Golden Trout that way
Day four started with a leisurely breakfast and a bit of fishing before our planned hike started. Like the night before we found several nice sized cuts within easy fly casting range of shore. In many of these high mountain lakes there is a shelf which drops off drastically to deep water. How deep? No idea. But deep. Other than casting to cruising fish on top of the shelf in shallow water the most common way we caught fish was to cast out larger buoyant flies right out over the deep water. Sometimes the take was instantaneous. A trout would materialize from the depths and nail the fly. Sometimes the fly would sit for over 30 seconds before it was cautiously slurped. If nothing happened after that a slight twitch to give the fly movement would often trigger a strike. Casting to rising trout also increased our hook up rate.
Today’s route took us up and towards the continental divide. We would follow the north fork of a drainage stream and that would lead us to a series of four lakes. In these lakes we were to catch pure golden trout. Our planned stop for the day was the highest of the lakes and we simply referred to it as lake four.
On the very first leg of our hike we hugged the shore of the lake we were leaving. There we found our first sign of bear. The print looked like a smaller bear of undetermined species. we found several prints in the soft sand. Not far from these prints we came upon a large ripe blueberry patch clinging to a wet green area at the base of the burn line. The tops of many of the bushes had been sheered off by hungry bears. Even though we had been hiking for less than half an hour we took a mandatory berry stop. Most of the berry patches we passed had either failed to produce any fruit or only coughed up a few small bitter berries. These were perfect and we gratefully enjoyed them while making sure to leave plenty for our unseen furry buddy.
We climbed out of the burn area and entered a steep but vegetated section of the range. It was such a relief to be bushwhacking in an area that though it had no trail, it also had no major blow downs. Somewhere “up hill” I knew a trail must still exist, but we decided that we would stay somewhat close to the moving water to see if there were any fishable pools that were begging to be fished. We passed several sets of barrier falls. It reminded us both of an approach hike we had done together in the Sierras many years ago; open understory, huge conifers towering above and providing shade. Even though the area was very dry the moisture of the spray from the drainage and turbulent water made it feel more habitable and park like.
on the way to the golden lakes
With minimal cursing we found ourselves at the first lake. We cautiously approached the shore to begin scouting for cruising fish or rising fish. After careful scrutiny we found neither, so we continued to follow the drainage to the second lake. Here we stopped for lunch and a water refill. Again, no fish. Hmmm. I recalled that both of these lakes produced fish on the previous trip. We decided to blow by lake three and get to lake four and set up camp. Once we had our food hung we geared up and planned to thoroughly fish lake three and the south end of lake four.
Much like the previous two stops we saw no fish. The golden trout up in these lakes primarily feed on scuds, or fresh water shrimp. On my previous trip, scuds were the only flies that produced. In fact, my largest golden came on an olive sz 18 scud fished deep. On lakes three and four I fished a heavily weighted searching scud pattern tied in sz 8. This was a pattern taken from rich Osthoff’s book “fly fishing the rocky mountain back country”. I looked for cruising fish, but also made long casts out over the shelves into deeper water. I lengthened my leader to almost 18ft to help the fly sink faster. Still no fish. While fishing this lake I nearly stepped in a kinda fresh pile of bear poo. Not more than 100 yards away I found a triangular shaped rod tube for a Wright and Mcgill trail master travel rod. It contained no rod and had been punctured by bear teeth in several places and covered in drool before being left near the lake. Fortunately this was as close to a bear encounter we would have. I love bears. I love them more when they are not dragging off my food and equipment.
While fishing the third lake I saw another hiker emerge from the woods. This was quite unexpected. These lakes are somewhat difficult to access from either side of the divide and have been semi secret. He watched me lay out a few long roll casts with my heavily weighted scud pattern from a distance. Shortly thereafter he emerged on the shore where I was fishing and we shook hands. He was nearly as surprised to see me as I was him. We talked for a while and I invited him to stop by our camp if he decided to stay in the area.
I continued in vain to try locate fish. Tired and thirsty I headed back to camp to have a bite and wash off some of the past few day’s stink. After an hour or so my brother returned with the guy I had met and he decided to share our camp that night. He was from Salt Lake City and was a frequent visitor to the range. He was intimately familiar with several areas but had not yet been to these four lakes. We decided that we would eat dinner then head out near dusk to see if we could locate any rising trout. If they were going to show themselves this would be the time. At dusk we geared up. My brother and Radik took up a perch on a giant flat topped two story tall boulder to scan the lake. I rigged up a spinner and decided to actively search around a bend. Three sets of eyes and many many casts with a Panther Martin turned up nothing. No rises were seen and all of the hatching insects that were emerging did so unbothered by any trout.
I joined my brother and our new friend atop the boulder as the light of the day started to give way and the headlight bright light of a nearly full moon took its place. I slept on top of that very boulder fifteen years prior on a similarly clear and starlit night. The three of us reclined on the boulder to count the shooting stars of the Perseid meteor shower. We talked fishing and travel late into the night. He was very passionate about trout fishing and it was fascinating to hear of his small stream fishing success. It was similar to meeting a fellow roughfisherman trying to catch carp in some shitty little armpit of an urban rivlet. The simple fact that you are both in the same off-beat place at the same time trying to catch the same fish automatically connects you.
He filled us in on his current trip and where he had come from so far. My brother and I had planned on stopping at this lake and fishing intensively for the goldens. With such a drastic lack of fish we were faced with the choice of either continuing to probe these four lakes, returning to a previous lake and focusing on cutthroats or to add another larger loop to our trip and fish other lakes that were known to have active golden trout. Our friend told us that this had been among the warmest summers in the range on record. Water levels were low and water temps up. Perhaps this had driven the goldens deep. Neither of us was willing to give up on golden trout. We both saw the writing on the wall and both had the same sense that something had happened to these lakes and we were not going to have any luck. They did not feel fishy anymore. We decided that we would hit the spot where I had my best luck in 2001 both for size and numbers. If it was bunk we would cut bait and start on a new loop.
lake 4, no trout to be found
Day 5: Gold pans out
The alarm on my watch woke us up just as the sky started to grey with the promise of the sun. Having our rods rigged and ready, we quickly boiled water for coffee and oatmeal. After the hurried breakfast we re hung our food bags and made our way to fish a section of lake one that was our last hope. We mutually agreed that we would spend no more than an hour there searching if the fish did not present themselves. This was a 5 mile round trip, but deemed necessary before we set of on much longer and steeper search for golden trout. The Dead Sea had more action than lake one. We didn’t even give it an hour. We broke down our rods and high tailed it back to camp so we could begin the next leg of our journey.
The drainage that the four lakes we were on and the drainage to the south makes a wishbone on the map. The north side of the wishbone contains lakes one through four plus a couple of smaller lakes with no fish. The south side of the wishbone has at least eight lakes feeding it. We were to make a connecting loop that would tie the top of each drainage together. This new route would take us right back to the “stem” of the wishbone but via the south fork. Our friend showed us on his map where he found fish and where he thought would be good places to search. With renewed vigor and sense of purpose we left the relative “comfort” of being in places that I had already visited for an unknown route. With all the bushwhacking and blow downs of the previous days we were concerned that we might find more of the same on the other side of our next 11,000 ft pass.
We had a perfect day. Clear and warm but not hot. Our packs were getting lighter everyday as we used up our food and we were also now acclimated to the altitude. Hiking that day was made even better due to the trail itself. There was one! We had passed out of the reservation boundary and were now in the National park. The trails were remote but maintained. Also, there was no burn to this section. When the path became faint we could almost always find cairns marking the way. We wound our way up higher and higher. We entered sections that still held snow and secret deep hanging lakes. Though it felt like my heels were worn to the bone, hiking was a joy and the mood was light. Near the summit of our pass my brother found what we believe to be a Mormon cricket, a wicked cool insect. The high alpine flowers in this section were in full bloom and our senses were rewarded in multiple ways. We looked south and saw our first series of lakes lain out before us, splendid and blue with a perfect balance of rock and tree meeting the water. It was even more splendid knowing that our new friend had been catching many goldens from these lakes just days before.
When we made it to the shore of our first lake my brother immediately saw a small group of cruising goldens! We dropped our packs and rigged up. He had first dibs on the cruisers he saw and went after them with a dry fly. I decided to scout the margins to the east armed with my number one high country fly; a size 16 black ant. The one I tied to my tippet had a black tungsten bead head, black beaver dubbing for the body and very slim gauge rubber for the legs. Every variation of the black ant has produced for me from foam body to hard lacquered body with hackle. As I searched for cruising fish I made periodic blind casts to likely looking areas. One of these casts produced my first golden trout of the trip. This was a thick bodied trout with darker markings than I had seen before. It absolutely smashed the ant as if it could not get it in its mouth fast enough. Since my brother now was almost out of ear shot and could not take a photo I carefully laid the fish on the shore to snap a one myself. I am a person who should never be entrusted to take a photo that counts. After fifteen years and five days of crazy hiking I managed to cut off the fish’s tail in the photo. No joke. I did that. Butchered the photo.
Fortunately this was the first golden of many over the next two days, but unfortunately I managed to destroy most of those photo ops too. I could see that David had made contact with at least one fish, but could not tell if it came to hand. The wind picked up making sighting fish all but impossible so we decided it was time to find a place to camp right in the middle of these lakes. We wanted a site that would give us easy access to fish both lakes and the streams that connected them. My brother and I both prefer stream fishing these fish over lake fishing. Maybe it is just easier to read moving water than a huge expanse of lake? However, our search for bigger fish would not be satisfied in the moving water.
We noticed weather moving in rapidly and made a scramble to find a camp before it started to rain. We almost made it. I found a great spot high up on a rocky shoulder of a hill right on the stream we wanted to fish. David went to filter water for dinner and I set up a tarp in the rain so we could have a dry area to set up our bivy sacks. We ate in the rain a little earlier than usual so we would have ample time to fish the stream until dark. One item not on the menu tonight was golden trout. On my previous trip it was considered just fine and even encouraged to eat some of the golden trout. After our talking with our new friend he said that it was no longer a good idea to eat the goldens and on theses lakes in particular. They were still trying to determine if any supplemental stocking would be required to support the fishery. So we stuck to our dehydrated meals without trout. David’s mountain chili was a gift that kept giving. Every time he broke wind for the next day and a half mountain chili was in the air.
We hung our food bags, retied our leaders and tippets and made our way to the stream below. David really likes to scout a water then fish it back upstream. I can be a little more loose in how I dissect a stream, often drifting my fly or streamer downstream into likely holding areas. We split the mile long section of stream in the middle and did best of three rock paper scissors to see who would fish what section. David was the winner. He walked down to the next lake and would fish it back up to the middle. I started fishing where I was and fished my way back up to the lake we already explored. I was fishing a smaller sized elk hair caddis and drifting through each and every small run and pool I could find. The water was fairly low and the stream bed was a jumble of car sized boulders and smaller. The water was supremely clear. Between boulders in a slot no wider than 2 feet across I was catching eager trout. These slots varied in depth from two feet to well over six. I was catching golden from parr sized up to around 11”, each more colorful than the previous. Again, these fish were much darker. It was almost like catching brook trout from root beer colored tannin stained waters from the MN arrowhead region. I continued to take fish until I nearly ran out of daylight. I easily caught twenty five fish. After meeting back up with David, it appeared that he also had high number of fish.
As we returned to camp we heard music drifting down to us from higher up in a valley. We saw a young couple earlier as we fished. We could not see where they set up but apparently they were playing a strum stick or small guitar and quietly welcoming the dark. We donned our headlamps and agin poured over the map making plans for the next day’s hike. Day six would take us on a side trip to a high altitude lake that was one hell of a steep hike.
we found our golden trout at this lake
Day 6: Water water every where nor any drop to drink
We were up and on the trail just after nine. We were thrilled that the trail was in such good shape. We were making good time and were confident that until we had to re-enter the reservation we would have decent hiking in terms of pace. The first stop of the day was a side trip up to a lake that sits at 10,630 ft. This was the highest lake in the drainage and undoubtedly contained only pure goldens. We hiked to the base of the trail that would take us to the lake and left our packs on top of a large boulder. One thing I did differently on this trip was to bring a fishing vest instead of a small day or fanny pack. It was a bit heavier than the other options but so much more versatile. All my fishing equipment other than my spinning reel lived in the vest. Fishing was as simple as rigging my rod and throwing on my vest. For this side trip I stashed a rain jacket, water filter and a bag of nuts and fruit in the rear pocket. We excitedly and quickly made the steep hike up to the lake. In this area of the range we did encounter two more groups of hikers. A very perky young couple from salt lake and a grim looking string of 5 hikers that almost wordlessly stepped off the trail as we passed them on our way to fish.
This was a true high alpine trout lake. Even in mid August on one of the hottest years on record there was still snow on multiple flanks of the steep banks right down to the water. It was a sunny day and windy, but not too windy to make sight fishing a chore. Immediately we started to see fish rising a stone’s throw from shore. Though we had a moderately long hike planned for the day, we decided we were in no hurry and would methodically probe the lake. I sat on a boulder and lengthened my leader before tying on a huge sinking scud in bright orange. I was casting out towards the rises and I was coming up blank. Within a half hour we realized we were in the midst of a large mayfly hatch. They were brown and about size 14-16. Trout were aggressively smashing emerging insects as well as slurping them. Many times we saw stout bodied golden trout fully leave the water and nail an emerging fly mid air. Shit. We brought patterns that would cover many bases but none hatch specific flies. I went through my three boxes for something that would fit the bill. I tried several varieties of emergers including hair wing trailing shuck emergers. I took out a knife and modified other flies of the right size and color to get them to sit flush in the film. I even tried to break the hatch with ants and beetles. The trout would have none of it.
highest lake in the drainage just under 11,000ft
I kept thinking of Coleridge’s mariner dying of thirst while surrounded by water. There were active fish and I had flies but I was not able to partake of them. Since so many fish were out past the shallow shelf feeding in deep water I had not seen many cruising fish. I decided that I would ignore the fish that were ignoring me and focus on finding cruising fish, even if the chances were slim. At least these fish, by the very act of cruising the shallows, were not engaged in the maddening hatch. I went back to a long leader and a larger roll over scud in bright orange. No matter the hatch these golden trout still took most of their protein from the fresh water shrimp. It’s like an average guy at a buffet. He might be focused on all the fancy new food but if ya toss a burger his way he will not say no. So I was going to toss a burger.
scuds ants beetles
Slowly I walked the shore scanning the shelf which extended about fifteen to twenty feet out from the shore. I scanned every nook and cranny. I used scatter vision to try to catch movement in my periphery. I stood atop one large boulder and saw movement right at the margins of the shelf and deep water. I could see that the fish was a decent sized golden and the only one I had seen for some time. Dropping the coil of fly line in my left hand I started to work out a cast. I had only about thirty five to forty feet to cast and was unsure which way the fish was moving. I didn’t want to be too hasty and flub my cast but I didn’t want to wait too long and miss the fish either. I let the cast fly and it landed within a few feet of where I spotted the movement. From my higher vantage I was able to see the fly sink a couple of feet and then be inhaled violently by the nice golden. Other than one missed strike earlier this was the first fish I had on since we had started fishing nearly two hours earlier. It was a beast. I yelled for my brother as I was hoping he could get a photo of me holding the trout, but he was far away on the opposite side of the lake and could not even hear me yelling. I jumped down from the boulder and carefully worked him in to a flat spot on shore. I was using 5x tippet and there were many rocks on which to abrade a tippet. As he moved in I could see it was a long skinny fish and brilliantly colored with a broad red stripe set on a buttery flank, pink cheeks, pectoral and anal fins with a white leading edge and a perfect smattering of spots on the tail. I quickly took out a tape from my vest and it measured a hair shy of 20”. I snapped a quick photo and then made sure it was revived and strong before I let it swim off. Full of piss and vinegar it splashed me like a carp when I finally let it go. I reeled in and put the fly on the hook keeper. I was done fishing this lake and was thrilled beyond words. This was what I traveled so far for. This was worth it. No more albatross.
what I came for, nice old golden trout just under 20"
My brother and I regrouped and made the quick 25 minute hike back to our packs. We broke down the rods and prepared for a long hike that would be in large part a bushwhack. We knew that sooner or later we would re-enter the burn zone and with it the blow downs. Double checking the maps, we made our way down the drainage. We had one intense mile of talus hopping right in the bed of the drainage. House sized boulders punctuated by chasms the bottoms of which we could not see. Though we had not come to the burn yet we knew the prospect of finding a trail through this section was slim to none. We dead reckoned point to point until we hit a section that was more forgiving.
Our end goal for the day was to return to the same lake we camped at on day three. Following the south fork of the drainage towards its convergence we started to encounter lower gradient water that was too good to pass without fishing. We spooked up several decent sized cuts, rainbows and cut bows at every stream crossing. At the top of a small plunge pool that looked so tasty we could not pass it up, we again did best of three rock paper scissors. Again my brother won and took up his place at the side of the pool. Within minutes of rigging up a foam hopper I too was catching spunky and colorful trout from nearly every pocket I fished. This was a either a dream or a nightmare from the hybrid standpoint. This low down the drainage there was virtually no hope for a pure strain golden and we did not even bother trying to discern. But, we caught so many shades of rainbow and cutthroat that is was exciting to pull in each and every fish to see what combination it would be. Had it not been for the decreasing angle of the sun we would have stayed there for hours.
Nearing dark and exhausted we came to our lake and quickly set to making supper. While my brother filtered water I tied on a Panther Martin and caught two nice cuts to add to our dinner. That night’s dinner was by far the biggest yet. A huge batch of tortilla soup on top of ramen and fortified with cutthroat steaks. Dude. As we ate we planned out the next day’s hike. We would be now re hiking the way we originally took back towards the trail head. With the benefit of hind sight we decided to stay lower in elevation and hug the lake as long as possible before entering the blow down hell. We decided that we would do a long hike the next day with a long break in the middle so we could re fish the meadow section of a stream we just barely got to the last time we came through.
super mega sunblock
not sure the name of this parasitic wasp, but must be Latin for badassed
Day 7: What in the actual F were we thinking
sunup day 7 camped at water's edge
We knew day seven was going to be a long day in terms of miles and elevation. We would also be re-hiking two sections that had given us the most troubles with route finding and blow downs. What we failed to put in the equation was that we would be ascending the back side of the second high pass we originally descended. The back side was much more steep. It was a series of crazy switchbacks. The hike down was taxing. The hike up was brutal and we would be climbing at at the very end of the day when we would be at our most tired.
We left the camp nice and early and made our way to the far side of the lake. From there we were very deliberate about what way we would go. I told my brother that I would scope a line and then he would have to agree to it before we continued. I knew we would both be tired and grumpy by the end of the day and I did not want one person to have to be responsible for the navigation. It could lead to resentment later if the route finding was as bad as the first time. Though the route was picky, we did put together a good trail and were even able to piece together sections of the old trail by finding the remnants of cairns and burnt trees with blazes. We made ok time and were soon half way to our fishing destination for the day. We set aside several hours to fish this meadow and were both very eager. Once again we were lucky enough to stumble into a depression that was moist enough to support a verdant and bountiful patch of blueberries. These were the best yet and we thoroughly gorged on them before picking up the trail.
We left the burn and re entered broad and open trails. There we spied a huge martin and were chided by grey jays. Before we knew it the meadow opened before us. Hot and tired we hydrated and ate a quick lunch. We rigged our rods and hung our food then got down to fishing. This was very gratifying fishing for decent sized cuts up to 18”. This was like fishing a spring creek almost. High weeds along the bank and huge undercut banks where fish could retreat to. They were actively taking terrestrials that were blown in. The current was not strong and fast so the fish had lots of time to view a fly before deciding to take it or not. I started with a hopper pattern and caught fish, but I was getting a number of refusals. I switched to ant and beetle patterns and was able to catch nearly all the fish I decided to cast to.
nice meadow section cut
high alpine meadow stream
At the designated time we met back at the food bags and mustered the energy to shoulder our packs and continue on our way. It was late in the afternoon and we had several miles of steep tough hiking in front of us. When we pondered setting up camp there for the night the prospect of hitting the pass first thing in the morning was not much of a relief so we doubled down and went to it. As hard as we tried to stick to a line, once in the blow downs again we made tedious progress. As the day wore on we still had not hit the steep switchbacks on the back of the pass. We saw dark clouds build up behind the pass and the occasional lighting strike or rumble.
asses kicked top of the pass, rain and snow approaching
still smiling after a brutal day on the trail
We had made it above the tree line and now had to fully commit to making the pass and getting down the back side before dark. We just barely made it. We hit the top of the pass at 11,000ft at nearly 8pm. light was failing and we had less than one hour to get down to a lake and make camp. We also walked into a freezing drizzle with the occasional rumble. By the time we were half way down we had freezing rain and sleet. As it was getting near dark we found a flat spot near the lake and set up a tarp. It was 8:45 and we made excellent time once we were motivated by freezing rain and the thought of a warm meal.
Eating by headlamp, we discussed the plan and agreed that the best fishing was behind us. We had made our goal of catching golden trout and we had done so while maintaining an attitude of exploration. The remaining bodies of water between our camp and the trail head didn’t hold too much for us in the way of excitement. We decided that we would pack up early in the morning and make our way out of the range. Our reservation trespass permit allowed us to fish anywhere on the reservation so we decided we would fish the Wind River itself and see what other species we could muster. It was a solid decision and we both retired for the night completely spent by the day’s effort but excited with the prospect of hitting new water.
Day 8: Not so fast
We felt the change in the weather. Neither of us really wanted to get out of our sleeping bags. It had stopped raining but it was cold. We drank coffee and ate oatmeal while waiting for fish to start rising on the glass calm lake. We took down camp as the surface began to dimple with the first rises. Having already packed I decided to take out a fixed line rod and try for one last lake fish before we took off. I had a 14ft line on the 14ft rod and had an effective cast of nearly thirty feet. A few casts fanned out with a smallish elk hair caddis produced a nice plump rainbow trout. We said goodbye to the fish, the fish said goodbye to us. We now made way for the trailhead. We had one high pass and then it was all downhill to the finish. But nothing could ever be that easy.
The first hour or so into the hike we had fine weather and made great time. By the time we had made it to the final lake before our entry into the final basin things had turned. We stopped at a horse pack in camp. It was maintained by the reservation for hunting in the fall and fisherman used it in the off season. It was basically some log benches and a fire ring. People had left various items like half smoked cigarettes in an empty Folgers coffee jar and a couple of old frying pans. We took cover under the tall pines and donned our rain jackets. As the cold rain started we ate some nuts and fruit and filtered water. So far it was just rain, but we could start to hear thunder rumbling somewhere not too far off. We set off at a hurried pace. The one thing that could trap us in this basin and keep us from leaving was lightning. We often saw lightning in the mountains. It’s common and frequent. Usually it comes with rain and darker clouds and we can see it coming. With the overall cloud cover on top of us it was a little harder to tell from which way it was coming. We headed to the basin and hiked as fast as we could without running, and even then we broke into a trot more than once. It was a very tense fifteen minutes. We tried carefully to gauge which way everything was moving and how far away the rumbles were from the flashes but we couldn’t really tell. We just knew we had to get the hell out of the open land. Once out of the open we hiked as far up the tree line as we could so that when the lightning stopped we would be as close as humanly possible to the top of the pass. We stopped in a grove of pines and waited. I took out my stop watch and timed the intervals between the lightning. We decided we would wait at least twenty minutes after a flash before setting out. We gauged that it would take roughly forty minutes to make the top of the pass from where we were. After we had a period of twenty minutes without a strike we hurriedly shouldered our packs over our rain jackets and hauled ass up the pass. What we thought would take forty minutes took just over twenty! We made great time and did not stop on top to celebrate. A quick 360 view and down we went.
On our way down I remembered the little beaver dam we stopped at on the first day on our hike in. I reminded David that I wanted to hit up some brookies and he was down with it. I had been toting along a bait puck full of Walmart red worms. I checked on them every day and those things were alive and kicking. Before we knew it we were at the brook trout spot. It was still lightly raining. We rigged up the long fixed line rod with a very fine wire sz 14 hook and baited with red worms. We each took turns handing the rod over to the other after we caught a fish. These brookies were bejeweled and splendid, as brookies are. We spent about forty five minutes fishing the flooded area and caught many little feisty trout. This was our last fishing of the mountain waters at elevation and it was a great farewell.
Fleet of foot, we made it miles towards our destination when the weather turned again and it really started to rain. I had only put on my rain jacket. I figured it wouldn’t matter so much if my legs got wet because we would be back at the car before we knew it. Stupid mistake. Again we got hammered by lightning and pinned down. My light weight rain jacket was starting to take on water where the shoulder and sternum straps of my pack pushed water through the membrane. I was not wearing an insulating base layer because I was hiking and did not want to overheat. The prospect of digging out long underwear in the downpour was not a good one so I was determined to pick up the pace and get to the dam car.
Being drenched sucked. The air temp was in the mid forties. I was soaked and starting to shiver. My hands were freezing and going numb. My brother had on more stout rain gear and seemed to be doing well, but we both were eager for the lightning to stop. We were unable to take the open trail and again had to head into the woods and bushwhack our way towards the trail head. It was almost funny. We were no further than two miles away but I might have been in the most danger of the entire trip as I was starting to feel hypothermic. Pretty soon we started to see the tell tale stumps of the area that had been cleared of beetle infested pines. I stumbled across the rock where I had stashed the car keys and shortly thereafter we found the Subaru.
Wet and cold we started her up and turned on the heat. We decided to head down the mountain to warmer climes and then change into dry clothes and go on our merry way. Well shit. No way was that going to happen. Basically from what we were told later it had really not rained since March. On this side of the pass it had been raining on and off for two days. The rutted logging road we crawled up to get to the trail head had severely deteriorated, though it was tough to tell just by looking. But once we went into that first corner it became readily apparent just how screwed we were. It was like stopping on ice but worse. The top several inches of dirt on the road was not so much dirt as clay. Very slippery clay. As we inched our way down, and we were literally inching our way down, we saw trouble ahead.
We were maybe two miles into the eleven mile dirt section of the road. We saw in front of us perhaps two hundred yards downhill a mini van half on the road and half in a deep ditch. There was also a sedan in the middle of the road and maybe 7 kids shivering in shorts standing all around. I stopped way short and we got out and walked over. It was a group of three dads and their kids. They hired a horse packer to take all their gear back eleven miles into the mountains via a trail that David and I did not know about. Now we understood how we saw so many cars but almost no people. They had hiked out that morning like us. And like us they had been caught in the rain. When they piled into their vehicles and hit the road they found out the hard way just how bad the road was. They looked by all accounts to be hopelessly stuck. There was no cell phone reception so a tractor couldn’t be summoned. I had the advantage of the all wheel drive on the Subaru and even then it was dicey. I can’t imagine how they must have felt in their now destroyed two wheel drive rental cars. My brother and I helped push and pull and ultimately I started to walk off into the hills and grab armfuls of brush to fill in the ruts. This gave us just enough purchase to get them out of the ditch. For now. Over the next hour or more we crawled behind them getting out occasionally to help get another car unstuck. Our shoes were encased in a thick and tenacious layer of clay that added pounds to each foot step.
By the time we got to the paved road our nerves were fried. I took the car out of second gear and started to pick up speed but something was terribly wrong. The car was so out of balance that I could hardly go over thirty miles an hour before it violently began to shake. It almost shook the steering wheel out of my still frozen fingers. I’m pretty sure my cursing was achieving record new lows of human communication. I was pissed. We limped the eight miles to the highway and then pulled over. David and I got out and began to reach into the wheels and wheel wells and pulled out many many pounds of clay. Dubious was sixty miles north and Lander less than twenty south. Lander it was. Hopeful after the roadside purge, I pulled onto the highway and gave her gas. When I got to fifty miles per hour again we almost shook off the road. I found a pull over and we got out again. Flat tire. Of course, and why would it be any other way. A short but muddy wrestling match found the flat in the trunk and the spare donut on the car. In lander was a steak and a hot shower, but only after we found a car wash.
tough to tell where the lightning is when you are in the cloud.
pretty little beaver dam brookie
Du-boy-z not Do-bwa
We cleaned up and stayed in Lander Thursday night. By the time we got the car cleaned up and found a hotel room the restaurants were closed. We retreated to the hotel to make fishing plans for Friday and clean up. We defiled that poor bathroom doing laundry in the bathtub. It looked like a homeless squat was broken up when we left.
We both wanted to fish moving water and we still had a permit enabling us to fish the Wind River. Additionally I wanted to try for a grayling and a mountain whitefish. I had contacted someone in the Wyoming game and fish department months earlier and had a lead on some lakes up near Dubois for grayling. Oh, and even though one wants to pronounce Dubois Wyoming with the French élan, if you say “Dubwa” people will look at you like the dipshit dork you are. I found this out the hard way 15 years ago (being the dipshit dork that I am). It’s Du-boys, not Du-bwa.
Friday morning we found a local joint to grab some breakfast and get the skinny on the weather. It was still raining and cold. Lander is home to a very vibrant and active climbing scene. It had been raining for the first time since March and most of the climbers were shut down. My brother being a talented and active climber spoke with several people to get the skinny. The mood was not quite somber, but man, you could tell those dudes really wanted to be climbing. We decided we would start to drive upstream and check out the river at every public access along the way until we found what we wanted. What we found was an off color and blown out river at each and every stop. To better our chances and not piss away our final day of fishing we headed straight to Dubois and found a fly shop. Here we picked up some solid local advice and realized grayling was off the plate for this trip due to a spate of forest fires and rain.
David and I had our adventure in the mountains and we were now just looking for a half day of relaxed river fishing before we tooled off cross country back home. Though we dealt with off color rain swollen rivers, we did manage to get in several hours of fine fishing for mountain whitefish and yellowstone cutthroats. Instead of being anti climatic this was a perfect period to the end of the trip and produced a lifer for me in the mountain whitefish.
lifer mountain whitefish, caught nymphing with a stonefly and hare's ear dropper
we were told the adjacent landowner would shoot first and ask questions later if trespassing was involved.
lilac cheeks on a mountain whitefish David caught
Though my brother and I did deal with some adversity on our hike, I was grateful for every single step. We were very fortunate to have the time and resources available to make the trip happen. We had a great time, saw amazing things and caught some freaking awesome fish. The Wind River range still has kept its top ranking with me as my favorite range. Having met and spoke with other people and hiked beyond the boundaries of my previous trip I now have several ideas for other routes and trips. More importantly, I have a renewed flame to get back there and take some more skin off of my heels while looking for new trails, new species and new adventures.