The name “golden trout” conjures up images of pristine remote wilderness, sore knees and an aching back. After all, to get where golden trout live, a long, arduous journey is often required.
Golden trout are native to the Kern River watershed in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. Approximately 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, geologic forces created waterfalls and hanging valleys that isolated a small population of rainbow trout high in those mountains. Isolated from other rainbows, this population evolved over time into the subspecies we know today as golden trout.
While golden trout are not native to the Cowboy State, they have a long history here. Eggs were first brought from California and placed into Cook Lake (Sublette County) in 1920 by U.S. Forest Service personnel. Once the Cook Lake fishery was established, it served as the egg source for Wyoming and other states from 1936 through 1954. In 1955, Cook Lake was abandoned for Surprise Lake, which was closer to the town of Pinedale and somewhat easier to reach. Unlike captive spawning, collecting eggs from wild sources like Surprise Lake is often a difficult task at the mercy of Mother Nature, and personnel and equipment have to be packed in many miles via foot, horse or helicopter.
In 1988, the same year as the large fires in Yellowstone National Park, a very large fire burned above Surprise Lake. In following years, the golden trout population suffered and egg collection dropped to near zero; the genetic integrity of the population was compromised (fewer individuals equal a greater chance of inbreeding). Other lakes were studied as a new source for eggs, but all had interbred with rainbow trout and were not genetically pure.
Rather than continue to try to collect eggs from the wild, the decision was made to attempt to start a captive brood stock at the Story Fish Hatchery. Story’s water supply very closely mimics the water temperatures and timing of spawning golden trout in the wild. In 2007, young golden trout collected as eggs from Sylvan Lake, Montana, were shipped to Story, and in 2009, the first successful captive spawn of golden trout occurred with 47,000 eggs collected. Currently, with 379,000 eggs collected in 2017, Story meets all of Wyoming’s egg requests, and any excess eggs are shipped to Colorado, Utah, Montana, Idaho, Washington and California as needed.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department manages 133 high alpine lakes for golden trout; most are in the western part of the state. In the Cloud Peak Wilderness, on the west (Cody) side, there are 11 waters with goldens, and on the east (Sheridan) there are three. Elephanthead and Myrtle Lakes may be accessed by continuing past the end of Forest Service Trail 036 near Highland Lake. Frozen Lake #1 can be found a distance off either FS Trail 088 Lake Angeline or Trail 045 Seven Brothers. Please note that all of these hikes are remote, lengthy, strenuous and at high elevation, so careful planning and preparation is encouraged.
Jennifer Meineke is a fish culturist at Story Fish Hatchery.