Location: Sylvan Lake, MT
I felt the tell-tale tug and set the hook. My fly rod bent as the fish on the other end struggled to disengage the tiny barbless hook from its lip.
“Got one!” I smiled. The trout on the end of my line may have been mere eight-inches long, but excited me as if it were 28 inches. This was a hard-earned fish, a rare golden trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita) found only in few clear alpine tarns, such as Sylvan Lake high up in Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, where I stood. The steady 5-mile climb to this pristine pool traversed through fire-burned pillars of Lodgepole pines. The lodgepole saplings carpeting the forest floor were actually over 20 years old, struggling to graduate from shrub to tree in this harsh mountain environment. Above timber line, Sylvan Lake was free of ice perhaps eight weeks of the year. It seemed incongruous that trout surviving in such adverse alpine conditions could not compete with brookies and browns when introduced to the same waters. As a result, golden trout exist in only few isolated populations in the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas and can only survive in pure, unpolluted water.
A sub-species of the rainbow trout, golden trout, also called California golden trout, are native to only three streams –Golden Trout Creek, Volcano Creek and the Kern River – all in California. The transplants in Sylvan Lake are a pure strain now used as brood-stock in the northern Rockies.
My rod bent with tension as the giddy golden swam to and fro, eventually tiring enough for me to get a look at him. It was the most beautiful fish I had ever seen. Its golden belly faded to brilliant speckles above its telltale red-pink band. Large spots ran horizontally from its gills to its tail, and its fins ended with a delicate white band. As I let him go, I was thrilled by the chance to see a fish that few other anglers ever would.