We hiked three days just to get here — the lake that we hoped was Flying Monkey, home to the biggest golden trout in the Wind River Mountains.
It was early July, a time of abundant mosquitoes and raging rivers, when many seasoned Wyoming backpackers are content to leave the high country to the pikas. We had forded streams swollen with runoff, scampered over wet rocks while crossing the Continental Divide, boot-skied down steep snow fields, and plunged through the softening snowpack into an unseen icy creek.
We were on a mission to get to this lake just after ice-out, when the enormous but often-evasive goldens allegedly rise from the lake’s depths.
Although they are imports from California, golden trout are among Wyoming’s wildlife gems. Goldens are brilliantly colored, discerning to the point of being maddening, and one of the very few sub-species of trout with enough fight to leave your biceps sore. And while it may be politically incorrect to say so, they’re awfully tasty as well. I’ve cooked two goldens whose filets were blood-red like sockeye salmon — and just as good to eat.
Once afflicted with the gold bug, it’s hard to go back to catching Wyoming’s native trout, the cutthroat, which in the Winds rises readily to just about anything you throw. Rich Osthoff put it best in Flyfishing the Rocky Mountain Backcountry, a book that sings the praises of golden-trout fishing in Wyoming. “Elusive, wary, acrobatic, powerful — they are, pound for pound, a match for any trout that swims at any elevation,” he writes.
Golden trout are native to the Sierra Nevada, and were transplanted by Wyoming Game and Fish to the Winds from the Kern River system in the 1940s, during a brief period when the state of California allowed golden-trout eggs to be exported. Goldens now grow bigger in Wyoming (they also thrive in the Beartooth Range) than anywhere else on earth. And while another lake in the Winds produced the state record — an 11-pounder — sixty years ago, reliable sources tell me that the biggest, fattest goldens in the Winds today swim in Flying Monkey.
The party included my brother, Roger, and his buddy from high school, Tom. And after two full days of exhausting off-trail travel, we were finally here. Water was pouring into this little slice of Eden from all directions. The shoreline was so dense with vegetation that we were having trouble bushwhacking to the outlet, where we’d heard there was a decent — and perhaps the only — camping spot. So we swapped boots for Tevas, and sloshed through the lake toward our destination, with Tom in the lead.
He stopped suddenly, turning back toward us with wild eyes.
“Guys, I know where the big ones are,” Tom said. We demanded details.
“A 24-inch golden just bounced off my leg.”
They say that in life you need a few lucky breaks, and it’s true of a fishing life, too. I’ve tangled with trophy golden trout in the Wind River Mountains, and in a roundabout way, I have George W. Bush to thank for it.
After college, I worked for several years at The Chronicle of Higher Education, in Washington, D.C., and in January 2001, I was editing the paper’s government section. On the night of President Bush’s inauguration, I represented the Chronicle at a dinner for his new education secretary.
My wife, Susan, sat next to Miryam Knutson, whose husband, Bob, ran a chain of for-profit colleges, and Susan mentioned that I had grown up in Wyoming. Miryam laughed, and shared her one Wyoming experience: Years earlier, Bob had dragged her into the Ross Lakes, in the northern Winds — and “carried her out” when she struggled on the long hike back to the car.
Bob had made a great fortune building his company, Education Management, over several decades, but he would rather talk fishing — so we instantly hit it off. He said he’d been coming to Wyoming for years, ever since hooking up with George Hunker, a longtime fishing guide in Lander, for a memorable Winds trip. As we were leaving the dinner, Bob invited us to visit him at his estate outside Pittsburgh, where he has a private running trail and 10 trout ponds. I countered with the best offer I could muster:
“Come fishing with me in the Winds.”
Each summer, my older brother Roger and I spend a week in the Winds, usually scouring the backcountry for promising lakes we’ve never fished. It’s a highlight of the year for both of us — and we have many people to thank for instilling this passion for trout.
My father ditched a medical practice in suburban Dallas to become a doctor in Riverton in the late 1970s. As kids, we would catch grasshoppers and dig up worms and try them on private water that his patients invited us to fish. Riverton doc and cowboy poet Kent Stockton got us on to backpacking in the early 1980s, and we tagged along on several trips of with his family to Waterdog Lake, near Pinedale.
While working as a bellman in Jackson in 1990, I got my first taste of fly fishing. Boots Allen, inventor of the ubiquitous “humpy” fly, helped me tie on my first fly outside his house. In the mid-1990s, Lander nurse and outdoorsman Bruce Cartwright introduced my family to the fine high-lake fishing on the Wind River Indian Reservation, which accounts for about a quarter of the land in the Winds.
That’s where we took Bob back in 2001 — to the reservation. At night, after long days on the water, we drank, smoked cigars, and swapped tales. Bob, who favored Bacardi 151 mixed with Tang (in a heavy pack, every ounce counts), described his trip with Hunker, and how he had weathered a tough fall and a broken rib to make it to a magical lake called Flying Monkey.
“The goldens there are as long as your arm,” Bob said.
Roger and I sobered up immediately. We pressed for more, but Bob couldn’t recall Flying Monkey’s location. Later, I learned that Hunker insists that his clients keep quiet about the hot spots.
But with rumors of big goldens confirmed, Roger and I had a mission: We had to find this lake.
When Roger and I weren’t on the phone talking about lakes in the deepest reaches of the Winds, Susan and I were often sitting on the deck of a rental house we shared with two other people, grappling with a more-pedestrian question: what to do with our lives. Each summer, I spent two weeks in Wyoming — but it never seemed like enough. One of my coworkers had quickly moved from The Chronicle to The New York Times — a dream job for any journalist — but another colleague had given up a top editing job so that she could live and write from a lakeside home in the mountains of western Maryland. I found myself envying her gig.
We began toying with a move to Wyoming. During a summer visit, we discovered homes in Lander were going for less than half as much as homes in the D.C. suburbs. The internet made it possible to do my work from anywhere — why not from a home outside Lander so that Susan looks directly out at the Winds?
I decided to take a stab at freelancing for The Chronicle and other publications. Susan would become the editor of the Lander Journal. We moved to Lander on July 15, 2002.
But once the boxes were out of the U-Haul, they sat around for awhile: I left for a weeklong trip in the Winds the next day.
I first laid eyes on George Hunker at a party hosted by a neighbor in 2003. Fortified by a beer or two, I introduced myself and got straight to the point. “I know your old client Bob, and he told me about this incredible lake called Flying Monkey, but he couldn’t remember where it was.”
George, who has since become a good friend, smiled and laughed heartily. “I’m not going to tell you where Flying Monkey is,” he said at the outset — and then went on to confirm the lake’s five-star qualities. The whimsical name, I learned, refers to the forbidding peaks surrounding the lake that recall the cliffs that the flying monkeys emerge from in The Wizard of Oz. When his wife, Paula, walked up, George cordially introduced me, but quickly shushed her about Flying Monkey.
My desire had been whetted further.
In 2005, my brother and I bought copies of Flyfishing the Rocky Mountain Backcountry. In the book, Osthoff reveals some good lakes in the Winds, but is coy about the highest-caliber lakes, if he alludes to them at all. Roger and I spent hours dissecting his fine book, and cross-referencing his descriptions of a certain productive golden lake against topo maps.
We thought we might have it. We plotted the trip with Tom — the longest trip we’d ever been on, a nine-day adventure starting near Pinedale, crossing the divide, and ending at a trailhead on the reservation.
We knew we were headed to big goldens — but was it the lake? Four years after Bob’s rum-induced tale, would we finally find the Monkey?
After covering 25 miles over three days, we finally arrived at our target lake. We found two anglers, whose journey in had been as long and arduous as ours, already camped at the outlet. So we set up our tent on a reasonably flat spot near a small inlet stream. More than a dozen big goldens were gathered at its mouth. The beautiful fish were trying to jump a four-foot waterfall to get upstream to spawn — and a hardy few had made it.
We played rock, paper, scissors to see who got the first cast. I won. Golden aficionados favor scuds and tiny midge larvae to mimic the trout’s subsurface diet, but I was new to goldens, and I saw the lunkers feeding on the surface. I went for the big impression. I tied on a size 6 Joe’s Hopper, and cast into the inlet flow. Kapow! A slab golden hit the hopper and instantly snapped it off my leader.
After that, the fishing was challenging — these were notoriously fickle goldens, after all — but each of us eventually caught at least one golden 20 inches or longer in a day and a half at the lake. The biggest trout – in the 25- to 27-inch range — were in relatively deep water near the outlet, but those were the wiliest ones as well.
The best action was across the lake from our camp site, at a spot another angler dubbed Bear Meadows, after an immature black bear chased him into the lake. At least three dozen large goldens were stacked up near a gentle inlet that flows in from the meadow.
The trout there were imperturbable — you could wade among them to retrieve a stuck fly and they would simply recongregate — but that’s not to say the fishing was easy. The trick was the right fly and patience. Fortunately, Hunker had sent me off with some orange scuds that he had tied — and every so often a golden would fall for that freshwater shrimp imitation. My line would go tight as I braced for another blistering run.
That was our first trip to a trophy golden fishery, and we’ve gone to one in the Winds every year since. In the past two years, we’ve run into some golden-trout fanatics who are even more rabid than we are.
In late June 2007, we hit some golden lakes just off the reservation that are a two-day hike from the nearest trailhead. Given our early arrival, I was sure we’d have the place to ourselves. But when we got there, Nate, a dentist from Idaho, was having a field day catching fat 18- to 20-inch goldens with tiny midge larvae — about half the width of your pinkie — that he had tied himself.
Later his wife walked up — hauling a 3-year-old and an infant! The family had hiked in over three days, although God knows how. Nate, who generously shared his tiny flies with me, said he had rented a satellite phone in case anything went wrong.
This July, we had planned to explore the area around a backcountry lake that has stunning views of some of the biggest peaks and glaciers in the Winds, and a couple of cached canoes. But catching 12-inch rainbow trout during a day at that lake was unfulfilling. So we shouldered our 50-pound packs and hiked over a 12,000-foot pass before dropping into what we now knew was Flying Monkey.
The big goldens were still there, and as plump and healthy as ever. So was a single camper — Todd from Fort Collins. He had arrived the same day, and was cursing the fact that it had taken him four days to get in. He only had 24 days left.
I gather Todd planned to hit other lakes in the area, but who could blame him if he stayed put at Flying Monkey?
Rich Osthoff sells fishing books, which requires some kiss-and-tell. He justifies spilling the beans by arguing that his book may cultivate more backcountry anglers, who will then become advocates for wilderness areas. And he notes that only the “ambitious few” will want to haul heavy packs for days to get to the best lakes.
But I’m from the school of Hunker, who confirmed that we had reached Flying Monkey only after we had found the lake on our own. If you come across a lake of that caliber, you darn sure keep it to yourself.
So good luck finding Flying Monkey, but don’t waste your time looking for it on a map: Paula Hunker gave the lake that name.
Ben Gose is a journalist who lives outside Lander with his wife Susan and their two children.
All images are courtesy of the author.