Red Lodge crew tackles high altitude golden trout fishing trip
The butter-bright flanks of golden trout are known to exert a magnetic pull on anglers.
The trouble is, the trout tend to live in some of the hardest-to-reach lakes of the high mountains. Consequently, those who want gold have to pay with a good measure of sweat, sore muscles and sometimes a bit of heartache when the finicky fish don’t bite.
It was the pull of Sylvan Lake ’s golden trout, which fin icy waters at an elevation of 9,100 feet, that suckered Red Lodge resident Merv Coleman and his band of mature merry men into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, west of Red Lodge, this past August.
“They’re a beautiful, beautiful trout,” said Gary Allison, who Coleman refers to as his hiking enabler. “Their colors are just striking.”
Sylvan and nearby Crow lakes would be the latest notches in a long string of summer hikes for the men.
“Gary and I started doing this after I had prostate cancer about 11 years ago,” Coleman said.
“Once he got well from that we said, ‘Let’s do those things we’ve talked about. Let’s do one challenging hike a summer,’” Allison said.
At first glance, Sylvan Lake seemed a bit too challenging.
To reach Sylvan requires a 5-mile hike that gains more than 3,000 feet in elevation from the trailhead at East Rosebud Lake. There’s another route in, via the West Fork of Rock Creek, but it is 3 miles farther and still climbs 2,500 feet. There’s also a trail from Red Lodge Creek that sees less use, but it’s a 10-mile route to Sylvan.
The distance and elevation gain presented a problem. Merv and his merry men may still be young at heart, but their bodies have aged. Many of the men are retired, although still active.
“I’m at the point in life that, sadly, I have more money than time,” Allison said. “I would gladly buy more time but it’s not on the market right now.”
So the group came up with a compromise. They would hire an outfitter to horsepack them in to Crow Lake, atop the same Red Lodge Creek Plateau as Sylvan Lake. They would fish for the greedy brook trout at Crow Lake one day, camp out, then hike on to Sylvan to chase golden trout for two more days. To end the trip they would hike down from Sylvan via the trail to East Rosebud Lake.
Dream Dance Outfitters, of Roscoe, was hired to haul the six men, all of their backpacking gear and a cooler of steaks for the first night’s dinner at a cost of about $350 apiece. Outfitter Debbie Mikels even provided a picnic lunch on the ride in.
More often, Mikels is leading half-day or day rides. So the drop-off journey was a bit unusual, although she once played Sherpa to personally carry in a hiker’s pack.
“Typically it’s the older person who doesn’t want to hike so far with a pack,” she said.
Even with horses, the trip in took most of the first day, but the views as the horsemen reached the plateau and their first camping spot at Crow Lake kept their spirits high.
“That plateau, before you drop in to Crow Lake, it’s just beautiful,” Allison said.
“Crow is absolutely gorgeous,” Coleman said, and it’s far enough in that few people hike the route as a day trip, keeping traffic and fellow campers to a minimum.
After the first night and a day of fishing, the group hiked on to Sylvan Lake, another 2 miles away. Finally the anglers in the group had arrived at the lake they had longed to mine for golden trout.
“The goldens are beautiful, but they’re tough to catch,” said Doug Dahlberg, one of Merv’s original merry men. “Fishing was easy at Crow, but the whole trip was for the goldens.”
Dahlberg finally found the key was to use a dry fly as a strike indicator and tie on a bead-headed fly about 12 inches below.
“I had to just let it sit there,” he said. “I tried everything else first, even stripping it.”
The next day the men awoke to dark, threatening skies.
“We couldn’t even see the lake,” Dahlberg said.
“It looked like a storm was going to hit us,” Allison agreed.
And the fish weren’t biting, Coleman noted.
Determined to endure, Allison cooked up pancakes for breakfast and the group decided to wait out the weather to see what might happen. That’s when their buddy Doc Smith, a retired dentist, drew their attention to a good reason for hiking out that day.
“’Boys,’” Dahlberg recounted Smith saying in his southern accent, “’We just finished off that corn whiskey last night. We’re done.’
“We were packed up and out of there in an hour. That’s the kind of fun we have on these trips.”
Coleman referred to Smith as the group’s “moonshine distributor,” a drink that lubricates his vast and varied storytelling.
“It does give you a feeling of ease and happiness until the next morning,” Allison said. “We did have a little bit of shine, private stock only.”
Even though their packs had been lightened by consuming three days’ worth of food and moonshine, the endless switchbacks down to East Rosebud Lake still proved difficult for the caravan.
“My hiking boots weren’t fitting quite properly,” Dahlberg said. “When I started to come down to the East Rosebud, they were really tight in the toes.”
“Coming down it seemed like there was no end to it,” Coleman said. “It was psychologically deflating too, because you could see the other switchbacks below and you’d think, ‘Oh my god.’”
Luckily, there were still batches of ripe huckleberries and raspberries along the trail.
“Merv, Gary and I were an hour late getting to the trailhead,” Dahlberg said.
With this year’s trip now behind them, the crew will spend this winter discussing over coffee where to go next in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness that borders their Red Lodge backyard.
And although the rigors of this past summer’s trip have faded for five of the six backpackers, Dahlberg still holds on to a couple of dark, physical mementos.
“I am thinking of the trip quite often as I look at my toes,” Dahlberg said. “I’m finally about to lose my two big toenails.”