Adventuring and fly fishing. If you ask me, they are two peas in a pod. And although they share numerous characteristics, there is one common thread that shines through. What motivates someone to hike the extra mile into unknown territory? What is the driving force behind an angler’s desire to explore the next run? Why would a fly tier push a particular pattern outside it’s normal configuration? Curiosity.
As William Arthur Ward once wrote, “curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning.” The wording of his insight may be a bit antiquated, but I fully agree with the meaning behind it. As anglers, our curiosity continually propels us further into the world of fly fishing. And it often leads us to some amazing destinations.
Over the past several years, I’ve heard stories about a remote and expansive mountain range in western Wyoming unlike any other. From my backpacking friends, rumors circulated about the area’s abundance of serrated peaks, glacial lakes and manicured trails. Among my fishing buddies, tall tales were spun about the potential to land six different trout species in a single day.
A couple months ago, I finally delved into some rudimentary research about this mythical region. And what I found peaked my inquisitiveness to the point of compulsion. Not only did these mountains contain thousands of lakes, often connected by cascading streams, but some of those lakes also held the world’s largest golden trout. Following a few short weeks of investigation, my heightened curiosity got the best of me. I headed to Wyoming to backpack and fly fish in the infamous Wind River Range.
About the Winds
Located roughly 90 miles southeast of Grand Teton National Park, the Wind River Range runs approximately 100 miles and encompasses 2,800 square miles of land. It contains 19 of the 20 tallest peaks in Wyoming and is endowed with three wilderness areas within two, vast national forests. Those facts alone would make any outdoor enthusiast’s head spin. But for the avid angler, the particulars only get sweeter. In just one of the three wilderness areas (The Bridger Wilderness), there are over 1,300 lakes. And numerous major rivers and healthy streams flow in and around the region. As early as 1907, trout were stocked in many of the alpine lakes. Today, brookies, cutthroats, browns, mackinaws, rainbows and golden trout call the Wind River Range their home. And some astonishing specimens in each of these species have been caught and recorded. Drooling yet?
For many anglers, there is a particular trout species they prefer over all others. Some favor browns over rainbows. And others, brookies over cutthroats. For me, that bias tends to fluctuate over time. And it normally comes down to which species I catch the least of. Admittedly, it’s a borderline ‘the grass is always greener’ type situation. Since I had never even seen a golden trout, let alone caught one, they quickly became my de facto favorite.
Native to the Kern River watershed in the Sierra Nevada’s of California, the golden trout is in fact a subspecies of sea-run rainbows. The earliest identification and classification of golden trout occurred in 1982 and was recorded by the first president of Stanford University. Just over a decade later, President Theodore Roosevelt received information that the species was already in danger of extinction. Like many other native trout species, non-native fish either hybridized with them, preyed on them or targeted the same food sources, effectively depleting their numbers.
While golden trout are still found in the watersheds of their origin, many eggs and fish have been transplanted to areas throughout the western United States. And although states like Colorado, Idaho and Montana have fisheries that contain self-sustaining golden trout populations, Wyoming is arguably the national leader in terms of propagation and management. Currently, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department manages over 133 alpine lakes holding golden trout, with the highest concentrations found in the Wind River Range. In 1948, the world record golden was caught in what is now one of the most popular backcountry lakes (Cook) in the Wind River Range. Measuring 28 inches and weighing over 11 pounds, that fish and the story behind it undoubtedly attracts trophy trout hunters from all over the world each year.
Plan Your Trip
Given the sheer volume of trail miles and lakes (thousands of each), bountiful rivers and streams (numerous worth exploring), campgrounds (dozens) and drive-up fishing possibilities (a freakin’ boatload), planning a trip to the Wind River Range can be a formidable task. If you wish to avoid being overwhelmed while researching the area, here are three simple suggestions.
- Decide on what type of fishing you want to do. Unless you have weeks of free time on your hands, chances are you won’t be able to do it all in one trip. Keep your excursion focused. Plan to either backpack fly fish or explore drive-to fishing options. That way, you’ll spend less time prepping & transitioning and more time casting to and hooking up with wild trout.
- Pick an area. The Wind River Range is roughly divided into east and west. Each side has only a handful of access points, towns with amenities and major trailheads. Hone in on one section and explore it thoroughly. For information on the western region, the Pinedale Ranger District website is a great resource. Thinking about touring the eastern side? Check out the Washakie Ranger District website to get the research ball rolling.
- Go with a plan but be flexible. With any mountainous adventure, weather can change your plans at the drop of a hat. Have a backup strategy or two roughly laid out. And if the fishing is slow in one area, don’t waste your entire trip trying to coax the trout to your flies. More than likely, there is another fishery close by where the conditions will be more favorable.
Tips & Tactics
Before making the journey to rural Wyoming, I diligently researched fly fishing in the Winds. I called local fly shops, read dozens of articles, talked to friends who have fished there before and emailed the Game & Fish Department, all in hopes of gaining any kind of angling advantage for the unknown territory. Although some information proved helpful, the real enlightenment finally came when I put time in on the waters there. Here’s what I discovered…
-Be versatile: Toss streamers. Cast dry droppers. Tie on deep nymph rigs. Add action to your subsurface flies. Dead drift streamers. Try anything and everything. When I was in the Winds, the hatches were sparse at best. Surprisingly, there wasn’t clockwork surface action every morning and evening. Instead, the fish fed sporadically and I had to adjust my approach frequently. Be ready to do the same.
-Move around: Not having any strikes using a variety of techniques and patterns? Time to move to the next run of the river or corner of the lake. The waterways in the Winds are vast and the trout have a a lot of territory to cover. The ambitious angler should do the same.
-Fish where others don’t: After the footpath ends, hike the extra quarter mile to the spot seldom fished. Climb over that large boulder to access the pool behind it. The lakes, streams and rivers in the Winds may be large but they do see their fair share of fishermen. Seek out the areas where others have not.
-Go deep for goldens: After a couple days of fishing, I realized that the majority of goldens were striking from the depths. Sadly, I didn’t have any full sink fly line. Learn from my mistake. Carry on extra spool or reel loaded with Scientific Anglers Sonar Titan fly line.
As mentioned above, the hatches during my time in the Winds were minimal (mainly consisting of midges). So a lot of what I strung up relied on known stillwater food sources. From there, it was more or less trial and error. Below, I have outlined the patterns which produced strikes with the most frequency. Of course, the most effective flies will vary based on what time of year you fish in the Winds.
-#18 unweighted Scud (blueish-gray)
-#14 Umpqua Nemes’ soft hackle wet fly (tan/white)
-#12 foam beetle (black with white or orange parachute)
-#12 Umpqua Pine Squirrel leech (olive or brown)
-#20 Umpqua Parachute Adams (gray body)
Beyond these five patterns, I would carry a healthy assortment of streamers, dries and nymphs. And be sure to bring either heavy split shot or weighted nymphs to get your rig down deep when fishing the lakes. Stop into Vail Valley Anglers before heading to Wyoming. Their friendly and knowledgeable staff will get you fully outfitted for your upcoming adventure.
Keep ‘em wet, handle them sparingly and always appreciate where you are.
Seth Kulas, Vail Valley Anglers’ Content Writer, @sticks2snow