December 13, 2021
By Tom Reed
July in the Winds. High clouds march like ships across a blue sky. Grasshoppers hover and dance, accompanied by a song that sounds like a thousand back-turning ratchets. The wildflowers have hit their prime and are fading—wrinkled elephanthead in the meadows, fireweed going to seed in the woods, purple monkeyflower clinging stubbornly to the very last of the snowmelt.
It is a time of summer at its midlife, still going strong, yet showing signs of age. In this country, summer’s life span is measured in weeks, precious days of full sun and strong light. In many places, even in the high country, the streams are low and warm, and the lakes recede back from the sandy shores, opening sandbars and gravel beds.
The fish seem to know that late July in the tall country means approaching autumn, and I cast again toward the middle of the lake where I can see an underwater shelf that is white as bone and falls off into dark, deep blue. The trout are just beyond the rib of rock, massed where an inlet stream brings a wash of food.
I am working an olive Woolly Bugger, and I strip it toward the bank in long, swift jerks. Out of the depth, a trout rises and strikes, hitting the fly hard enough to startle me a bit, and I raise supple graphite into fish tooth and jaw. The fight takes a few long minutes and I can feel, and then see, the trout shaking its head like a shepherd pup shakes a sock toy. Soon the fish is at hand, a brook trout. A big brook trout, full-chested and colored as only a brook trout is colored, full of fall spawn and finery. I measure it against my fly rod, remembering the length between ferrules. This is no stunted sardine. It’s every bit of 19 inches, a brook trout unlike any I’ve ever caught. I let him go and he flicks off into the depth and I cast again. I catch four fish that day, all brook trout. The smallest is 18 inches.
The next day, I am on another lake, still in the southern Winds, still casting for trout. This time, I am waist deep on a long flat, casting to submerged stream channels, double-hauling, giving the five weight every bit of what I’ve got. I catch four fish. None are smaller than sixteen inches and two are over twenty. They are Yellowstone cutthroats, native to country much farther north but now firmly anchored in this lake and others like it throughout the range.
Few mountain ranges in the world offer the outdoorsman as much as Wyoming’s Wind River Range: Miles of trail to ride or backpack, glaciers to climb, some of the world’s best granite for rock climbing. And fishing. A map of the Winds tells it—high lakes everywhere, like a fistful of sapphires thrown lavishly onto a blanket by the Creator. World-famous, well-known fishing. Even today, after so much as been said of the range, the Winds stand as tops for backcountry trout fishing. But it wasn’t always this way.
Trout are newcomers to the Winds. One hundred years ago, almost all of the lakes and most of the streams were barren, a trout sink. Waterfalls prevented upstream migration like that of the Colorado River cutthroat on the range’s steep western flank, and Yellowstone cutthroat on the more gentle eastern slope. The spine of the continent runs its length, watersheds dropping west and then south to the Colorado River, or east and then north to the Bighorn and then the Yellowstone. This is a place, north to south, east to west, that is rugged, hard, tough to climb into. It’s a piece of land that is hard on horseshoes and booted tender toes alike. To travel into the Winds requires sweat equity and stubborn resolve. The rewards, though, make it worth the effort. Fishing is part of that hard-earned bounty. But in order for trout to live in such country, to get a foothold, or more aptly, a fin-hold, they needed a little boost. A boost up over the waterfalls and into the alpine high country.
The man who did the boosting was Finis Mitchell. Finis, which rhymes with highness, was to the Winds and to fishing what Paul Petzoldt was to the Winds and mountain climbing. Both men were sons of pioneer families and both men’s hearts were captured by the wild and rugged Wind River Range. Petzoldt founded the world-renowned National Outdoor Leadership School; Mitchell became the hero of every fisherman who ever tied the laces on a pair of hiking boots and then hooked into a trout in the range, including me. That number may now be in the millions.
Mitchell showed up in western Wyoming in 1906 when he was five. Even then, those mountains had a pull on him, and he remembered their snowy flanks during the long wagon trek from Rock Springs north to the family’s new homestead on the New Fork. The family had traded 40 acres of good Missouri farm ground for 160 acres of Wyoming sagebrush and sand. Sight unseen. They loaded all of their possessions and farm animals into a railroad boxcar, and when they disembarked at Rock Springs, there was no going back. The Mitchells, just as many Westerners still do today, did what they could to survive. They hauled freight, ran some cattle, raised some hay, got by.
The family finally gave up on the ranch and moved to Rock Springs, but by the time of the Great Depression, the Winds had pulled Finis back. Finis, who was laid off in 1930 from his railroad job, remembered his first thought: “Go to the mountains.”
This time, he was married, and he and his wife, Emma, started what they called their fish camp at Big Sandy Opening on the southern tip of the range, where the wild granite and lodgepole falls off into an open wide sagebrush sea. From there, they set up a wall tent, borrowed ten head of horses, and ran dude trips into the mountains. But the fishing wasn’t very good. Only a handful of lakes had any fish and these were native cutthroats. So the Mitchells started a stocking program of sorts. They’d catch some fish at one lake, load them up into some cans, and pack them up to a lake that didn’t have any fish. At some point, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department got wind of what they were doing in the mountains. Finis remembered the fisheries superintendent coming to him and asking him to stock additional lakes.
“He said, ‘We’ll bring you the fish if you pack them in free,’ and we were tickled to death to get them,” said Finis.
Finis loaded up each of six packhorses with two milk cans brimming with water. The cans were loaded with fingerling game fish and covered by burlap. The horsepackers kept the horses moving almost constantly so the water would churn and work oxygen down to the young fish. During the rough trek up into the range, some water sloshed out and the packers—often Finis and his father or brother—refilled them at mountain stream crossings.
By Finis’s own count, 314 lakes, mostly in the southwestern part of the range, were stocked in this manner by the Mitchell family and others. In all, he estimated two-and-a-half million fingerling brown, brook, rainbow, golden and cutthroat trout went into these high mountain lakes.
Many of the virgin lakes of the Winds were rich in aquatic insect life, especially those below the timberline. The fish grew quickly. Some species reproduced rapidly, a little too rapidly. Brook trout, which are voracious breeders and essentially the English sparrow of the Wind’s game fish, took over many lakes. With the benefit of hindsight in 1989, Finis quipped that “it was a very bad mistake,” to stock brook trout. “They multiplied and run out of food.”
Anyone who has ever fished the typical Wind River brook trout lake or river can attest to the number of small fish and the rarity of big fish. But for the most part, the stocking was a success. Finis told of stocking rainbow trout in Fish Creek Lake and after the fourth year, they were between six and eight pounds. Finis also continued to improvise. One year, he and his father rode over Hailey Pass to Grave Lake, where they caught several lake trout that they packed back over the pass and stocked in Mae’s Lake, which Finis had named for his daughter.
Throughout most of the decade of the 1930s, the fishing camp provided enough money for the Mitchells to get by, but a steady job became available toward the beginning of World War II, and Finis hired back on with the railroad and moved back to Rock Springs. But the mountains never left him; in fact, they tightened their grip on his being. Now, he could work four long shifts and have three days off every week. Every spare moment was mountain time. He explored the Winds from top to bottom, and took up photography, shooting thousands of slides of the Winds, its wildlife, and wonders. He made it widely known that he wanted to explore every corner of the Winds, and during his long life, it’s likely that he came as close to doing that as any person before or since.
Finis practically invented the “go light” philosophy that is the mantra of today’s backpacker. In fact, he took it to a high art. His gear consisted of a tarp, a sleeping bag, cheap boots and an inexpensive pack frame. He cooked nothing, eating only dried foods, Emma’s special high-octane fruitcake, and cheese. He drank right out of the streams and wore bib overalls almost all the time; every picture you see of him displays this fashion taste.
In late August 1960, Finis was caught above timberline in a fierce snowstorm that lasted three days. Rather than panic, he hunkered down and waited out the storm, covering himself up with his sleeping bag and resting under a blanket of snow. Nearby, a band of wild sheep kept him company. “They fed all around me,” he told Audubon magazine in 1985. “We shared a waterhole. I learned more about bighorns than I had in all my life before.”
The man was obviously a survivor and his knowledge of the Winds grew with each trip. His vacations and nearly every summer weekend were spent in the Winds. He often traveled alone, with his longest solo expedition lasting seventeen days.
While anti-wilderness enthusiasts contend that wilderness preservation is the gone-awry privilege of Eastern white-collar intellectuals, Finis—raised on Wyoming’s sagebrush flats in the shadow of the Winds before the emergence of the automobile, never educated beyond the eighth grade, and blue-collar railroader to the core—was a die-hard wilderness advocate. Consider: “We must strive to preserve this wilderness for innocent souls yet to follow in our footsteps; that they, too, may enjoy a wilderness with all its bounties, and learn to preserve it for those to follow them.”
And: “Man’s very existance [sic] lies with the earth. That is why our wilderness areas have been set aside, to keep them from exploiting all the earth. At every opportunity any area that qualifies should be added to it and preserved for coming generations.”
Finis wrote those words, and many more, in a little book that has become a classic, Wind River Trails. Published in 1975, the book—as if patterned after Mitchell’s own minimalist philosophy—is small and light enough to go into the pocket of a backpack and head up the mountain with its owner. It’s part guidebook, part fishing book, part philosophy. It is the result of all that slogging up mountain trails, climbing mountain passes and peaks, camping out under the stars, and heading off to yet another unexplored drainage.
The author’s note in the front of Trails offers this short resume: “A short hike…years ago was the beginning of a long career in wilderness living for Finis Mitchell …He has scaled 244 peaks, including four times to the top of Gannett Peak, the highest mountain in the state. A vigorous supporter of wilderness, the mountain man pours out his philosophy at meetings and slide shows with amazing attention to detail. He has taken 105,345 pictures as a hobby and uses them in his slide shows to show people their own public lands.”
By the time Finis had quit taking photographs, that number was closer to 120,000. Wind River Trails went through numerous printings and Mitchell, always the advocate of wilderness and the range itself, was recognized for his devotion. The U.S. Geological Survey sent him maps of the range to proofread and fact-check before they were printed. Finis was featured in numerous magazines and newspapers and was given an honorary doctorate from the University of Wyoming. Even more impressive, Finis had a peak named in his honor, 12,482-foot Mitchell Peak, located in the southern Winds just east and a little south of the famed Cirque of the Towers. He climbed it at least 18 times. He also served in the Wyoming House of Representatives from 1955 to 1958. But despite all of the accolades and accomplishments, Finis was still mountain to the core.
Even late in his life—indeed Wind River Trails was published when he was 74—Mitchell kept going to the mountains, sticking to his oft-quoted philosophy: “We don’t stop hiking because we grow old, we grow old because we stop hiking.”
But when he was 73, he took a bad fall in a crevasse on a glacier. He badly twisted his knee and couldn’t walk, so he crawled out, made an ice pack by cutting up his long underwear and waited two days for the swelling to go down. Meanwhile, he whittled some crutches and then when he could move, he hobbled 18 miles out of the wilderness. Later, a stroke slowed him. Even so, he would often lead trips up onto what he called his “Sacred Rim,” at the edge of Fremont Gorge with stunning views of the high Winds. As his physical ability dwindled, he used walking sticks in each hand. He was determined not to stop hiking, but on November 13, 1995, he finally did, passing away just one day shy of his 94th birthday.
Not long before Mitchell’s death, my friend Walt Gasson, a son of Green River, Wyoming, happened to be in that town visiting a relative in a nursing home. While walking down the hall headed out, he saw a nameplate on a door that made him stop in his tracks. It read: Finis Mitchell. Gasson peered in through the open door and saw Finis lying on his back, pale, shrunken, staring blankly at the ceiling.
Shaking his head sadly, Gasson told that story to me and Wyoming Wildlife editor Chris Madson one day. “If ever a guy should have been out on some talus slope somewhere at 13,000 feet . . .”
“He probably was,” said Madson.
Tom Reed works for Trout Unlimited and lives outside Pony, Montana.