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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.