Striking gold in the Beartooths

Hiking Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in search of golden trout
Absoroka-Beartooth Wilderness
Photo: Matt Reilly

“That’s a bitch.”

Ken Keffer, a Wyoming native fresh from a month of hiking the Bighorn Mountains, tossed a respectful gaze up a steep pitch into a crease where our trail disappeared into the raveling slopes of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Admitted point-of-factly, the words didn’t bode well for my never-West, oxygen-guzzling lungs. In fact, most trails in Montana start higher than the ground-bound can geographically get in my native Virginia, and we were headed near to the top.

Had I been thinking with my respiratory system, I might have begun second-guessing the decision to day-hike six miles and 5,000 feet up into the backcountry to Sylvan Lake—a well-known alpine pond perched at 10,000 feet that harbors a wild golden trout population—to fish for small fish for just a few hours. Luckily, my brain is responsible for most of my thought function. The aptly named Treasure State’s sharply contoured, snowcapped Beartooth Mountains, and the lucid sweetwater of East Rosebud Creek, rambling alongside the pot-holed road as I pounded a rental car into the gorge where it and our trailhead originated, had me giddy like a pirate upon gold, prodding me onward on a journey of western discovery.

That, and I was junior in the group by 16 years—as fellow hiker and Virginian Mark Taylor of Trout Unlimited pointed out—and without excuse for sluggishness. Of the four of us tackling the trek, Keffer and Matt Miller, of the Nature Conservancy, were westerners acclimated to elevation, but nevertheless confident in my ability to set the pace. I was genuinely curious about how my body would handle the climb as I took the lead and we headed up the mountain donning light packs and rod tubes.

Tallying a respectable pace of two miles per hour, and stopping only to look out across the gorge, over East Rosebud Lake and the surrounding peaks of granite, and to watch pikas and ground squirrels scamper about the boulder-strewn mountainside, we hit the five-mile mark as spruce and fir thinned and gave way to meadow.

Absoroka-Beartooth Wilderness hiking
Photo: Matthew Reilly

The trail turned sharper against the terrain, and made gains on a mountain pass we hoped would reveal a shimmering lake. Rocky crags sliced the horizon line hundreds of yards distant on either side of the trail. Big Sky closed in. Elk sign became plentiful, and I began hopefully mistaking snow patches for mountain goats grazing on the short grass. “Top of the world” seemed a fitting toponym, at least to my eastern sensibilities.

Miller summarized my thoughts: “This is Sound of Music stuff.”

When we recovered from our panoramic gawking, it occurred to everyone that there was no lake in sight, and the trail turned down the mountain. Five miles was the written-about trail length, and we had walked just a few paces more. No one had a map.

Problem solving, Taylor struck off down the trail, over the pass, and into the treeline, trusting instincts, with an eye on the terrain. Soon we came upon a Forest Service trail sign that pointed forward as the direction of Sylvan Lake, and a skip re-entered our strides.

After a series of “last crests,” the horizon finally broke to reveal the rippling surface of Sylvan Lake, pooled at the foot of a rugged, snow-capped granite cliff.

wild golden trout
Photo: Matthew Reilly

Keffer rigged up his tenkara rod and caught the first golden on a dry fly, and called the rest of us over to his corner of the shoreline to get in on the action.

I began my angling efforts casting a parachute adams on 12 feet of 6x tippet to the edge of a shoreline shelf. In short order, the white post disappeared from view, as a golden gently sipped the fly beneath the film.

Holding such a fish in hand, it was hard not to remember the confused claims from anglers back home of having caught “golden trout” in the stocked streams in the East. They, of course, speak of palomino trout, which are a color phase of a hatchery strain rainbow, which holds no candle to the brilliant garb of a golden trout.

wild golden trout
Photo: Matthew Reilly

“It’s the little things in life,” it’s often said, and I think the saying is just as adequately suited to golden trout as anything else. Novel gold and pink palominos grow quite large in the waters where they’re stocked. However, though golden trout are not native to Montana, the crimson-red lateral band, grease-black parr splotches, buttery gold belly, white-tipped fins, and the mud brown back that renders even their vibrancy next to invisible in gin-clear water, paints a wildness into the wild populations in the Beartooths that draws anglers to the mountains like 49’ers to gold.

For a species whose trophy citizens can mostly be measured with the average caliper, they sure do demand a hell of a lot from us, and we’re happy to sacrifice.


Not all golden trout are small. In the early 1970s, I caught a 22" golden at a 10,800 foot lake in the Winds and my fishing partner lost an even bigger one. We saw the fish before it broke off and it looked to be at least 30". At the time, guide books to the area were scarce and although the lake was known to have been stocked with goldens in the 40s, the only guide book which mentioned it said that the lake no longer appeared to have fish. We tried our hand anyway and were richly rewarded. We returned to the same lake a couple of years later and caught and released several goldens in the 18 to 20" range. Sadly, things have changed. There are now a lot of fishing guides to the Winds and many of them mention this lake as having goldens. I returned in 2013 and it's not the same. The area shows signs of heavy use with bare dirt campsites and large fire pits. The fishing is poor and we caught only a couple of small goldens after four hours of fishing. Not only that, when we were there in the 1970s, the lake was surrounded by snow fields in mid-August and we wore down vests, gloves and wool hats. In 2013, there was no snow at all and we wore shorts and t-shirts.