I am fairly certain every angler has their dream fish. It may be huge rainbows from some western tailwaters, permit on the Caribbean flats, or massive Dorado down in Colombia. While there are a couple of species on my list, my top pursuit for the past 4 years has been a golden trout in Colorado.
Goldens have been stocked in Colorado intermittently since the 70s, and there's not much information you can find on them. Back in 2017, I went down the rabbit hole to find potential spots and any recommendations I could find. There's a few cryptic message boards, some old stocking reports, and some lips-sealed-tight blogs on the topic, but no definitive resources or quick tips on where and when to catch goldens in Colorado. But, after hours of searching over 4 years ago, I was able to find a map that pointed me to some alpine lakes in my region. Que montage footage.
I've made 6 trips out for goldens since 2018. The first trip was to a super tiny feeder creek under one of the lakes I identified as plausible for holding goldens. On that trip, I only fished the creek and didn't make it up to the lake -- mistake number 1. While I did find some stunning cutts, no goldens met my net. You can read more about that trip on the Fishwest blog.
The second trip for goldens occurred in 2019, to a different lake with my wife. We pushed through a 9-mile RT hike to a lake not too far away from the first location I tried. When we arrived, we saw fish rising and cruising the ledge of the lake. Despite hours of fishing and bringing in cutts, we found no gold except for one cruiser who sat in front of us, laughing at every attempt we made to catch it. This only fueled the fire for our next outings.
The third trip was to yet another lake that has absolutely no info about goldens on any website, but does indeed hold a healthy population. I can't share any details about this one, obviously. Again, hours of fishing to big cutts but no goldens. I am still determined to get back to this lake someday soon.
The fourth trip was in summer of 2020 with a couple of friends. We packed into the lake I mentioned in our second trip, and we were planning on spending three days fishing for goldens. The weather had other ideas though, as it rained on us for 16 hours straight. We packed up a day early to escape the rain which crushed me until I heard it snowed at that spot the night of us leaving. I was starting to feel defeated at this point.
The fifth trip happened this summer, when I hit some alpine lakes with Jordan. We went back to the very first spot I tried for goldens, except we made it up to the lake that reportedly held them. Unfortunately, some friends at the fly shop mentioned that the lake was freeze-killed some years prior and held no fish. Even more unfortunately, they were absolutely right. We saw no sign of any fish in that lake. This meant that we needed to go back to our other lake, the one we backpacked to the summer before. That's where this story really begins.
Jordan gave me a shout a couple Monday's ago, asking if we wanted to head back to our backpacking lake. It's late in the season already, but the alpine is still open for business. Our other fishy friends had previous obligations, so Jordan and I formulated a plan. We would camp near the trailhead on Friday night for an early start Saturday, and day trip up to our spot. This time, we were bringing Jordan's packraft to get out to an island on the lake. I was determined to get a golden this time, so I brought damn near every single fly I own, as well as a sink tip line in case they were hanging out low.
We met up for a quick dinner in town before heading out to the trailhead. We skirted our way into the only campsite we could find and got our bags prepped for the next morning. After some whiskey pours and campfire stories, we retired to bed for an early awakening.
The sun crept into camp early Saturday morning, and we were already up and moving. A quick breakfast of coffee and breakfast pastries fueled us as we set out on the trail to the lake. Every now and again, we would stop to inhale some late-season berries and I would pause to poke at a mushroom with my hiking sticks. We got to the lake around 9:30 AM and were surprised to see a glassy surface with few others there. Our journey wasn't over yet though. Jordan and I prepped his boat for the trip to the island, which is about 100 feet off the bank. We tied together lengths of paracord for quick boat retrieval, loaded up, and embarked on the float. I ran our gear over to the island while Jordan packed his dog and fly rod over on the second trip. We finally made it to our destination, and the stoke was high.
My approach to the first fly rig was insanely unconventional; I spooled up with sink tip line, tied on a super heavy slumpbuster, and trailed behind that a san juan worm. My thought was that if the goldens are low in the lake, the heavy streamer and sink tip line would get the flies down quick. From there, I'd jig and pop the rod to give the flies some movement. This is a tactic I've never tried before, but I'm so happy I did. After a couple of casts with the monstrosity, I stripped in some line to recast when I felt the slack turn tight. I thought I was hooked up on the ledge until my reel threw it in reverse and started peeling out line. Needless to say, I was losing my shit at the thought of a golden being at the end of my rod.
And there was.
I hollered at Jordan when I saw there was a fish on my fly, and he asked what it was. "IT'S A GOLDEN!!" I hollered as the fish made it's first surface appearance. The coloration was unmistakable; golden brown flash, a big red stripe, and parr marks visible from space. The fish took the san juan worm, which honestly didn't surprise me. I'm not sure if goldens go after streamers often, but I was so glad I thought to put the worm on the back. Unconventional? Definitely. Productive? Apparently. I didn't question the philosophy of the catch, but focused on getting the fish to the net. After what seemed like 400 lifetimes of fighting the fish, it landed in the bucket. Jordan was speechless looking at the fish as I scrambled to get my camera.
After 4 years of self-doubt, expeditions, and countless miles hiked, I finally caught my Colorado Golden Trout.
We snapped some quick photos with the trout before sending it home. The feeling was surreal. For a moment, everything was so quiet. I looked around at my surroundings, at my fishing amigo, at what it took to get to that moment. Humbled yet undeterred, I ran to my backpack for a celebration pull of cheap whiskey. I earned it.
That first catch put us in the zone for more. We both tried the disgusting streamer-worm combo for a bit more and lost a few hooksets in the moment. After some slowed momentum, we looked around and noticed the risers. I thought to myself, "they're probably just the cutts in here, but whatever. Let's give it a shot." Again, I'm damn glad we did. Not three casts after tying on some hopper droppers, Jordan was hooked up. We basically swapped roles in this situation -- I asked him what it was, and he exclaimed back, "IT'S A GOLDEN!!"
This time, and to my surprise, the golden took the hopper on Jordan's rig. He brought the fish in and posed for some snaps before releasing the sought-after prize. With both of us on the board, and with the fish taking both dries and droppers, we kept at it with intense energy. That energy brought us into more goldens as well as some cutts, who ended up being a welcome surprise. We stopped around midday for some lunch, and to talk through how absolutely amazing the day had been.
After some major grindage, we got back at it and welcomed more fish into our nets. Most of our catches were on dries, save for the worm muncher that began the day. We worked that water until the afternoon wind and potential for storms set in, and decided to call it shortly before 3 PM. The gear was transported back to shore, followed by Jordan and his pup. We got some last bits of drone videos before preparing for the longer-than-it-seems hike back to the car.
This time, we didn't leave disappointed. We left with hearts full, arms sore, and plans to return next summer. I personally accomplished a feat that has been avoiding me for 4 years, and Jordan conquered the same prospect. It felt so rewarding, so wholesome, to finally close that chapter of my fly fishing life. We are already identifying grayling as our next species to find and even have major intel on where to find them. We're choosy about our locations too; I wanted to catch a golden in an alpine backcountry lake, not just some pull-up reservoir off the highway. We accomplished that. I'm sure we will do the same with grayling too. In the meantime, I can finally rest well at night knowing that I accomplished one of my longest standing personal goals.
If you're interested in finding your own gold, you're in luck. Colorado Parks and Wildlife recently stocked fingerling goldens in Clear Lake and Jewel Lake in State Forest State Park. Click here to read more about their efforts.
Writing this post has brought me so much joy, and I hope it did for you too.
Fish on, my friends.