Dude, Where’s My Car?
Right now it is nearly 10:00 pm. It’s raining on and off for the first time since March. I’m in Lander Wyoming’s only car wash with my brother David. It’s a “self wash” with a small alcove where you can scrub your pet after you take care of the truck. In the wash bay sits my clay encrusted Subaru Forester looking like something maybe Fred Flintstone would drive. Donning the spare “donut” tire, it looks injured. Behind it on the ground sits the tire that should be there, flat and almost unrecognizable encased in its own mud casket. Along one cinder block wall are 2 pairs of shoes, 6 socks and some floor mats, but the amorphous bunch won’t be recognizable until the second or third pass with the high pressure wash wand.
It’s 42 degrees F and I’m standing on the hard concrete In my bare feet. I’m tired, wet, filthy, hungry and I’m not sure were I am sleeping tonight. Due to the hundreds of pounds of clay packed into the undercarriage and wheels of my car it can’t go over 50 MPH without nearly shaking itself into a pile of bolts and car-ish debris. However, even through the mud and 10 days of stubble a smile is still glowing on my face. I have hiked through desolate and fire destroyed forest, been cut, bruised and blistered. I have bushwhacked, contoured, dead reckoned, and lost a trail that I’m not sure really existed. I saw shooting stars from the preside meteor shower blaze to earth in concert with a ripening full moon and I caught golden trout in lakes over 10,000ft. I’ve got ten dollars worth of quarters with which to keep the high pressure wand spitting and I’ve got to get some of this shit off my car so I can go grab a burger before I loose it completely.
An ounce of prevention
I’m not getting any younger. Though I’m a pretty active person, I decided that this trip into the mountains would find me with an increased attention to gear weight and function. Older back and older knees = I want a lighter load. I planned to keep my pack weight to 30 pounds or less (without food). However, I wanted to have everything I might ever possibly use in the mountains. It snows up there in August and I didn’t want to skimp on essential items. The best way to find a happy medium is to use a scale during the packing process and one of the several available online spreadsheets to track your weight (I used gear grams.com). This being a fishing trip presented many ways to introduce extra weight into a pack. If you are planning a similar trip and have not done so before, my only advice is to be brutally honest about your needs, be thoughtful about your choices and don’t be afraid to cull. Also, make sure to take no new gear into the mountains! everything should be tested and broken in. I had severe foot issues due to a stupid mistake of wearing new socks that bunched in my shoes. If interested send me a pm and I can share a gear list for both hiking and fishing gear. My overall pack weight without food or water but including fishing gear was around 26 lbs and I was wanting for nothing. I used a fly reel and spinning reel with my 9ft 6wt fly rod and brought flies, spinners and a bait puck filled with red worms. Though we were only on the trail eight days I could have stayed out for weeks with the gear I brought.
Endings, transitions and beginnings.
On a Wednesday I walked into my office, finished cleaning out my desk and reviewed open reports with the guy who was to take my place as I moved on to a new job. I cleaned out my truck, handed in my keys and that was that. I shook his hand, wished him good luck and told him that in 24hrs I would be catching monster cutthroat trout in the mountains while on my way to search for golden trout. Free and clear, I jumped in my car and zipped home to finish packing. As I packaged and weighed out nine days worth of meals, I couldn’t help but notice that for the first time in years, in the middle of the day, my phone was not ringing off the hook! Happy as hell I tallied the final ounces, locked up the house and started on my way to pick up my brother.
By 7pm he had hugged his wife and daughters goodbye, promised to be safe and took his post riding shotgun in the Subaru. From his house in Minneapolis we had a drive of over 1,100 miles to the Wind River Reservation where we would begin our quest for golden trout. I ended up driving straight through with no stops other than an hour pulled to the side of the road in Wall South Dakota. There is no free ice water at Wall Drug in the middle of the night so we did not miss much. Thursday dawn found us crossing over the Wyoming border. We started the first official day of our trip at a pull over on the historic last stop of the Cheyenne to Deadwood stage line.
sunrise at wyoming border
Day One: RedBull hangover at 11,000ft
In order to drive 1,100 miles straight with no change of drivers I consumed at least 30hrs worth of 5hr energy and a bona fide shit ton of Red Bull. No joke. No sleep. Sometime around 11am we made it to Crowheart Store, a general store within the Wind River Indian Reservation. For one to set foot in the reservation as a non tribal member one needs a trespass permit. This permit allows you to do anything on the reservation other than hunt. The reservation is on the east side of the continental divide. The Bridger National Wilderness is on the west side primarily. The permit to access the reservation was around $135 and would give us access for a full year. This is more expensive than a permit to access through the Bridger National Wilderness. However, the last time I was there in 2001 over the two weeks we were back in the reservation we only encountered two other groups of two people. At the same time on the other side of the divide we spoke with people who had encountered full campsites, loud people and hassle. The extra money for the prospect of fewer to no people was an easy choice in my book.
Once the permits were had we drove the 10 miles or so to the drainage road that would take us up to the basin where we would find our trail head. Eight miles of paved road gave way to a rutted dirt/rock road that wound up from 6,000 feet to 8,600 feet over eleven miles. In second gear it took close to forty five minutes to wind our way up and up on what had become basically a roughly maintained logging road. (This road would turn into one of the single worst driving experiences of my life in just over a week’s time.)
When we made it to the trail head we were dismayed to see fourteen cars parked with plates from all over the west. Just fifteen years ago at this very week in August we crested the basin and came to an empty dirt “lot”. Though no one was in sight, we were starting to wonder if perhaps things have been changing in the intervening years. Either way, seventeen hours of road fatigue left my body as we changed into our trail clothes, locked the car and shouldered our packs. We hid the car key under a rock and started hiking just before 3:00pm. Though we were a few days away yet from what we thought would be our final destination, (a string of lakes high up in the range that contained huge golden trout) we stopped at any and all stream crossings and beaver dams to look for fish. Less than two hours in I had taken out one of my telescoping fixed line rods and temped a beautiful little brook trout with a hopper pattern fished on top. He made a get away before a picture could be taken, but I made a note on my map to make sure I fished it again on our way out. From this little beaver dam, it would be another full day of hiking before we were to take our rods out again.
beaver dam brookies
Though not every day presented us with a crux, day one’s obstacle was our first high pass. Windy Ridge is at 11,000 ft. Minneapolis is at 830ft. At 7pm, exactly twenty four hours after we left Minneapolis, we stood on top of the 11,000 ft pass, winded, tired, elated and watching a high altitude electrical storm flash its way over a basin and headed our direction.
electric storm over my shoulder
We made a quick hike down to the tree line to set up camp where I finally succumbed to altitude, road fatigue and no more f***ng Redbull. As the rain caught us our bivy sacks came out, a tarp went up hastily and we boiled water for our dinner. I was shaking in my sleeping bag and passed out in the grey of dusk before I was overtaken by actual night fall.
Day 2: Stimulators, Hoppers and Sofa Pillows
I woke up the morning of day two being smothered by a tarp. In the mental fog of the previous night’s fatigue I set up camp on such a steep slope that I had slid under the wing of my MSR E-wing tarp. We set our damp gear out in the early morning sun to dry as we made oatmeal, drank instant coffee and looked over the maps for the day’s hike. We wanted to make sure to get some decent fishing in today. There were two lakes in particular I wanted to take my brother to. One holds very nice sized rainbows and the other holds the possibility of a trophy sized yellowstone cutthroat. We agreed on a destination and set to it.
My brother was auditioning a new piece of navigational software on his phone. That morning we learned the hard way to always double check bearings! Right out of the gate I led us up the wrong sliver of basin and turned a twenty minute leisurely morning warm up into an hour long bushwhack. Slowly we got back to where we needed to be and I learned that I could not fully trust the memory of a trail from fifteen years prior and would need to be more careful. Once we got on the trail and figured out the gps we made great time and made our destination in the early afternoon. We passed two groups of people that were either on their way out or planned on hiking in no further. One group told us that the larger of the two lakes had a bear that destroyed a campsite two weeks prior. We decided to camp at the smaller of the two lakes that contained primarily rainbow trout and hopefully no bear.
We crossed over huge expanses of bare rock littered with glacial erratic boulders. Some of theses boulders were house sized and rested on impossibly small rocks making it look like they hovered above the ground. We ended up setting up camp in the lee of one of these enormous glacial erratic boulders.
Once down at the water’s edge we immediately found cruising rainbows and decent sized ones too. I rigged up my 6ft 9wt fly rod and tied on a big hopper pattern to the end of my twelve foot 5x leader. The first cast to one of these cruising trout resulted in a glorious confident take and a fish on the stringer for dinner. There are some places in the range where you would not keep the fish. This lake was not one of them and the 17” rainbow was poached and eaten over a bed of Ramen noodles with an indian chickpea dish over the top. I am still getting spiritual sustenance from that meal.
We each walked the shore of the lake in opposite directions. David continued casting to rising and cruising fish with big goofy dry fly patterns like stimulators and sofa pillows. I decided to switch to a small size 16 black bead head ant. Trout can’t say no to an ant. They really have a hard time saying no to a beetle too, but an ant is pure gold up on these lakes. Before we left I loaded my flyboxes with all the misfit and poorly tied flies I had knowing they would hit almost anything, but by the end of the trip it was the most simple ant and beetle patterns that accounted for most of my fish. These fish have such a small window of opportunity to pack on the pounds that they are voracious when the ice is out. “Fly Fishing the Mountain Lakes” by Gary LaFontaine has a lot to say about terrestrial patterns in the mountains. Terrestrials make up a large part of their diet as they are blown in constantly by the strong winds. They can at times be very picky, but that is the exception, unless you are talking about golden trout. Those guys can be very picky little bastards.
David working the shallows for rainbows
Day 3: Only you can prevent forest fires
You are having a fever dream. Maybe in the kitchen someone burnt the toast but by the time the smell reaches your swelling brain it turns into a raging forest fire high up on the mountains. You are the bruin version of the stay puff marshmallow man, 200 feet tall with mounty hat and all. You are wildly trying to put out the blaze. You kick and hit and swipe, knocking down acres of burnt pine and spruce and in so doing create a blackened larger than life version of pickup sticks. You awake soaked in sweat with your sheets on the floor, your heart in your throat and in your dreams you have created a new level of Dante’s little hotel.
My brother and I first heard of the forest fire and blow downs on the second day into our trip. A few hours into our hike on day two we ran into a youth group from Salt Lake city. They were enjoying a late breakfast of pan fried cutthroat trout when we came upon their camp. We exchanged greetings and pleasantries and after we told one of the adult leaders of our proposed route he asked if we knew about the fire that had happened three years prior. Of course we had not, but I didn’t want to look like I hadn’t done my homework and tried to minimize what seemed like a non issue. Three years ago? How is this going to be a problem? Well, that was my first problem. Not acknowledging that we had a problem. They offered us fresh cooked trout and we easily could have accepted the delicious meal and asked for more information. Being stubborn Minnesotans and being eager to eat up the miles, we thanked them and hiked on. Stupidly we hiked on.
start of the day's hike
That day’s crux was another high pass, over 11,000ft. On the back side of the pass was a very steep decent with wicked switch-backs taking you down to the tree line. Getting to the top was straight forward and we were getting our trail legs and lungs in shape with every step. Upon reaching our full altitude at 9:45 that morning, we were met with the first wave of realization that things had changed. From our vantage looking towards the north we were able to see the first signs of the fire and subsequent blow downs. What had previously been a lush green alpine forest set amid bare rock faces and a smattering of boulders was now a sci fi set of a recently charred world. After a few handfuls of fruit and nuts and rehydration we started our decent.
normal forest on the left, dead forest on the right
What we imagined to be just under an hour of hiking to our next fishing spot turned into several hours of on the trail and off the trail bushwhacking. We would spot the small cairns and blazes marking the rocky path only to have a three tree deep blowdown blocking the way. Mixed in and around the “trail” were uncountable elk trails. Often our most successful bushwhacking was along these elk trails, but they were usually short lived. Though delayed we found our way. Hot and covered in charcoal blackened pants we made it to our first fishing stop of the day. This was a section of water leading into a lake I had been dreaming about for fifteen years. Despite the fire, the first section of this high alpine meadow stream was untouched by flame. Green came down the hills to meet the flowing waster. As we crossed the stream we spooked several nice sized cuts. We stopped and watered ourselves and tended to our beat up feet.
My brother decided to spend and hour or so hiking downstream to fish the meadow section back up to our packs. I decided to fish upstream from where we were and then maybe take a short nap. I strung up a fourteen foot telescopic fixed line Kieryu rod and tied a deer hair hopper pattern to the tippet. The section I fished was skinny water and the fish were a bit more spooky than the cuts and bows of the deeper and slower meadow section. I started catching cuts up to 17” in the crystal clear waters. I was also lucky enough to catch several parr after I downsized to a sz 14 elk hair caddis. These yellowstone cutthroat parr had similar “dots” to round whitefish parr I caught this spring on lake superior. Both of these waters had in common glass clear water and similar colored stones on the lake and stream bed. Rested and ready we resumed our hike north.
We had another seven miles until we reached our destination lake. Easy peasy. Abruptly we again entered a wasted land. Burned and downed trees. We hugged the meadow to avoid the blow downs. After a mile or so we spotted another angler fishing the meadow section and then moments latter his two companions. They were seated on boulders up in the bare tree line. Grubby and trail weary, they were passing through on their way back to the trail head. Their grime combined with the hot dry and burnt out tree line from which they emerged conjured a post apocalyptic mountain fishing gothic vibe. Look that genre up at the local library. They told us they were 10 days out. They said the fishing had been decent. Inquiring into our route, we mentioned our destination for the day and just hinted that we would be moving on to look for golden trout. A tall gaunt dude from Cleveland spoke up and informed us that the five “secret lakes” no longer contained pure goldens and that they only caught several hybrids. Hmmm, five secret lakes. WTF was this guy talking about? We were headed to a chain of four lakes. These lakes were protected from hybridization by several sets of barrier falls and contained no upstream lakes or streams that could dilute the stock from higher altitudes. Either he was messing with us or he was talking about something different. There is another series of lakes that contain golden trout south of our target lakes which my brother and I ultimately ended up fishing. But even then we were easily able to find pure goldens. It is my opinion that they fished several lakes even further to the south before they hit the trail that was the back door to the lake where we met. We thanked them for the info and moved on.
For a very exciting and brief period we found a trail that was in awesome condition and had no fire damage. It was like walking in a giant alpine park. We flew through sections like this to make up time.
survey marker from 1920
Of course this was short lived. Soon we were back chasing down elk trails and climbing over blowdowns. We used a technique called contouring for much of these bushwhacking sections. We would review the map and look at our destination. We would then look at the topo lines to see what sorts of cliffs, humps bumps etc might be between us and the goal. We then pick a line based on altitude and try damn hard to stay at that altitude until we reach the goal. That means wandering back and forth over blown down trees and house sized boulders without climbing to high or dropping too low. On steep slopes this can be quite an endeavor. My brother noticed that his hips were sore from the imbalance of a high leg and a low leg. Upon reflection at the end of the trip, this proved to be our second hardest day of hiking overall.
As we contoured at 9,400 feet for several miles, again we were dogged by no trail and massive amounts of downed timber. To top it off, once we made it to within a mile of the lake we realized that we contoured way to high. We put ourselves through so much effort when we should have been several hundred feet lower. As we neared the lake our spirits were lifted. It was nearly 6:00pm and all we had left to do was pick a good place to camp and then catch some cuts to eat for dinner. We found a nice rocky prow that gave us both access to the lake below and a flat place to sleep.The spot also gave us standing trees of enough size to hang our bear bags.
We quickly set up camp, which basically entailed dropping our packs, finding a tree to hang our food from and filtering water for drinking and for cooking. I removed my shoes and had to peel the socks off of my heels. The wool blend socks were stiff with blood and puss. What started as a hot spot from socks that were too big for my shoes had become a serious liability during the day’s strenuous hike. I had rubbed through several layers of tissue. Throughout the rest of the trip i relied heavily on aggressive taping to control the damage. The mistake was simple. I ordered two pairs of socks of a brand and style I pre hiked with. However, these new socks ran slightly larger than the previous version and did not wear the same in my shoes. Rooky mistake. Never take new gear into the woods. Always make sure it is broken in tried and true.
Immediately after this the fishing rods came out and we started catching fish. My brother continued to fish dry flies for cuts cruising just off of the shelf we camped on. I decided to take a direct route to fill our stringer and affixed my spinning reel to my fly rod. Within two casts the Panther Martin spinner I was using brought in a perfect eating size cut of about 15”. I have not met a lake dwelling cutthroat yet that can say no to a Panther Martin. Both David and I caught several more in short order and we soon had three fish to add protein to our carbohydrate heavy rations.
That night, with full bellies, we got camp in order and I tended my horrific blisters. We watched cutthroat trout continue to eat flying ants off of the surface of the dead calm water until we ran out of light. By headlamp we reviewed the map to plan the next day’s route. Day four we would make the final push to the four golden trout lakes. We could see that the burn ended shortly up the drainage that we were to follow. This meant that even without a trail we would be able to make great time.
David with late evening cut
one rod to rule them all, spin reel on flyrod