A Quest for Golden Trout in Colorado

The Backstory

Last summer, while my friend Ali and I were fishing for tiger trout, she asked me a seemingly insignificant question: “have you ever caught a golden trout?”

The answer was no, and I had never really put much more thought into it than that. But, that simple question led me down a rabbit hole that ended up being one of the most grueling and rewarding trips of my life, almost exactly a year later.

That night when I got home, I started digging around online to see if there were any mentions of golden trout in Colorado. There were lots of suggestions here and there of places that occasionally get a load of stocked golden trout, but none seemed that reliable or even that interesting in the first place.

Eventually, I stumbled across an article that piqued my interest. A group of guys had found a small (I mean very small) pocket of reproducing goldens that had been stocked in the 70s and 80s high in the backcountry of Colorado. This kind of adventure sounded more interesting.

After trying unsuccessfully to get the location of these golden trout, I decided to scour everything I could to try to find backcountry goldens the way this group had done. I checked blogs, stocking reports, books, and anything else I could get my hands on to try to pinpoint a place to go.

After hours of digging, I had a place to go. And, it turned out to be the place I had been looking for from the beginning. The problem was, I had no idea if anything would still be there decades later. So, we decided to check.

 

The Prep

The spot we found was deep in a Wilderness Area at high elevation. The closest trailhead I could find was 10 miles from our destination, with at least two of those miles off-trail on steep terrain. It would have to do.

I recruited Ali into this adventure, since she was the one who had originally asked the question. Our plan was to start the hike late Friday night, camp somewhere along the way, and finish the hike on Saturday. Then we’d have all of Sunday to fish, and Monday to get us back home.

Although we wanted to be optimistic, we knew the odds of finding luck with golden trout in the Colorado backcountry were pretty slim. We knew there was even a possibility that we wouldn’t even make it the whole way up there considering the difficulty of the hike. Of course, we were still gung-ho.

 

Day 1: Predator

We started the hike at midnight on Friday after a late start and a long drive. Pumped up on caffeine and sporting a bottle of whiskey, we started our journey with heavy packs and a steep incline. We planned to skip the tent on the first night to give us a quick start the next day, and we hoped to make it about three miles in.

After a mile or so of hiking, we crested a hill in the middle of an open meadow. As soon as we looked over, my headlamp caught the distinct glow of a pair of eyes staring at us from the edge of the trees. This was a predator’s face, and the eyes were high enough off the ground to eliminate the small stuff like coyotes.

Thinking it was a bear, we started to yell, wave our lights, and throw our hands in the air like we had done in the past. Unlike the past, however, these eyes didn’t turn and run. They started moving toward us.

In full-blown panic mode, we fumbled around my pack for mace while keeping our eyes on its eyes and continuing to yell. Eventually it stopped approaching and starting circling around onto the trail ahead of us, still watching. After another minute, it disappeared. Unsure how to proceed, we decided the best thing to do was just pitch our tent and hope for the best. Obviously we lived, so I guess it worked.

Looking back, our best guess is mountain lion, only because we’ve never had a bear act like that before. Once we calmed down, the only downside we were facing was the fact that we were only a mile in instead of three. That would come back to bite us the next day.

 

Day 2: Death Hike

The next day was solely comprised of what I can only refer to as possibly the hardest hike I’ve ever put myself through. With nine miles to go, we were ready to go and excited to get fishing. The first few miles, although hot, were nothing crazy and we made decent time.

A woman hikes toward a distant mountain.
What started as an easy hike turned into a grind.

Things started to slow down at the last fork in the trail we were supposed to hit. After passing it by about a half mile before realizing we missed it (side note, we found out later that we missed it because it was basically non-existent), we decided it would be better to bushwhack our way over to where we needed to be rather than backtrack. Looking back, this was still the right call considering the “trail” would have been a bushwhack too.

Once we got back on track, it was time to start the previously-scheduled bushwhacking portion of the hike: a two-mile, straight uphill grind over fallen trees and talus that went on forever. The quick progress we made at the start was severely offset by the sub-1 mph pace we set through this stretch.

A woman crawls over rocks during a hike.
Much of the off-trail hiking was over loose and unstable rocks.

Needless to say, we got in late. Too late to find fish, and far too late to do anything but pump water and promptly fall asleep to the sound of nearby coyotes and a vicious storm that pounded our tent all night.

 

Day 3: Searching for Gold

The next morning, we were up bright and early for a hot chocolate oatmeal breakfast and eager talk about what we may find that day. We set out, armed with the only fly one needs at altitude, a Parachute Adams. About a half mile from camp, we walked along a stream looking for any sign of fish. We knew that there weren’t supposed to be any other species in the area, so if we saw even a single fish, we could assume it was one of the goldens stocked back in the day.

We walked and walked along this stream with not so much as a minnow. I took casts in promising holes, the kind of holes that just have to hold fish, with no luck. Eventually we came to a little clearing, complete with grassy edges and undercut banks. As we walked past one of the larger holes, we saw a trout spook under the bank and both immediately screamed. We kept walking to let the area settle and see what else we could find.

Lo and behold, there were still no fish to be found after this clearing. So, we slowly fished our way back up to it. Ali took a lower hole and I went to the spot we had seen the fish. As I crept up, I could see him slowly cruising the pool. I took a single cast, and in what seemed like slow motion, the fish immediately turned and calmly rose to sip my fly. I set the hook and Ali promptly threw all her gear to the ground and came running.

Two women hold a golden trout caught on the fly.
The most satisfying fish I’ve ever caught.

Sure enough, after 10 grueling miles and thinking we had struck out after our first look into the stream, we had found them. The fish I landed turned out to be a beautiful and healthy golden trout. This was far and away the most rewarding and memorable fish of my life. Never have I put more effort into a single fish that most people wouldn’t bat an eyelash at.

A woman reels in a golden trout on a fly rod.
Ali’s first golden trout.

Ali caught one shortly after, one hole upstream, and I landed one more before breaking a fly off on a big one. We called it a day in light of an approaching storm and spent the rest of the day reeling from what had just happened.

 

Two women sit near a fire in the backcountry.
The fire made camp even warmer than it already was.

 

Day 4: Wrap Up

We wanted to hit the golden spot one more time before making the death hike back to the car. We altered our exit route to pass through the meadow and rigged our rods. After a few minutes of seemingly barren waters, I spotted a nice fish. I took a single cast, hooked, and landed it. As though it were meant to be, it was the same lunker that had escaped with my fly the day before.

It was satisfying to get my fly back, and to set that beast free without a hook in its mouth. And just like that, all the fish disappeared. Just as quickly as they had all shown up before, they were gone, as though it was time for us to leave. Feeling more than satisfied, we set off for home.

We tried to make it to the trail we had missed on the way in, but it turned out to be just as much of a bushwhack has having no trail at all. Eventually we made it back, still on a high from everything that had happened the past two days. It was one of the hardest, most trying, and awesome experiences of my life.

A woman hiking toward a mountain.
Satisfied, we headed home.

 

Looking Back

What at the time seemed like possibly the worst hiking decision of my life has since felt like a dream I don’t want to wake up from. Despite the fact that my body tapped out halfway to the top, this trip may have been the most exciting backpacking trip I’ve ever completed.

I pushed my body to its limits, camped without seeing a soul nearby, and found one of the only pockets of wild (although not native) golden trout in the state.

The thought that these fish have probably only seen an handful of flies over the years is also charming, and I hope they spend the next decade doing the same as the last: thriving in an unlikely location deep in the backcountry of Colorado.

11 Responses

  • A beautifully told story. Orvis brought me here! I understand the grind of researching many pages of stocking dates and gps coordinates to chase golden trout… My effort however was up in Montana and unfortunately the snow beat me to my spot and made the jeep trail impassible. Ill be back and hopefully with a success story next time. I would love to get any little nuggets or hints from this trip as I am drawn to backcountry adventures. Thanks for a fun read and I hope to return to bring news of a Golden caught sometime soon.

    Reply
    • Katie Burgert

      Thank you for the kind words Jacob! That’s a bummer that you weren’t able to make it up, it’s always frustrating when the weather ruins a well-planned trip. I don’t necessarily have any specific tips for Montana goldens, as I’ve never fished for them there, but I’d say the one big takeaway I had from this trip was that I REALLY had to keep reminding myself that the reward would be worth it at the end of the hike. This one was definitely a test of will, and I wanted to quit so many times. Once I got there it was worth it though. Also, if you don’t already use it, the OnX Maps app was a lifesaver, since there was so much off trail hiking. Might be useful for getting to secret spots up there too!

      Reply
  • Roger I

    Awesome story! I really hope you write more as I’ll be following. I’m hooked!

    I have so many adventures planned but not executed. This is inspiration to get off my lazy ass and make some of those things happen!

    Reply
    • Katie Burgert

      Hey Roger, Thanks for reading! I’ll definitely be doing some more of these and recapping them on here. We’re hoping to do another big trip somewhere next summer. Hope you’re able to get some time on the water before winter rolls around, although I guess it doesn’t get as cold down where you live, so you’ve got time!

      Reply
  • David Femovich

    What an incredible journey with the result being an experience that very few will ever have in there lifetime. You are in an elite club that will always separate you from other fly fishermen. Keep pushing forward and never stop!

    Reply
    • Katie Burgert

      Thanks, David! I hope to take many more trips like this. They’re addicting!

      Reply
  • Andy

    Awesome. Great job adventuring to find the golden(s)! Beautiful fish.

    Reply
    • Katie Burgert

      Thank you Andy! They really are a gorgeous species.

      Reply
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