April 22, 2022
By Ross Purnell
The first time I fished the Wind River Range, I was invited to go with a group of guys who had a secret golden trout lake. They didn’t say the name of the lake, and I didn’t ask. You can’t accidentally reveal something if you’re clueless, so I opted to stay that way. To this day I don’t know the name of the lake, and couldn’t point to it on a map. I’d guess it’s somewhere in the top half of the Wind River Range—a jumble of jagged granite peaks and icy lakes that spans 100 miles. Or it could have been in the bottom half, I’m not quite sure.
It seemed like our group leader Casey Sheahan had been to this lake many times, and the place was something of a family shrine, so I planned on keeping it that way. High alpine lakes are a hard-earned privilege. There’s an unspoken code among ethical fly fishers that if someone shows you their spot, you don’t return there to fish yourself, so there was never a need for me to identify this particular lake. I wouldn’t be coming back.
Our group included Sheahan, who at that time was the president of Patagonia, Patagonia founder and owner Yvon Chouinard, artist James Prosek, and Sheahan’s good friend Mike Moore. We came from all points on the compass, and gathered together in the little town of Lander, Wyoming the night before our trip. We started early at the trailhead and hiked most of the day, roughly following a watercourse upstream toward its origins.
We pitched our tents after dark that night where the stream flowed out of a lake, and fell asleep with the sounds of trout sloshing and slurping in the outflow. The next day we hiked many more miles, past little creeks where we filled our water bottles freely, along the shorelines of several other lakes where we could easily spot the shapes of cruising trout, and finally we dropped our packs in a glorious cirque where a pyramid-shaped, 1,000-foot pinnacle of granite rose from the depths of an aquamarine lake.
Prosek’s boots weren’t up to the mileage. By the end of the first day, his soles had detached completely, and he had them secured with duct tape and bungee cords. We were running out of tape, so he planned to reverse those 20 miles wearing Crocs.
We pitched our tents on a wind- and ice-swept slab of rock surrounded by some scrubby pines. We chose the site based on the “leave no trace” principle—there was no flora or soil at our site that could be damaged by the tents. You couldn’t pound in a stake, so we secured the tent flys with some loose bowling ball-sized boulders, and rearranged them when we left.
The Wind River Range is massive, and encompasses multiple jurisdictions, including the Shoshone National Forest, Bridger-Teton National Forest, and the Wind River Indian Reservation. It also contains three distinct wilderness areas—the Bridger Wilderness, Fitzpatrick Wilderness, and Popo Agie Wilderness.
In most of these wilderness areas you are required to camp at least 200 feet from a lake or stream—some signs dictate ¼ mile. Don’t be that person who pitches a tent in the fragile terrain right along the shoreline of a scenic lake. You are ruining the views for everyone else, and most important you are adding to the wear and tear along the most traveled part of the ecosystem. Rules like these were introduced mainly to avoid introducing fecal matter to lakes and streams, but we can do much more to avoid our own water-polluting potential. “Leave no trace” means packing all your human waste out of this fragile, high-use ecosystem.
Our campsite wasn’t our final destination—the golden trout lake was still high above us, hidden far above the tree line in a basin that was so pristine we didn’t feel comfortable camping there at all. We planned to make “Pyramid Lake” our base of operations, and make day trips only to “Nunya Lake.”
Thankfully there was some daylight left for fishing, and we spent the evening hours casting attractor dry flies along the perimeter of a rocky penninsula. Pyramid Lake was obviously very productive, with caddis all over the submerged rocks, and 18-inch+ cutthroats rising freely like cattle in a feedlot. They were everywhere—in the shallows, in the deep water, and of course around structure like sunken boulders and drowned logs.
The next day we started in the creek running into Pyramid Lake. Lower down we caught only cutthroats, but as we moved up from one plunge pool to the next, we eventually started running into golden trout that had strayed from the lake upstream.
We stowed our rods and hiked past a fortress-like headwall to where the highest lake in the watershed was nestled in an alcove strewn with lichen-painted boulders and wildflowers. We arrived at the shallow outflow end of the lake, and hiked along the boggy shoreline aiming for the deep end. The lake was flat as a window. The shallow end of the lake represented perhaps half the total acreage, yet I saw no sign of cruising or rising trout. It looked barren.
In my decades of fishing high mountain lakes in the Rockies from Colorado to Alberta, I’ve found that alpine trout love the shallows, since temperature isn’t an issue at this altitude, the photosynthesis there sparks the aquatic food chain, and there’s also a greater chance for them to encounter wind-blown terrestrials. But this lake shattered that paradigm. I wondered if we had walked all the way here to catch golden trout that didn’t exist.
We started with dry flies at the deep end of the lake, and although nothing was rising, it didn’t take long to catch our first goldens—stout, thick little trout that rose vertically, appearing first as specks perhaps 30 feet down in the clear water below us and coming all the way to the surface just for our flies.
Normally a dry-fly eater would be cruising closer to the surface, but not these fish—they clearly preferred to live in the depths. We reasoned that while smaller fish might be willing to move all the way to the surface, sinking lines and wet flies might get the attention of bigger trout in the depths.
With a switch to deeper strategies, we immediately started getting bigger golden trout—old males with long kypes describing many years of spawning maturity, and powerful females with small heads and thick bodies. All of them were brilliant yellow-gold, with broad red stripes, brilliant scarlet fins edged in white, and rose-colored gill plates. They were, and they are to this day, the most beautiful trout I’ve ever witnessed.
Public Lands in Wyoming's Wind River Range
I recount my own introduction to the Wind River Range not to encourage you to find this one particular lake, but as a prototypical example of what you may find for yourself, starting with some intellectual effort, and ending with some physical suffering. The journey starts when you zoom in on the satellite view in Google Maps. There are more than 2,000 lakes in the Wind River Range, and more than 500 of them contain trout. You’ll soon find yourself searching terms like “golden trout Wyoming” and you’ll find that the Wyoming Game & Fish Department manages 133 alpine lakes for golden trout. More than 100 of these are in the Wind River Range. All of them are named on the wgfd.wyo.gov website. Bridger-Teton National Forest also offers a PDF fishing guide that identifies lakes which are known to contain trout, and indicates the species found in each lake. There are no “real” secrets for people willing to do some research, and then take a very long walk.
While my first trip into the Winds was a story of accomplished, experienced anglers hunting large, elusive trout, those types of expeditions are the exception rather than the norm. Backpackers, climbers, and mountaineers come from around the world just to hike these trails and climb these peaks. Boy Scouts, youth groups, families, and organized schools all use these mountains to recreate and to teach and to learn. The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) was founded nearby in Lander, Wyoming in 1965.
The range covers 2,800 square miles, and includes two national forests. The three wilderness areas within those forests formally protect 728,020 acres, forming one of the largest roadless areas in the continental United States, so it’s easy for all those visitors to simply disappear from the grid. Disconnect. And come back a week or two later to find everything is just the same as they left it. The only thing that’s changed is themselves.
The people you see with fishing rods strapped to their backpacks are often there primarily for other reasons, and many of them are poor anglers. It’s common to ask a group of Scouts “How’s the fishing?” and hear “It’s terrible, we’ve only caught one fish today.” Meanwhile, while we talk, I clearly see multiple trout cruising behind them.
While someone with a Mepps spinner can do well right after ice-out at some of these lakes, for the most part, these are wild, sensitive creatures that expect to see something that resembles a real food item. Still, this isn’t a match-the-hatch situation you’d expect to see on tailwaters and spring creeks, where there is a ton of food to choose from.
Fishing in these alpine lakes is generally easy. The trout have only a few months to feed heavily, and the lakes are relatively infertile, so in most instances they will fall for a Parachute Adams or a Foam Beetle as long as there’s no line splashdown, and the fly is anywhere in their field of view. Even when you do spook a trout, leave the fly out there for another minute, and another will come along and find it.
While you can set arbitrary parameters to make things challenging for yourself (a 20-inch golden trout is a high bar) the Wind River Range is a perfect place to bring your significant other, your children, or a friend just learning to fly fish.
That’s what I found on my most recent trip into the Winds in July 2021, when I took two of my adult children and several of their friends into the Wind River Range. We started at the Big Sandy Trailhead near Boulder, Wyoming and spent a week in the Cirque of the Towers climbing and fishing on alternating days. I don’t mind revealing to Fly Fisherman readers exactly where we were, because the Cirque is mainly a rock-climbing destination. There are no golden trout, and the glacial lakes there may represent the poorest fishing in the Wind River Range because the fish are generally small. If you are an avid fly fisher, you will likely hike past the Cirque or choose another trailhead.
However, the twentysomething adventurers I hiked with were ranged from novice to first-time fly fishers, and for them, the size of the fish was irrelevant. They were completely enamored with the visual stalking process, with the clear water, and with the brilliant colors of the brook trout and cutthroats. It was a thrill they had never previously experienced.
Yes, the Winds are a place for experienced fly fishers to find the trout of a lifetime, but also a place for newbies to practice their casting, learn to spot trout, train themselves to set the hook, and still meet with a high degree of success. These lakes provide so much opportunity to learn visually—to see the trout and see how they react to your movements and your flies—that I can’t imagine a better classroom for aspiring fly fishers.
And at this elevation you don’t have to worry about river closures, hoot owl restrictions, or warm water temperatures that can spoil a fishing trip. These public lands are yours, and the water is always icy.
Golden trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita) are native to the Kern Plateau in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, where they became isolated from ocean-going rainbows about 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, and evolved into perhaps one of the most beautiful trout subspecies in the world. They should not be confused with the so-called “golden trout” raised in so many state fish hatcheries in the East, which are artificially bred, genetically mutated rainbow trout (aka palomino trout, banana trout, or lightning trout).
Golden trout eggs from California were first introduced to Cook Lakes in the Wind River Range by the U.S. Forest Service in 1920. Once a naturally reproducing population was established there, it served as broodstock to provide eggs for other lakes in the Wind River Range, as well as in the Absaroka, Snowy, and Bighorn mountains, and nearby states like Montana. The IGFA world record golden trout of 11.25 pounds was caught by Charles Reed of Omaha, Nebraska in Cook Lakes in 1948.
By 1955, golden trout were widely proliferated across the Wind River Range, and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department began using Surprise Lake (also in the Wind River Range) as a source of broodstock for its stocking efforts. The state continued to harvest eggs from wild stock until 2007, when they began using captive broodstock at Story Hatchery near Sheridan, Wyoming. The approximately 250,000 eggs collected there annually are mostly used for stocking fish in Wyoming’s high mountain lakes.
Most high alpine lakes in the Wind River Range were historically barren. Some lakes with good inflow and outflow streams now have naturally reproducing trout populations descended from trout stocked by state and federal agencies, and by individuals like Finis Mitchell. Lakes with limited spawning habitat require continued stocking by the Wyoming Game & Fish Department (WGFD) to maintain their trout populations. The WGFD hosts a searchable database of all the lakes they stock at wgfd.wyo.gov including number of fish, size, species, and dates.
Most of the fishing in the Wind River Range for rainbows, brook trout, and cutthroats is a very simple procedure of prospecting with dry flies such as Parachute Adams, Elk-hair Caddis, and foam beetles. I prefer foam flies because they are more durable than any other flies, and they keep floating even after being mauled by 20 fish. My favorite fly in the Winds is a #8 or #10 Cathy Beck’s Super Beetle. It’s easier to spot than other beetle patterns, always lands right side up, and trout will rush 5 yards to take it.
For golden trout, things are a little trickier. My theory is that golden trout in the Winds feed deeper than most alpine trout because that’s where the Daphnia are. If you’ve ever seen these planktonic crustaceans (also called water fleas) in an aquarium, you’ll see they are often bright orange. (Technically, only the pregnant ones are bright orange.) A single Daphnia is too small to imitate with a fly, but goldens seem to react positively to bright orange scud patterns, eggs, or a dark Woolly Bugger with a small bright bead on the front. My guess is that you can tie any favorite stillwater fly, add a bright colored bead, and you’ve got a killer subsurface fly for alpine golden trout.
Rivers & Streams
The Wind River Range is rightfully famous for its scenic alpine lakes and its stillwater fishing, but it also forms the headwaters of some of Wyoming’s most important watersheds. If you are into small-stream fly fishing, there is almost always a creek, rivulet, or stream nearby.
At the Green River Lakes Trailhead near Pinedale—a major access point on the northwest side of the range—you will begin your hike along miles of the Green River. If you follow the Continental Divide Trail from here, you will pass the very source of the Green River, grunt and groan over Knapsack Col, and then descend into the famous Titcomb Basin. The New Fork River also starts nearby at the outlet of Lozier Lake.
At the Big Sandy Trailhead, you will follow the Big Sandy River toward its snowy sources. While much of the river is made up of plunging pocketwater crisscrossed by jumbles of fallen timber, there are also miles of meadow sections that remind me of upper Slough Creek in Yellowstone. In the meadows it’s easy to spot trout in the flat water, and casting is a breeze. That’s good because the trout can see you also. You’ll need to cast farther and be a little more tactical than you would be in whitewater plunge pools.
The range is also a major source of the namesake Wind River, where Torrey Creek and Bull Lake Creek drain the east side of the Continental Divide.
At the south end, snowmelt in the Popo Agie Wilderness creates the North and the Middle forks of the Popo Agie (pronounced puh-POE-zha, meaning “beginning of the waters”). The Middle is accessible from the Popo Agie Falls Trail—one of the few places where you’d want to start fishing close to the trailhead.
Much of the North Fork Popo Agie is inside the Wind River Indian Reservation, but you can hike to the headwater areas inside the Popo Agie Wilderness. The North Fork Popo Agie begins at the outflow of Lonesome Lake at the very foot of Mitchell Peak.
If you are in the area, visit The Rise of the Sinks in Sinks Canyon State Park, where the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River reappears after flowing into a limestone cavern a quarter mile upstream. The so-called “trout pool” here is something to see, even though there’s no fishing allowed.
Whether you’re a fisherman, climber, photographer, or backpacker, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the original “mountain man” of the Wind River Range. Born in 1901, Finis Mitchell lost his job at the start of the Great Depression and started his own guiding and outfitting business called Mitchell’s Fishing Camp (now Big Sandy Lodge), which he operated between 1930 and 1937. During this period, Mitchell and his father Henry stocked more than 2.5 million trout in 314 different lakes in the Wind River Range, using milk cans and horses to carry trout into remote lakes.
The Union Pacific Railroad rehired him in 1940, but Mitchell continued to hike, climb, fish, and photograph the Wind River Range. His photos were some of the first ever published from the spectacular mountain range, and he became well known through his speaking engagements and slide shows, which he used to promote conservation in the Winds and throughout Wyoming.
In 1977, the University of Wyoming awarded Mitchell an honorary Doctor of Laws degree for outstanding service in environmental awareness and conservation. He earned many other accolades, including awards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Izaak Walton League.
He was twice elected to the Wyoming House of Representatives (1955 to 1958) but he never campaigned. He made it a habit to stay in the mountains while the election was in process, and only returned to the state capital while the legislature was in session. In both elections, he received 90% of the vote.
He climbed to the summits of 244 of the range’s 300 prominent mountains, with many first ascents. He did all this without ever owning a compass.
In 1979, the U.S. Congress named Mitchell Peak after him. It’s one of the few times Congress has named a landform after a living American, and the summit plaque shows a record of Mitchell’s previous 11 ascents. After the plaque was installed, Mitchell climbed the mountain seven more times.
Finis Mitchell had a stroke in 1982 but continued to hike solo throughout the Wind River Range. In 1985, at the age of 84, he suffered a serious fall into a glacier crevasse, made himself a pair of crutches from tree limbs, and hobbled 14 miles over more than two days to self-rescue.
His book Wind River Trails: A Hiking and Fishing Guide to the Many Trails and Lakes of the Wind River Range in Wyoming (1975) has hand-drawn maps of lakes, streams, and peaks, and details on more than 50 trails. The 142-page, pack-size book includes many of Mitchell’s own black-and-white photographs of lakes, peaks, and glaciers, plus a few of Mitchell’s Fishing Camp. The book sold thousands of copies over the decades and is widely available from used booksellers today. It’s an absolute classic.
Logistics & Regulations
You don’t have to carry all your gear yourself. There are numerous outfitters in Pinedale, Dubois, and Lander who will pack you or your gear in/out of the mountains for a fee. This is part of the history and the culture on the Wind River Range. I used Big Sandy Lodge (big-sandy-lodge.com) for a gear drop on my recent trip. They also provide comfortable cabins, beer, and hamburgers near the trailhead at the site of the historic Mitchell’s Fishing Camp.
The range is split east and west by the Continental Divide. The west side is better known because it’s much more accessible from three major trailheads: Green River Lakes, Big Sandy, and Elkhart Park. Much of the east side lies within the Wind River Indian Reservation, and fishing requires a tribal fishing permit and recreation stamp available at sporting good stores in Lander or at the Shoshone & Arapaho Fish and Game Office in Fort Washakie. You need the permit to drive on reservation roads, but access through the reservation brings you much closer to lakes in the Fitzpatrick Wilderness.
Fires are allowed in some areas of the Wind River Range in designated locations. In some years, there are complete fire bans in Shoshone National Forest and Bridger-Teton National Forest. In the three designated wilderness areas within the Wind River Range, you should plan on using pack stoves only.
Public lands in national forests are not as heavily regulated as places like national parks, so it’s incumbent on users to safeguard their own backcountry wilderness. Bear canisters are not required by law, but ethical and safe backpackers use them. You are required to pack out all your trash and waste. To me, this means using WAG bags for human excrement.
When you research your own Wind River Range adventure, you will likely read much about mosquitoes. In a wilderness area with so many lakes, creeks, and wetlands they’re unavoidable. However, it’s only a huge problem for the unprepared. Don’t camp in low-lying areas, and wear long pants and hooded, long-sleeve shirts treated with permethrin. You can also purchase Simms BugStopper or Orvis No Fly Zone clothes, which are pretreated. For your campsite, use a Thermacell Backpacker Mosquito Repeller.
Ross Purnell is the editor/publisher of Fly Fisherman.