Fly Fishing Wyoming: The Wind River Range
To remain as transparent as possible my experience fly fishing in the Wind River Range (WRR) is relegated to JUST five days. This is a massive range with endless options for the adventurous angler. However, what I will say, is that what we experienced can be used as a reference point for the entire region during the summer months. Be it with the weather, topography, or the fishing, a lot of the drainages in the WWR will act reasonable similar. (“Reasonably”) Plus with months of research and planning prior to this trip, I feel comfortable writing about this particular subject.
What will be discussed:
The amount of public land within the WWR is almost a detriment to the eager angler. With so much space to explore and so many different bodies of water with trophy potential, where do you even start? I found myself in this boat in the heart of winter 2022. My best advice would be to use the “hub cities” in the area as a jumping off point. Or at least use them as an oasis to wherever you do find yourself going. On the North and South side of the range, this will be where most of your major trailheads will stem from. Lander, Dubois, and Pinedale will be the biggest and best in the area. A lot of the other “townships” in the region might have a gas station, but as far as real amenities.. it would be as sparse as the sage brush flats leading up to the Winds. It should be noted that the Wind River Reservation encapsulates a big chunk of the range to the South. It is possible to access the portions on native land, however you will need to purchase additional permits which can make planning slightly more complicated. Use your best judgment and you will no doubt find a reasonable jumping off point.
As far as where to go in order to find fish.. you don’t have to look very hard or far.. This range is loaded with lakes, rivers, and streams that are fully loaded with trout, grayling, and char. But “when in Rome” I am assuming most folks out there are looking to get on the legendary golden trout that call these isolated lakes home. The tight lips and blurred out pictures of these behemoth Goldens can make the prospect of finding them slightly intimidating.. But, I will be the first to tell you that finding these lakes is actually quite easy. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGF) provides the public with ample articles NAMING LAKES AND DRAINAGES.. so miss me with that “spot burning” crap. If those aren’t good enough for you, WGF maintain a robust data set from all their stockings over the past few decades. These can help you further narrow down the lakes and possible drainages you want to target. Now outside of Golden trout, you can find rainbows, cutthroat, hybrids, grayling, brown, brook, and even lake trout swimming in these waters. So with a lot of these lake systems and drainages being connected by interloping trails, you have the opportunity to pursue a wide range of species on the fly. (All of which can be tracked by stocking reports from yesteryear)
As far as timing goes, there are a number of factors to keep in mind. First and foremost you need to understand that elevation is quite high no matter where you go. We started out our journey at around 8.5K, camped at 10K, and fished at 11K. This is around the middle range, because some of the highest points in the state are found here in the WWR. So you are going to be close to the sun and in climate weather no matter where you find yourself. This high up and this far north, temperatures are not going to be kind either. The majority of the year snow and ice will protect our quarry from our sharp hooks and foolish attempts. Snow melt will relinquish control on most of the trails during May and June, but even then, most will be difficult to traverse. On top of that, “ice off” on most of these lakes work hand in hand. That is why the best time to make an honest attempt at these fish is July, August, and even September. But even with better conditions, the door is still wide open for a “cold spring” or an “early winter” which could drastically shorten the season.
The lakes you want to fish are out there no doubt, it is simply a matter of finding the best route and training months in advance.. but I will get into that later. For now let’s talk about the fishing itself.
In general, this fishing is fairly forgiving to the angler. There are a number of factors that push the odds in our favor.. however, this is still fishing folks. Nothing will be a guarantee, but the further you are willing to walk the better the fishing will get (usually). In these high elevations bodies of water, there is such a small window for these fish to feed. At maximum they are allowed five months of ice free feeding. They don’t have the luxury of domestic tailwater trout to sit there and analyze your silly midge. In most cases these fish HAVE to eat when an opportunity presents itself. We found that in the early morning and mid afternoon bite windows were the most productive. Another thing that helps, is that these fish seldom see flies (usually). Again, you have to think that only a handful of anglers make it up to these systems in a given year. Then on top of that, how many folks actually put a fly in front of a fishes face and get it to munch? AGAIN, this is a generalization, we found some very picky fish on our trip as well. For the most part as long as you offer up a half decent cast with a buggy fly, you are going to find a few takers.
I personally like a two rod approach with almost any body of water I fish. Especially for these high alpine lakes, there is not telling what these fish will key in on. With sheer size of the water as well as the fish, I like to bring two 5wts to the party. One rigged up with some sort of dry fly and the other with a leech. For the dry fly rod, I am not shy with my leader length. This is one of the rare scenarios where I agree that fish can get tippet shy. I don’t hesitate to make a 10’-12’ leader tapering down to 5x or 6x. Of course carry an assortment of dry flies but we found the most success on midges and ants. The leech rod is a bit more aggressive. I keep the leader fairly short, especially if I pair it with a sink tip line. My thinking is that if a fish is willing to seek and destroy a leech, they could give a rats ass about my 4’-6’ leader. But for both of these setups, you need to be able to punch quick casts way out into the lake as cruising fish come along. 5wts have enough backbone to make this happen. The stream fishing is a whole different story. I bring in a 7’ 3wt and mop up those silly fish with dry droppers all day. The streams can be a tad tight, so running a solid creek line can allow you to punch casts just about anywhere you need. If the lake fish seldom see flies.. these poor stream fish don’t even know what a wholly bugger is. They see.. they eat.. enough said..
This is a fair mix of “strategies” depending on the conditions given. Our spot and stalk tactic had a bit of success when the bite window was open. When terrestrials are constantly being blown into these type of lakes, this attracts fish. These are what I consider “cruising” fish. They are on the move and hunting for anything that may resemble food. This kind of sight fishing requires a fair bit of patience mixed with urgency. You have to be quick on the cast and stealthy with the stalk. Wait too long? And these fish will pass you up without a second of hesitation. Finding structure and imploring the “spray and pray” strategy is another valid approach. That is where studying lake maps in advance can come in handy. Inlets, outlets, drop offs, points, and boulder piles are all great places to throw out prospecting casts in the hopes of fish. These structure points will either bring food to the fish or congregate food for the fish to come to. We used this most of the time and were able to pick up most of our fish in this manner.
Worth a thought:
A little thing we noticed that might be of interest.. would be that fish were feeding off the bottom.. no joke.. Later on in the trip we were finding that these Goldens were much more willing to chase a leech if it were lifted off the bottom or slowly dragged along.. Not sure if this is particular to our lake chain or if this is a common lake fish behavior.. Regardless, it might be something to keep in mind if they seem to be disinterested in your rig.
When out and about in the great wide yonder.. the beauty that surrounds can be a bit misleading. You aren’t on instagram anymore cowpoke and this isn’t a Zach Bryan song. There are plenty of “threats” that can derail your trip and your life.. so in no particular order, let’s go over some of the immediate dangers here in the WWR. (Keeping this specific to the time frame in which we went up this way, mid-late summer) First on the list would be the bipolar mountain weather. WE GOT EXTREMELY LUCKY. Getting a handful of stable days in that part of the world was nothing short of a treat. But as the trip neared its end, the mountain started to show her true colors. Pop up thunderstorms carrying freezing cold rain and skin biting hail are dangerous. With how exposed a lot of these lakes are, there is no hiding from it once it hits. Getting soaked by a cold rain for a few miles back to camp aint fun.
Outside of the harsh winds and potential for lightning, the adventurous angler needs must be aware of exposure. It might be summer in flat land country, but this high up, sudden drops into dangerous temperature ranges are common. Cold rain and howling wind is all you need to whip up a nasty hypothermic cocktail. Knowing when to hold em and fold em is important up here. Most of these lakes have no real cover and these storms can last for hours at a time. Rain gear is recommended but can only get you so far when things really go south.. My best suggestion would be to watch the sky and be ready to duck back into the tent for a few hours.
Next on the list would be critters. The omnipresent hordes of mosquitos aren’t exactly going to kill you.. but my god can they be an absolute nightmare. Sustaining hundreds of bites isn’t advised and can make for a miserable trip all around. Cover up all the skin and bring bug spray. If allowed, keep a nice fire burning at camp. The smoke does a wonder to help discourage these ravenous blood suckers.
As far as big critters go, bears are present in the Winds. Mr. Grizz used to make an occasional appearance but now with population densities reaching capacity in places like Yellowstone, more are permenently moving south. Just as dangerous and equally scary would be the Black bear (of which there are many) so basic bear safety practices are advised. We carried bear spray the entire time and hung all our food away from camp. Not to be underestimated, but when hiking along these trails keep your eyes peeled for moose. A mother moose with a calf is as bad as seeing a bear.
The final danger (which should go without saying) would be the water. Critters contaminate and parasites persist. Bring some sort of purification tablet or squeeze bottle to allow for clean water no matter where you go. Just with the nature of backcountry shenanigans, you are going to need a lot of water. More than you realize in fact.
I mean it when I say.. If it weren’t for our training prior to this trip.. we would have been D-E-D. No joke. Kowalsky and I are both active individuals but it requires more than the normal effort when looking to work the Winds. One of the biggest things I made sure to do was ruck months in advance. It takes a long time for the muscles to get used to the weight and even longer for your skin to get used to the pressure points. Start low and work up. Even if you are in flatland country you can hop on a stair stepper with you backpack and get to work. For overall strength and stamina, I shifted all of my kettle bell workouts. Low weight and high reps help get those muscle groups ready for those endless uphills and switchbacks. You should know you can do something weeks before you ever step foot on that trail. I hate to sound so critical on this point, but when so many obstacles are in your way, the last thing you want to do is fight yourself along the way. Blisters, tweaked backs, and raw shoulders can ruin a trip well before you even get there.. and most of the time you aren't going to have enough time to heal before you have to do it all over again on the way home.
Want to see more? Here's a video of our entire week in the winds!
Golden Trout Research: