enough. Just like the folks who couldn’t keep gold off their minds almost two centuries ago. Eventually, it calls loudly enough that it can’t be ignored.
On a whim I called up Peter and Preston Fitts, a pair of cousins who act more like brothers, and asked if they wanted to go fishing.
It was Memorial Day Weekend, so everywhere should have been packed. The weather was soggy, though, so most folks stayed in their trailers and tents, content to be in nature, but only to a point.
We wanted to avoid some crowds, but we opted to drive up the Mirror Lake Highway in Utah’s Uinta Mountains, which is like going to Vail on a powder day and hoping for a run to yourself.
Golden trout have lived in the Uinta Mountains since the 1970s. Most of the fish were stocked in the Atwood Basin, a remote valley south of King’s Peak, Utah’s highest mountain. Atwood Basin is a 15-mile hike in from the trailhead, and as with most everywhere else in the high country, brook trout have long since taken over as the dominant species up there. Every so often, a report surfaces of goldens back in Atwood, but I have yet to see one from there with my own eyes.
Whether the goldens have held on in Atwood is up in the air. They have, however, flourished in one other lake, on the opposite end of the Uinta Mountains.
Echo Lake sits at the top of the Murdock Basin, around 9,000 feet above sea level. A few lakes sit on the cirque above Echo, and they drain through a series of waterfalls into the lake. During runoff, it’s a gorgeous sight.
And that’s where Peter, Preston, and I headed. In Preston’s Honda CR-V, on a road that’s known in Utah for being one of the worst. In a rainstorm.
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Normally, I’d take my truck on a road like that, but it only seats two, and no one wanted to ride in the bed. So we prayed that we wouldn’t put a hole in Peter’s oil pain and crawled, slid, bumped, and bounced our way to Echo Lake.
Snow fell, then it turned to sleet as the day warmed a tiny bit. We were bundled up in all the warm waterproof gear we had. After a few minutes, we’d all caught fish – but no goldens. Echo Lake is like so many other high-country fisheries. It’s full to bursting with stunted brook trout.
Then Peter hollered that he’d caught a golden. I hustled over to look at the fish in his net – the first time I’d ever laid eyes on a golden in the wild.
It was tiny – maybe five inches – and pale. Not at all like the pictures I’ve seen on Instagram or in magazines. The fish was uninterestingly plain, like a hatchery rainbow trout fresh off the truck. It even shared the same stunned look a hatchery rainbow wears – surprised to be in the wild, to have the instincts to survive. Peter slipped the fish back in the water, and I quietly hoped I’d feel better about my golden, if I ever caught one.
A few minutes later something splashed on my caddis. I set the hook and stripped in a six-inch golden. This one was bright and spectacular, with a wilder gleam in its eyes than Peter’s, a claim that feels right but I can’t prove. I probably felt that way because I’d caught the fish this time.
We spent the rest of a wet afternoon catching stunted goldens and brookies. We had the lake to ourselves. It was, in many ways, a perfect day of fishing. I couldn’t shake the feeling this was a bit like cheating. Like paying your friend who works at Bass Pro Shops to let you dip a bare hook with no barb in the fish tank after hours, just to see what those poor aquarium fish would do. If catching a golden was that easy, then why bother with going to the Winds? A bumpy drive is more convenient than a 35-mile hike.
Somewhere on that bumpy ride back down Murdock Basin, I answered my own question. Catching goldens in Echo wasn’t cheating – it was like finding a bunch of fool’s gold in your pan and thinking you’d struck it rich. Echo’s goldens are close to the real thing, but not quite wild and remote enough to pass muster.
I knew I’d have to go back to the Winds. The only question was when.
Byran Engelbert and I dropped our packs and sat on the bank of a lake, glad to take a break and eat some breakfast. We were three miles away and a thousand feet below our destination, which was a cirque lake at the top of a canyon known for growing golden trout in excess of 15 inches.
The lake in front of us was full of brookies and cutthroat, though nothing was eating with any gusto. It was still early enough in the morning that the fish hadn’t rolled out of bed.
Even as a native to the Rockies, altitude still kicks my butt at times. It’s worse now than my first trip to the Winds, because I’m too fat and out of shape these days. Sitting there at 10,000 feet, I had serious doubts whether I’d make it up to the golden trout lake.
The omnipresent wind arrived an hour later as Bryan and I trudged past a gorgeous lake tucked tight against a sheer rock cliff. The clouds hung low and skittered across the peaks, brushing the mountaintops only a few thousand feet above us.
My GPS said it was only a mile as the crow flies to the golden trout lake. Looking up the canyon, I saw where the lake had to be. A small lip of rock and trees formed a line at the top of the canyon. The lake was just on the other side.
Elevation and general out-of-shapeness conspired to make that last mile hell, but I finally plopped down on the downwind side of a boulder. Bryan had a stove going to boil water for lunches, and we sat in silence for a minute, staring down the canyon we’d just climbed.
For most of the summer we’d lived under a cloud of smoke. The jet stream picked up the smoke from wildfires in California and Oregon, carrying it over the Sierra Nevada and into the Great Basin, where it hit the Wasatch Front on the east side of the Salt Lake Valley and never moved. For all its natural wonder, the Salt Lake Valley is geographically inconvenient for weather. Or any valley in the Mountain West, for that matter. Weather gets blown into the valley, but doesn’t make it out unless a strong storm system pushes in.
On top of the Wind River Mountains, looking east towards Casper, the sky was clear for the first time in months. Despite being out of breath and woefully out of shape – I vowed to start eating better once I got back home, a commitment I never keep – the view was beautiful enough to draw my attention.
But then it turned back to the matter at hand – golden trout. I’m sure the prospectors of old took a few minutes to marvel at the beauty of California’s mountains, but they didn’t dawdle. They had gold to pan, after all.
We rigged up rods, tucked our hats tight against the headwind, and set off in opposite directions around the lake. I worked along the bank, throwing a double-nymph rig where I saw the lakebed drop off. A few times, the bobber shot under. I set the hook too quickly, and on the last failed attempt I saw the telltale flash of a fish swimming away. I’d missed a good fish. You never miss small, or inept, trout, only good ones.
I had a few more takes, but didn’t get my first solid bite for about 45 minutes. I stood on a rock, casting with the wind, watching the waves move my bobber along a drop off in the lakebed.
Without any warning, my bobber shot beneath the waves. I lifted my fly rod. Not too quickly, not too sharply. Just the soft, but firm, lift I try to teach clients who aren’t used to fishing small flies for small trout.
The fish on my line put a good bend in my rod and I half-wondered if I’d hooked something truly special. After all, I knew this lake grew big goldens. What I ended up putting in the net, though, was a 12-inch fish, fat, with the telltale red stripe along the lateral line, and splashes of gold on its flanks. As far as golden trout go, it was picture perfect, albeit smaller than I wanted.
I snapped a few pictures of it in the net, then let the fish go. Four years of work, over 50 miles of trekking through the Winds, and I’d shared maybe a minute with the trout that’s occupied my mind perhaps more than any other. Fly fishing is a strange sport, but fly anglers are stranger people. It’s a special kind of psychology that finds ennoblement in a sometimes-fatal game of cat-and-mouse. Every fly angler I know has more than a few screws loose, but that’s often manifested through quirky – though just socially acceptable enough that you’ll still get invited to family get-togethers – behavior that’s mostly harmless. That doesn’t clarify the obsession we have with fishing, although I reckon that’s why I love it so much. If it all fit nicely into a cultural box, then where would the fun be? Tom Rosenbauer once said that writing about fly fishing is like dancing about architecture, and that’s as close to explaining the thought process of a fly angler as I’m likely to ever approach. On some level, there’s a certain sense to it, but only tangentially, and only in fleeting moments.
Bryan and I only had a few hours to spend at the lake. Once it was time to hike back to the trucks I started feeling nauseous. My stomach was doing backflips, I felt weak, and I had a headache that could’ve leveled an elephant.
We decided that I was probably dealing with altitude sickness and I ought to hightail it back to the truck. Bryan wanted to stop along the way and fish some of the lakes we’d passed on the hike up. We’d meet at a rest stop on the highway that night, grill some elk burgers on the tailgate of my truck, and plan our next move from there.
There’s this luxurious misconception of fly fishing, that it’s all resorts, guides, clear water, easy casts, big fish, and gourmet food. The reality is more burgers grilled on a single-burner stove, nights spent sleeping in the cab of your truck, and far too many gas station hot dogs than anyone ought to consume in a lifetime.
I made it about three miles from the truck before I really felt sick. My mind flashed back to a trip in 2019, when I’d gotten food poisoning in Utah’s Uinta Mountains. I’d hiked 11 miles out of a lake, uphill, in a snowstorm, with the bad food exiting through all available openings. I legitimately thought that trip would kill me.
This better not be that, I thought.
By the time I collapsed in my truck, it was dark and I felt worse than I had three hours and 1,500 feet ago. I’d dropped from 11,000 to 9,500 feet above sea level, but that hadn’t made me feel any better. Whatever was wrong certainly wasn’t altitude sickness.
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I was 18 miles of dirt road away from the highway, and another 45 minutes after that from the rest stop where I planned to meet Bryan. I drove as fast as I dared, because I’ve nearly hit my share of deer and elk along that particular Wyoming road. The twists and bumps didn’t do my stomach any favors, and I finally pulled off the road and into a meadow. I opened the truck door, stumbled out, and threw up everything in my stomach, narrowly missing my boots. After a few minutes of my stomach trying to crawl up my throat, I sat on the ground, back resting against the truck, and panted like I’d just run a marathon.
Yep. It was food poisoning. Or something like that, because I’d thrown up all of the freeze-dried food I’d had for lunch. The irony was I felt a million times better than I had five minutes ago, even with the post-puke shakes.
I stopped for gas and a Mountain Dew in a one-stoplight town in Wyoming, still shaky and weak from puking my guts up. As I watched the bill for gas climb well past $60, I felt the part of a fool. I’d given up a weekend with my wife for 14 miles of hiking, a few small fish and food poisoning. According to Bryan, there’s a lake back home in Utah where I could catch fish bigger than what we’d netted. In a lake that you can drive to, though most folks opt to walk a good portion of the trail only the cheeriest of optimists would call a road.
I reckon I’ll make it to that lake someday, but for now I feel content. The goldens on that trip to the Winds were the real thing. In some strange way, that made it all – the gas money, food poisoning, time away from my wife – worth it.
On the drive back to my new place in Wyoming, I found some comfort in knowing that I wasn’t the first – nor would I be the last – man to get fooled by gold’s allure, hidden high in the mountains where few others are deranged or obsessed enough to visit.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, guide, and bamboo rod builder from Utah. He runs the Utah Fly Fishing Company, is the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a regular columnist for Hatch Magazine. Connect with Spencer on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.
Enjoyed your fly fishing journeys in pursuit of gold. Now I know the backgorund story you mentioned when trying to book a guide trip with you in late Sep. (illness). Hopefully the next time we’re in the Heber Valley we can “hook up.”
I had the pleasure to catch goldens in the Kern Valley (CA) a few years ago. Small trout but nothing as beautiful as those golden gems.
Janet, thanks for reading! I’m still upset this got in the way of fishing with y’all. Let’s get something on the calendar for this year!
Ah, the Kern Valley sounds magical. I haven’t been there yet, and I’d love to. Catching native fish in their native range is something special.