Wind River Range calls to backcountry anglers

Tanner Pursley, of Rigby, tries to interest a complacent school of trout in his lure near the outlet of Lonesome Lake high in the Wind River Range during a recent backpacking trip. Jerry Painter photo

After reaching our climbing goal in the Wind River Range of Wyoming a few weeks ago, we got up the next morning and had one plan for the day: Catch some trout for lunch.

My friend Tanner Pursley and I carefully made our way down to the huge Lonesome Lake in the Cirque of the Towers and picked our way through the marshy inlet on its west side. From the water’s edge we could see several trout patrolling around in the glass-clear water.

None of them were interested in our offerings. I tried bright-colored Rooster Tails and dull-colored spinners. I got only a few half-hearted strikes. So we hiked down to the lake’s outlet — the beginnings of the Popo Agie River.

“This looks like a promising hole,” I said, pointing to a deep spot in the creek-sized stream. The first three casts, caught three fish. In 15 minutes, we had our lunch.

Besides rock climbing and camping, one of the fun things we did on our recent 4-day backpacking trip into the Wind River Range was fish.

The Wind River Range has an estimated 1,000 lakes and hundreds of streams. Many are fed by giant perennial snowfields or glaciers. The largest glaciers in the lower 48 are found in the Wind River Range. From the top of one of the peaks we counted six nearby lakes. Our maps told us there were more out of view.

It seems that any passing storm drops moisture on the range. It’s like a giant magnet for any water that falls from the sky.

Despite all the water, the lakes and streams didn’t always have fish in them. Before WWII, a few people made it their mission to stock the Wind River lakes with trout. Just for fun, they stocked the lakes with several different species. The predominant variety is cutthroat, but you’ll also find brook, rainbow and golden trout. One small unnamed lake I once fished had arctic grayling in it. Back in the day, the lakes were stocked from large barrels strapped to mules. Today, stocking is made by plane or helicopter drops — although stocking generally isn’t necessary because most of the Winds’ lakes and streams are self-sustaining.

On our recent trip, we passed dozens of hikers who had fishing as their main objective. I tell people that if there was ever a place you could count on a backpacking meal of mountain trout, it would be the Wind River Range. There are some places in the Sawtooth or White Clouds mountains of central Idaho that could also make that claim.

I subscribe to the “simpler is better” philosophy when it comes to backpacking fishing. I bring a small, collapsible spinning rod (about 5 feet long), a small spinning reel and a plastic tub (the kind that cream cheese is sold in) with an assortment of lures (less than a dozen). The reel usually has 4-pound test on it. It’s a tiny setup, but then I won’t begrudge the extra weight in my pack. More diehard fly-fishers might bring a bigger setup, but I caution against every little piece of gear. The more junk you haul, the less distance you’re likely to cover into the backcountry. Unless you’re on horseback, you won’t get into those more remote lakes and streams hauling a ton of stuff.

You’ll also want to haul a small aluminum Teflon-coated frying pan and salt and pepper. A tiny bottle of cooking oil is also nice. The fish generally don’t need much help to taste great.

There are guidebooks that tell what type of trout to expect in the lakes across the range. You can obtain a Wyoming fishing license online and purchase a license for the entire season or for just the days you’ll be fishing.

The Winds are a great place to take kids fishing. I remember taking my daughters on a backpacking trip and they would be disappointed if they didn’t catch a fish on every cast. At some seldom visited lakes, a fish per cast was nearly the norm.