The Tale of Jason and the Golden Trout

The golden trout from Clear Lake caught in 1996. The fish was 22 inches long and took three days to catch.

Fly fishing can be a dangerous obsession. Anglers are compelled to travel down unknown roads and rivers while on the quest for ever-more elusive fish. In fact, some wise fishing writer, whose name is long gone from my memory, once identified five stages that all fly fishers pass through on that often-perilous journey.

First, a beginning angler wants to simply catch a fish – any fish – on a fly rod. Second, armed with new confidence from initial success, that same angler wants to catch a lot of fish. Third, a big fish becomes a prize worth seeking for the now experienced fly fisher. And naturally, the fourth stage fills an angler with the craving to catch, not just one, but lots of big fish in a single outing. Yet the fifth and final stage is the most infectious and sends many good anglers into watery madness: The quest to catch the impossible fish!

As a young fly fisher, I too heard the siren’s call of a faraway fish that beaconed with gleaming promise. This is the tale of my quest to catch the golden trout.

Birth of the Arkansas Traveler

Honestly, I don’t recall how I learned about golden trout or why I planned to chase them high up in Wyoming’s Wind River mountains. The year was 1996, and I was seven years into my fly-fishing journey. With persistent practice and countless hours on the water, I’d already worked my way through the first four fly fishing stages. Naturally, I began to plan to catch an impossible fish. Hidden in faraway alpine lakes, golden trout are as difficult to reach as they are to catch. That combination created the perfect challenge for a young fly fisher on an angling sojourn.

Long-gone friends posing with my beloved 1978 Volkswagen van. That van carried me fishing from Maine to New Mexico in the 1990s.

Always eager to see what’s beyond the next bend, I am a lifelong traveler. And everywhere I go I take fishing gear. Even before I picked up my first fly rod, angling was an addiction more than a passed time. Like a gambling addict, the sheer possibility of catching another fish was akin to pulling a slot machine lever, watching the wheels line up and hearing coins drop. And like all addicts, I satisfied my craving no matter where it took me. For example, when I ran away from home at 17 years old, I somehow managed to carry an old spin casting rod with me on the Greyhound bus along with paper sacks full of clothes

Some fly fishers are well-heeled people who frequently jet to faraway waters to catch fish with exotic pedigrees. I am not one of those fly anglers. Yet, I still managed to catch fish from Maine to Mexico, Wyoming to Washington state, and even multiple Hawaiian Islands. And I always fish for native species whenever possible to experience each landscapes’ natural offerings. From Apache trout in New Mexico’s Gila River to Olympic Peninsula steelhead, Colorado’s once-endangered greenback trout and even smallmouth bass in the stream-filled hills of Kauai, Hawaii, I’ve fished as many places as I can afford to travel to as a poor Arkie angler. That’s why my fishing guide business is called Arkansas Traveler Fly Fishing. I literally am the Arkansas Traveler.

In the mid-1990s, my longtime girlfriend and I adventured each summer as far as our meager money would take us. She once called my fly rod “an expensive stick,” and clearly wasn’t an angler, but she was always willing to travel. We drove my old Volkswagen van to New Mexico, New England and parts between, usually to some national forest or park where we could camp and enjoy the world while spending little to no money, because we had very little money to spend. That summer, we intended to visit Yellowstone National Park. I’d been to Yellowstone in 1989, I knew the crowds were terrible in summertime and no dogs were allowed in the back country. We had a blonde lab named Cassidy, and we decided to choose another place where we could camp and hike into the wilderness with the dog. That’s how we selected the Wind River mountains.

The Golden Trout Trail

The Wind River range runs southeast from Yellowstone National Park, and it’s as rugged and wild as the neighboring park, but without the crowds. The same animals roam the Wind River mountains as in the park, too, with moose, elk and even grizzly bear frequently seen. Like Yellowstone, the Wind River range spawns famous rivers, and we found ourselves drawn to the Green River’s headwaters in the Jim Bridger Wilderness area. It’s a 50-mile drive from pavement on washboard dirt-and-gravel roads that follow the river to the Green River Lakes, where the Green River spills out and begins its long, winding course to join the Colorado River in Utah.

The Green River Lakes sit at the heart of Wyoming’s Wind River mountains, fifty miles from the nearest paved road.

In those days before everyone had instant internet access and on-demand GPS maps on their cellphones, anglers relied on old fashioned books, magazines, paper maps and word of mouth to plan fishing adventures. We simply followed the dotted line provided by our dog-eared Rand-McNally atlas, which wound its way up the river and ended at the lake shore. Also, we stopped for local advice and directions at the Forest Service headquarters and a fly shop in Pinedale, Wyoming, which is the only town near the wilderness area.

At the fly shop, I learned nothing about golden trout. Except for the colorful specimens mounted on the wall, those trout must’ve been a well-kept secret. The only advice I recall was to imitate the golden stonefly nymphs found that time of the year, which they just happened to sell in abundance. Clearly, they didn’t want tourists to take the golden trout for themselves. I bought four of the stonefly nymphs and left with no more information than when I arrived.

The real wisdom about golden trout came from a Forest Service ranger, who was more than eager to share secrets of finding the true treasure hidden in those hills. He smiled when I asked about catching golden trout, and asked if I was ready for a long hike? That’s when I first heard about Clear Lake, which he said sits between two mountain peaks high above Green River Lakes. That’s where the golden trout swim unmolested, except by only but the most daring anglers, he explained, because the trail is nearly too difficult to hike. Armed with stonefly nymphs and knowledge about golden trout, we left civilization’s last outpost and headed deep into the wilderness to continue the quest.

This map shows Clear Lake circled in red, and the location of Green River Lakes within the Jim Bridger Wilderness Area, about 100 miles from Pinedale, Wyoming.

The Green River Lakes (there are two, one upper and one larger, lower lake, connected by a small stream) sit in a glacier-carved valley that looks like Planet of the Apes meets Land of the Lost. A flat-topped granite peak looms tower-like over the waters, and 12,000-foot spires of massive mountains surround in all directions. Truly a humbling sight for mere mortals seeking trout.

The lakes are as famous for fish as scenic beauty. In fact, the Wyoming state-record brook trout was caught there in 1976, two feet long and nearly 10 pounds. The state-record golden trout came from Cook Lake, not more than 20 miles away from Green River Lakes. It was an 11-pound beast nearly 30 inches long, but it was caught many years ago in 1948. Those records are likely to stand, given the difficult access to those fish, especially golden trout.

Neither trout were native to Wyoming, but both fish adapted and thrived in the high mountain rivers and lakes. Although now found in select waters across the globe, golden trout were originally found only in the Kern River drainage in California. The fish evolved about 30,000 years ago from sea-run rainbow trout that were isolated in remote California waters, which allowed them to take on their unique, alternating bright-colored banding that earned them the name “golden.”

Humans introduced golden trout to Wyoming in 1920 using pack mules loaded with eggs from California. Cook Lake was first stocked, which for decades served as brood lake for the entire state’s golden trout rearing program. That likely explains why the state record golden trout was caught in Cook Lake, it had the earliest stocking, the least pressure, largest fish and population. Today, fixed wing planes airdrop fingerling fish into hard-to-reach mountain lakes, because that’s the only habitat in which they thrive. That’s why anglers must journey far into the wilderness to seek the golden trout.

Journey to Clear Lake

Another fly-fishing writer once wrote that “trout live in beautiful places.” Clear Lake must have been his inspiration. It sits nearly 1,000 feet above Green River Lakes, and six miles into the wilderness by foot. Getting there requires a full-day hike from the trailhead, and the path is nearly as impossible to traverse as the golden trout was to catch. The first two miles are deceivingly easy, and the trail gradually climbs along the shore of the largest of the two Green River Lakes. Then the trail follows a gently meandering stream that flows down from Clear Lake miles upstream. The stream cuts through a lush grassy mountain meadow filled with tall, bright-blue lupine flowers found only in alpine valleys. If you are lucky enough to see those flowers, you know you are at least 8,000 feet above sea level.

Then the forest turned against us. The peaceful meadow transitioned into a thick tangle of nearly impassible lodgepole pines. Repeated storms and a late 1980s wildfire had killed many trees and pushed pines horizontally across the trail, creating hurdles that added hours to the hike. Each step forward required crawling, climbing and clawing our way across a seemingly endless obstacle course, all while carrying large backpacks. Even today, the thought of crossing what the Forest Service ranger described as “a good section of blowdown” is daunting, even with the promise of golden trout swimming Clear Lake’s waters.

There was no rest after crossing the destroyed forest, because a mile-long maze of granite boulders waited on the other side. The trail ahead led through a talus field of massive rocks – some as large as the proverbial Volkswagen Beatle – that had sloughed off the mountain side since the last glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago. One by one, we hopped from boulder to boulder, inching closer to the destination while trying to retain balance with heavy backpacks. At times the trail vanished among the rock piles, and we relied on instinct to guide our feet. The mountain sun beat down hard on skin unused to high altitude UV rays, which burn faster than at lower altitudes. The effort left us tired, hungry and wondering if we’d made the right decision to follow the forest ranger’s friendly advice. Eventually, the rocks became smaller, the trail again appeared, and we dutifully followed as it wound its way ever-upward toward Clear Lake.

The final labor required to reach the lake was almost too much to endure. After we’d hiked nearly six miles through deceptively peaceful meadows, skeletal forests that clawed and grabbed at us with each step, and a miles-long granite maze, we faced a near-vertical climb to the lake. A narrow, natural stairway of rock and roots twisted and wound its way upward along Clear Lake’s outflow. Carefully, we stepped along the stairway, with the weight of heavy backpacks pulling us off balance the entire distance. As we crested the jumbled log pile above us on the vertical trail, we realized we were climbing atop the log jam at the lake’s outflow. Our feet reached level ground, then bare rock and we finally looked out upon Clear Lake’s crystal waters. Then we collapsed into our tent and sleeping bags to chase trout after sleep. That night, I dreamed of fat fish and big bears.

Grabbing the Golden

The journey to Clear Lake nearly broke me. My legs were almost unusable, with massive cramps and I could only awkwardly walk around camp. My girlfriend fared a bit better, but she was sore and damaged from the hike like anyone would feel. We spent that first morning at Clear Lake resting and enjoying the isolation. There were no human sounds except our voices and tent zippers. We drank coffee, scouted the area for wildflowers and wildlife, and tried to recover from the brutal trek required to reach the lake.

Clear Lake sits at about 9,000-feet above sea level, and is home to many impossible fish waiting for adventurous anglers to make the six-mile trek.

Staring into Clear Lake’s gin-clear water, it was obvious that the lake was glacier fed. That fact was undeniable when I decided to bathe in the waters after the long hike. I stripped naked and jumped into the water, and instantly thought I was having a heart attack. My lungs collapsed from the near-freezing water, I struggled to swim and breathe as I flailed my body toward shore. Finally, I pulled myself out of the water and onto a giant rock like some gasping lizard hoping to sun itself back to health. I didn’t repeat that mistake and bathed with a pan and cloth the following days. My respect for Clear Lake grew from mere awe to slight fear. There was danger in those mountains, where even the water could kill.

That afternoon, I finally glimpsed the golden trout of Clear Lake. I was walking the shore, searching for firewood, when I saw the first fins reflecting sunlight. The fish were huge, and my heart jumped at the sudden sight. I didn’t expect to see the fish so clearly, but the lake’s window-like waters made the fish seem to float suspended in a strange airy abyss. Then dozens of fish appeared, all swimming out of the bright sun and into the shadow of the large cliff across the lake. The fish made slow circles, searching for food in the fading light.

Energized by the swimming golden trout pod, I grabbed my fly rod and confidently began casting to the cruising fish. Nothing. That’s because my fly line and fly didn’t come close to the fishes’ favorite swimming hole across the lake. I was at least 20 to 30 feet from the closest trout, and no fish will take a fly it cannot see. Besides the extreme casting distance, I didn’t have the correct fly. Even though I received no specific advice about golden trout at the fly shop in Pinedale, I followed their fly suggestion and tied on the golden stonefly. I figured the fly must be effective, not just because the shop sold them by the ton, but because I located an identical stonefly larva under a rock in the stream that flowed out from Clear Lake. The fish must eat the local food, I surmised, and I cast that fly for countless hours without success.

That maddening cycle repeated itself for three days. Every morning, I followed fly fishing wisdom and matched the hatch, then walked the lake shore casting and hoping for fish, but never got a bite. Each afternoon, I was frustrated and stymied without fish. Although I’d learned a lot about fly angling in seven years, I didn’t know enough to unravel the golden trout riddle. I tried to catch a golden trout but without a single bite. Not even a look or a glance, as bass fishing guides in Louisiana say about fish toying with an angler’s bait. The attempt left me defeated and demoralized. And each evening, I watched the slow circling pod of monster golden trout when the bright sunlight was finally blocked by towering peaks, and shadows fell across the water. Every time I failed to catch a fish.

Out of desperation, I abandoned all advice and caution. First, I shortened my casting distance by crossing the lake to reach the fish more easily. I took a chance and walked across the dangerous log jam at Clear Lake’s outflow stream and reached the lake’s far shore. There was still a large rock cliff behind me, which prevented easy casting, but a handy roll cast would help me get fly to fish. Next, I ignored fly shop advice on fly patterns. Instead, I reached deep into my fishing gear and pulled out a fly that always caught trout on the rivers back home in Arkansas: The lowly wooly bugger!

The much-maligned Wooly Bugger fly, tied with a peacock hurl body and bead head. I learned the power of this fly pattern and now fish it almost exclusively, especially on unfamiliar waters.

That fly is often maligned by critical anglers as too simple to tie and only fit for fly fishing beginners. I knew it might be the only fly that had a chance to catch a golden trout. After careful selection, I chose a wooly bugger with olive tail, olive hackle and a body made of peacock herl feathers wrapped around the hook shank. At that time in my fishing career, I was still using a double-tapered fly line, which was built without a heavy portion that helps propel casts forward. Also, I had yet to learn Spey casting, which allows anglers to easily cast even with vertical obstacles behind them. As a result, it was very difficult to extend a cast to reach the distant trout, even though I’d crossed the lake to cast where they frequently swam.

Every fly angler should carry a good selection of Wooly Bugger flies. Can you guess my favorite colors?

The first casts were pathetic attempts, with crashing piles of fly line on the water sending fishing scurrying from the sudden commotion. Then I struck gold. With great effort and concentration, mustering all the skills I’d mastered, my next cast extended perfectly, and the fly line landed fully extended. The wooly bugger hit the water and barely sank before the line went tight. Then the lake’s surface exploded like a water bomb, and my fly rod bent further than ever before. The fish was on the line, and it was a big one! Like a multi-colored submarine, the fish tried repeatedly to dive into the lake’s depths to escape, but each time I managed to ease the fish toward my waiting hands.

The long struggle ended a few minutes later with a stunning 22-inch golden trout at my feet. Like some scripted Hollywood moment, I held the fish aloft and shouted to the mountains, “I did it! I did it!”

Self-assured and overproud, I pulled a metal stringer from my bag and strung the fish because I intended to eat it for supper that night. I’d traveled six miles into the back country, I convinced myself, there was no way I would release the golden trout after so much effort expended catching the fish. That was a terrible mistake that I regret to this day. Today, I would always release such a fine fish, no matter how hard won the trophy. In fact, I am embarrassed that the fish is no longer swimming the waters of Clear Lake.

My ex-girlfriend shows off her mountain cooking skills, using a flat rock to cook the golden trout. Today I understand that I should have released that fish to fight another day, one lesson gained from chasing fish.

Even burdened with regrets, that was the best tasting fish I ever ate. We had no fish cooking pans or even spices beyond salt and pepper. We improvised and placed a large flat rock on top of two other stones to form a makeshift griddle. Then we gutted the fish, and even its intestines were beautiful, with a deep orange and white coloring that I’ve never seen on any other fish species. Better yet, its flesh was raspberry red and just as delicious. We cooked it with a small fire built of twigs, and the fish smell filled the valley. We ate the fish like paleo people, with fingers and sloppy faces. I’ve never been so satisfied from any fishing effort – or any meal.

Suddenly, and at nearly dark, another hiker appeared on the lake shore. He was on his way back to the trailhead from two weeks spent hiking the backcountry, and he brought an ominous warning. Someone saw a grizzly bear within just five miles of our campsite just the day before. Worse yet, bears love fish, and the hiker chastised us for cooking the meat and tempting the bears, creating danger for everyone in the area. We apologized and thanked him for his wisdom, then we hung our food supplies in an even higher tree that night to avoid bear troubles. Unfortunately, we couldn’t cleanse ourselves or gear of the stinky fish. “Even my toothbrush smells like fish!” my girlfriend declared. Our luck held, though, and the feared grizzly never materialized.

Quest Fulfilled

The next morning, we packed up gear and bid farewell to Clear Lake, a place I knew I would never see or fish again. Like my Greek namesake, I fulfilled my quest for the golden trout. Along the way I learned many truths as a fly angler and traveler. The most important lesson was to always practice catch and release fishing. Some fish are irreplaceable and should be treated as precious treasures. Another lesson was that flies which catch fish on familiar rivers might also catch fish on strange waters. Fly fishers should trust their guts when it comes to fly selection, and do what one angler once described as, “fishing the fly you like.”

Finally, my quest taught me the most important lesson of all: Fishing is more important than catching fish. Even if I failed to catch a golden trout, and merely made the attempt, I successfully completed the fishing challenge. Trekking to faraway mountains, hiking through unknown and dangerous terrain, sleeping under stars and bathing in freezing mountain lakes are the experiences that make fishing important and special. Today, a faded photo is all that remains of that long-dead golden trout. Yet, the hard-won memories made – and wisdom gained about life beyond angling – linger as the real treasure won from trying to catch the impossible fish.

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