Wyoming High Country Trout

Reprinted From Fly Fishing Quarterly Magazine

Wind River Range WyomingI guess the first time I realized how exceptional the fishing in Wyoming’s Wind River mountains was going to be was when our packer led his horse through the middle of a deep pool in a stream we were crossing and didn’t even bother to comment on the dozen or so trout that went scurrying for cover. When asked about it later, he simply said that he expected there to be trout in the streams. Well, I expected there to be trout too … but nothing like that.

Since that first eye-opening experience, I have made several more trips into different areas of this 2,500 square mile semi­ wilderness and encountered outstanding fishing each time. Thus, in my mind, the fact that you will catch lots of fish on a visit to the Wind River Range can just about be taken for granted. The real considerations in planning a trip revolve around the kind of fish you want to catch and how, where and when you choose to do so.

Goldens, Cutthroat and Brookies

Hard as it may be to believe, less than 100 years ago, the vast majority of high altitude lakes in Wyoming were devoid of fish. The reason was simply that most were too isolated for natural populations of fish to reach them. When the railroads opened up the West around the turn of the century, stocking programs were initiated, and today the Wind River Range has hundreds of lakes which support healthy populations of trout.

The marquee attraction for most fly fishermen who visit the area each year is the Golden Trout. This is because goldens, which are generally only found in the most isolated mountain environments, have come to symbolize the ultimate prize in wilderness fishing. The Wind River Range, with its abundance of lakes in the shadow of the Continental Divide, provides one of the best opportunities in the country to catch (and hopefully release) a trophy golden between three and five pounds.

Personally, I find fishing for the more readily accessible cutthroat, brook trout and rainbows to be nearly equally as rewarding. So, for anglers who don’t have the time or physical prowess to make it all the way up to the goldens, don’t despair. Good fishing for these other species can usually be found within much closer proximity of the trailhead. As a general rule, brookies and cutts are also considerably easier to catch than goldens. Information on the species of fish available in various area lakes and streams can be obtained from either the Wyoming Game and Fish Department or U.S. Forest Service.

Spotting Fish In Alpine Lakes

Because most alpine lakes are extremely deep and cold, trout tend to move into shallow water along the shore to feed. On many days, anglers with polarized glasses can see hundreds of fish by simply scanning the water from atop a shoreline ledge or boulder. Needless to say, this can be very exciting. It can also be frustrating, because catching these fish isn’t always as easy as it might seem.

The trick to catching these shoreline cruisers is waiting to spot one before making a cast. This is because these fish are very easily spooked by movement or the sight of line on the water. For fly fishermen accustomed to continually blind-casting, waiting for that first fish to appear can be a trying experience. Learning to lay your line out so that only the fly intercepts the fish as it passes by is also a challenge. In fact, in my first experience spotting fish at Baptiste Lake, I’m sure I spooked at least 30 for every one I caught. Fortunately, however, the skills needed to catch these fish develop quickly. And since they typically are rather unselective in the type of flies they will take (usually any well placed nymph, Woolly Bugger or Muddler will do), even a novice can expect a reasonable number of hook-ups each day.

When trout are feeding on the surface, however, they can be quite a bit more finicky. Naturals are often small midges and midge pupae requiring flies down to sizes 22 to properly match the hatch. If you are caught without the appropriate patterns, don’t worry. Frequently, you can have reasonable success with a selection of standard dries that includes a Parachute Adams, Elk­ Hair Caddis and a Black Gnat. Erratically stripping a damp Muddler near the surface will also produce aggressive strikes during these selective surface feeding situations.

Stream Fishing

In most good lakes, trout will be wide-bodied and range between 12 and 18 inches. In streams, however, fish over 14 inches are harder to find. This is because in many streams, the fish are so numerous they never get a chance to grow as big. The South Fork of the Little Wind River is a perfect example. I have had days on this stream where I caught a trout on nearly every cast.  Only about one out of every 20, however, could reach from one end of the frying pan to the other.

For anglers seeking action, the freestone sections of these mountain streams are the places to be. Generally, simply blind-casting a high floating western dry fly like an Irresistible or Humpy will produce plenty of strikes. And by concentrating your efforts in areas where the streambed deepens or the current slows, you can usually catch more fish than you ever dreamed of.

Catching large fish in a moving water environment requires you to search out the places where they congregate. These include the slower flowing meadow stretches of most mountain streams (where the water deepens and banks become undercut) and the inlet or outlet areas of lakes. Initially, maps can be useful in helping to identify promising areas, but ultimately you will have to check them out individually.

Once a good spot has been located, the size of the average trout usually increases.  Most of the truly trophy fish caught in moving water usually come from inlets and outlets of lakes on meaty flies such as Woolly Buggers, Muddlers, and streamers. But for me, spending the day in an alpine meadow casting dry flies to an endless procession of 12-inch trout is probably about as close to paradise as I will ever come.

Trip Planning Information

Wind River Mountain Range, Wyoming.   Location: Northwestern Wyoming, approx imately 75 miles southeast of Yellowstone National Park.   Season: Most alpine trails are passable from late June through early October. Because of mosquitos (early) and the threat of bad weather (late), the optimum time to visit is August through mid-September.   Access: There are 16 different trailheads which offer access into the Wind River Mountain Range. The nearest towns with services are Pinedale, Lander and Dubois, Wyoming. The nearest commercial airports are in Riverton or Jackson, Wyoming.   Licenses: A Wyoming fishing license is required for all anglers ages 14 and over. If you will be fishing (or even travelling) on land which is part of the Wind River Indian Reservation, you will need a Tribal permit. Information: Inquiries regarding trails, maps, camping, etc. should be directed to either the District Ranger, Wind River District, Dubois, Wyoming 82513 or the Forest Supervisor, Shoshone National Forest, Box 2140, Cody, Wyoming 82414. Fishing information can be obtained from the Wyoming Game and Fish Dept., 5400 Bishop Boulevard. Cheyenne, Wyoming 82002 as well as individual Area Supervisors at 260 Buena Vista, Lander, Wyoming 82520 or Box 850, Pinedale, Wyoming 82941.