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|Highland Hill Lochs Big-Country Style|
Ian Cramman seeks ‘loch’ trout in wild Wyoming
You’re on holiday in the States and happen to find yourself in that paradise of trout fishing, Wyoming. Great, some of the best cutthroat rivers in the US are hereabouts; big rivers with big names like the North Platte and Snake River. But hold on – what if conditions aren’t right for these waters or you’ve been there and done that and want a break? Perhaps you’re not really a river man and are plain intimidated by the big flows or maybe simply you’re a West-Coast Scot a long way from home and pining for a tramp in the hills among sparkling hill lochs – what to do then? Well, you could do a lot worse than pack your rucksack and travel rod and head to an unsung area; The Wind River Mountains.
Never heard of the place? Don’t worry, not many this side of the ‘pond’ have but take my word for it, although overshadowed by the big name National Parks in the area, the ‘Winds’ are a truly stunning mix of high mountains, meadows, lakes and rivers. We’re not talking a small chunk of territory either; the west ('Bridger Wilderness') side of the mountains alone is nearly half a million acres and there are approx 4000 hill 'lochs' and 800 miles of rivers in the range. Throw in the fact that waters in the Winds hold a mixture of cutthroats, browns, rainbows, brookies, Californian golden and Mackinaw trout and the well used term ‘fisherman's paradise’ doesn’t seem so far fetched.
We were planning a mega US road-trip family holiday. The idea was to fly into LA and then out from Seattle four weeks later. In between were miles of open road and some of the best countryside that the States has to offer with Zion, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Teton National Parks all en-route. I'd read about the 'Winds' in a climbing magazine a couple of years before and the shapely granite spires and classic 'trad' rock routes looked great. Subsequently, when I found out that the range was also liberally sprinkled with trout-filled lakes and rivers that was it - another must do 'tick' for the road trip list.
When we finally got to the area we based ourselves out of the attractive western town of Pinedale where we got state permits supplies and advice from the big outdoors and general store in town. From there we headed to the trail head at Big Sandy, about 60 miles away. The grand plan was to camp overnight at the trail head to get an early start the next day and then spend a full day walking into the Cirque of the Towers, fishing whatever waters I came across on the way. We'd spend a couple of nights camping close under the mountainous back-bone of the continent, take in a long, easy rock climb, do some fishing and generally explore and enjoy the great outdoors. Well that was the plan anyway!
A bleary dawn arrived on 'D-day' and it was time to set off. There was a bit of a problem though. Between the climbing kit (double ropes, harnesses, hardware, rock-shoes, helmets etc), fishing kit (4-piece #6 rod, reel and floating line, box of flees…..), camping kit (tent, stove, pans, sleeping bag, mat….) and food for 4 days, there was rather a lot of stuff to carry! With my daughter only being 9 at the time she wasn't carrying much more than her sleeping bag and mat, waterproofs and teddy (I thought about telling her there were more than enough bears out in these hills already without taking another one in but thought better of it!). The 'Missus also isn't what you call the robust, Himalayan-porter load-bearing type! So this all left ‘yours truly’ looking at a ridiculously large and heavy sack. A swift sort-out found some non-essential items that could be ditched (who needs a spare pair of 'grollies' when you can just reverse them after a couple of days!). Food was also pared down to the bare minimum for the planned time and mostly dried stuff. Second attempt and it still took someone else's assistance to help get the bloody thing on my back whenever I put it down but at least I could walk without the knees buckling every other step and so we set off!
We walked all day along trails that passed through alpine meadows and stands of fragrant lodge-pole pines. All the time the vista of the impressive continental divide mountains was revealing itself. At one of the steeper stages of the trail we were passed by two cowboys on horses, rifles in holsters and leading a mule loaded down with camping and hunting kit. 'Real wild west' I thought as we exchanged "howdy's" (though really I just wanted to bludgeon them senseless and nick their transport - or at least the pack-mule to take on my job as beast of burden).
We stopped at a small lake a couple of hours along the trail and put the rod up. There was a nice bit of cloud cover and a good ripple but no sign of surface movement. 'I wonder if these Yankie troots like Scottish flees' I thought to myself as I stuck a lightly weighted Worm-fly on the point and a Blue Zulu on the bob. A couple of casts later the answer came back a resounding 'yes' as something hit the worm-fly with gusto. Soon I was beaching my first American brook trout actually in America. With bright emerald green flanks, clear white spots and white leading edges to the lower fins, it might have weighed little more than half a pound but it was so pretty and I was well pleased. Daughter number one looked impressed (momentarily) and even the missus took a sort of interest;
- "That looks nice - can we keep it for tea - might get a few more?" she said pointedly. I thought for a moment before replying;
- "Sure. But we've got another four miles to go 'til camp and I'm not blooming carrying it. So if you want to carry raw fish through deepest, darkest bear country for the rest of the day then knock yerself out."
At this point all concerned decided that conservation took precedence over stomach concerns and it would be best to return said fish to its natural environment!
Pack shouldered we headed north again. A mile or two on, we came across another picture-postcard little lake (Marm's) set in a sheltered, pine-clad bowl with the water reflecting the hills, trees and crags surrounding it. The sun had come out strongly by now though and the water was crystal clear and deep. With only a floating line and no fish showing on the surface it looked a bit bleak. 'Oh well', I thought, 'let's at least try with the weighted nymphs and a long count-down to get a bit of depth going'. I started from a rocky promontory and it wasn't long before the first aggressive brookie grabbed the Gold-bead Hare's Ear nymph on the point and validated the tactics. In about an hour or so I caught half a dozen of these 'tigers' up to a little short of the pound mark casting long, waiting for the flees to sink deep and then retrieving stop-start in short rapid pulls. Even better than catching those fish though, was just being there in that stunning environment. Apart from the Lone Ranger and Billy the Kid in the morning we hadn't seen another soul all day. Being out there, casting into that idyllic mountain lake with the sun on your face and the clear air scented with alpine meadow and pine trees was pretty close to a perfect moment. All too soon, however, it was time to shoulder the monstrous pack and go as I wanted to be camping closer to the big peaks of the Cirque and there was still a mile or two left. We finally pitched camp later that afternoon among the trees on a spur just round the corner from the amazing, spectacular and downright scary amphitheatre of granite that we'd been heading to. What a day - all that and trouts too!
I'd love to say that the rest of the trip was smooth and trouble-free, going off with military precision according to the plan but, in truth, it was the usual Cramman family holiday and so inevitably it all went a wee bit awry. We woke up the next day to a fresh layer of overnight July snow (!?) that meant that rock climbs were out for a while. The next shock was that the 'Simply add boiling water, feeds 4' bags of camping food should really have read 'Simply add boiling water, feeds 4 very small mammals' !! So the climb never got a Scottish ascent and it was a hungry and rather whiffy group (remember the dumping of the grollies) that force-marched out, a day earlier than planned. (If you ever find yourself in Pinedale; half starved and in need of a quick and tasty, high-carb and high calorie injection of pizzas, spicy wings and shakes there's a little diner I can recommend - just tell them the smelly Scots family sent you!). Nevertheless it had been a great few days and a superb area to explore and, as my mate 'Brian Damage' always says; 'Every day's a school day'. I for one will be back as I've still to knock off one of those spires before I get too fat, old and lazy. I also want to catch a 'Winds' Californian golden and I hear that some of the lakes hold particularly large and well-marked broonies that originally came from German stock.
The Wind River area is rich in native American history and large chunks east of the divide are still separate Indian reservations. The Winds also played an important part in the early European exploration of the West. Many of the water systems in the mountains were stocked back in the 30s and 40s by Finis Mitchell using milk pails and mule teams. Mitchell ran the fishing camp at Big Sandy each summer from 1930 onwards. His small booklet "Wind River Trails" is still the bible for hiking-fishermen in these mountains looking for tips on what species are in what lakes, where to go - and which lakes to avoid as they freeze out in winter and are barren. Amazon is currently (Sept '08) showing copies as available for under £5.
These are proper remote and inhospitable mountains at a fair bit of altitude and subject to unpredictable mountain weather. You need to be self-sufficient and able to navigate if heading into the Winds, let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be out - all the usual mountain and wilderness stuff. The Winds are also bear-country and although we're talking the less aggressive black bears rather than grizzlies you also need to know and practice the usual bear precautions.
The Bridger Wilderness is part of the Bridger-Teton National Forest administered by the US Forest Service. For more information on recreation in the area go to:-
Ian Cramman was born in Helensburgh in 1970 and first picked up a fishing rod shortly thereafter. His interest in fly fishing started as a child living in Kyle of Lochalsh and shows little signs of diminishing after nearly thirty years of obsession bordering on mania. Mainly based overseas these days, Ian tries to get back to the North West Highlands as regularly as he can. However, he can often be found wandering the shorelines of muddy lakes and rivers in strange out of the way parts of the world, fly-rod in hand, vainly pretending to be in Assynt to the bemusement of any passing locals!