Published in the July/August 2009 issue of the Montana Sporting Journal
By Joshua Bergan
High above the full-brimmed hats and out-of-state license plates that populate Montana’s rivers this time of year exist trophy fish of the rarest and most beautiful species: golden trout.
But there’s a reason these outstanding fish don’t get the coverage of other, less impressive fish: They’re as hard to come by as their namesake metal.
Full disclosure: I’ve never even attempted to fish for golden trout (I’m more of a Chubby Chernobyl than a Skinny Nelson). To even attempt to fish for goldens, a hike of several miles and gains of thousands of feet of elevation are required, up mountains where no trail exists and over the craggiest peaks – sometimes straight up the sides of colossal rocks – often to elevations of over 9,000 feet. The terrain is too rough for horses, mules, llamas and most men. These hikes are usually reserved for Himalayan sherpas and the hardiest, healthiest and most hardcore of anglers, and even then are best suited for multi-day trips. It makes a trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness seem like child’s play.
Which is why landing a beautiful golden trout can be such a proud accomplishment. It’s an opportunity to cut your own trail and stake a claim where few have been.
But the hike is only the beginning. Prospecting for golden trout is not as easy as one might guess, considering they are rarely challenged to distinguish between natural bugs and their fur-and-feather imitations. By many accounts, they’re shockingly keen.
"The mature fish are hard to get and very picky," former Montana resident and daredevil angler Steve Kunnath said. "At times you can see them cruising the drop-off edges and put everything in the fly box past them and they don’t even look. You are basically fishing hard all day for that one fish to hit."
While they are found exclusively in lakes in Montana, they can survive in rivers (and when they spawn, they'll move into the inlet and outlet streams, which is usually sometime in July). They prefer cold water with a maximum of about 60 degrees, and just about the only fisheries that remain cold enough year round in Montana are the alpine lakes.
Because the lakes are so cold, typical aquatic food sources (caddis, mayflies, etc.) are often unavailable; therefore, terrestrial food becomes important. Beetle, moth, grasshopper and flying ant patterns will likely be more effective than a standard mayfly dry. Damselfly, midge, scud, leech and baitfish patterns should also trigger some interest.
Other specialized tactics are sometimes required.
"I had the most luck using a 6 weight with a 200- to 300-grain sink-tip throwing streamers," Kunnath said of one of the state’s well-known golden trout lakes, Lightning Lake. "The shore line drops off quickly and I liked to cast out let it sink down parallel along the edges and strip in. You can often see the larger fish cruising the vertical edges of the drop off 10 to 20 feet down if the light’s right."
The current state record is just shy of 5.5 pounds and 24 inches, which is remarkable when you consider their short growing season. Cutthroat and brook trout in similar conditions rarely exceed 12 inches. But that’s not to say there are no small golden trout. In many of the lakes where they are found, goldens remain small, and are as eager as any 6-inch fish to hop on a dry fly. Finding a lunker is usually about finding the right fishery – if the lake seems crowded with small ones, there probably aren’t huge ones present.
There are only about 20 golden trout fisheries in Montana, and not a one of them is a cakewalk to access. At one time, over 50 Montana lakes were stocked with goldens, but due to cross-breeding with other spring spawners (rainbows and cutthroats) and competition from other species, many of the lakes failed to sustain a population.
Lakes as far east as Carbon County and as far west as Beaverhead and Missoula counties are said to have golden trout populations.
Montana’s goldens usually average a bit larger than in their native California, but that’s likely because they live in lakes in Montana, while many California populations are fluvial (river dwelling).
A tremendous resource for finding golden trout lakes is the Mountain Lakes Guide published by the Montana FWP, and updated every four years. It outlines the recorded fish populations and stocking plans for the fish-baring lakes of the Absaroka-Beartooth and Crazy mountains – which host most (but not all) of Montana’s golden trout fisheries.
Another way to find golden trout lakes is to peruse the stocking records on the FWP website. They list all the lakes for which any species is stocked – although it can be a bit tedious to scour the entries for such a rare find.
Get after 'em if you think you can. Once word spreads, it could be 1849 all over again.
(Photos courtesy Brady Wyatt Hughes)