By Spencer Durrant
Golden trout are among the most enigmatic of trout. They’re shrouded with more than a bit of mystery. They’re held up as a holy grail of fly fishing. Being in the club of anglers who’ve caught a golden trout is, to some, rarified air.
While golden trout are truly unique, fun, gorgeous fish, they’re far less regal than Instagram makes them appear. The biggest barrier between you and a golden trout is geography.
If you have golden trout on your fly fishing bucket list, or you’re just curious to learn more about the different trout species we have here in America, keep reading. All the information you need to know about golden trout is right here.
What is a golden trout?
The golden trout that most fly anglers are so intrigued by is the California golden trout (Oncorhynchus aguabonita). Two other fish species are close cousins of this fish – the Little Kern golden trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss whitei) and the Kern River rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss gilberti), but aren’t the ones that so fully capture the imaginations of anglers around the world.
Goldens are cousins of the rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), much in the same way that cutthroat trout and rainbow trout are related.
It’s important to note here that the golden trout we’re discussing today are not related to the West Virginia golden trout, palomino trout, banana trout, or lightning trout.
Those are four names for the same fish, which is a genetically mutated rainbow trout that’s colored a light yellow. These don’t occur very often in the wild, nor are they a separate species like the California golden trout.
Where are they from?
Goldens are native to Golden Trout Creek, a tributary of the Kern River, Volcano Creek, and the South Fork of the Kern River in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. However, goldens have since been planted in hundreds – if not thousands – of lakes and streams throughout the Western United States.
Today, they’re still prevalent in the Sierra Nevada. However, the population of golden trout that draws the most interest is located in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains. Goldens grow larger here than they do perhaps anywhere else in the world.
Where are they now?
Golden trout are now found in California, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and Washington.
- California: you can catch goldens in their native range in the Golden Trout Wilderness Area, located inside Inyo and Sequoia National Forests.
- Utah: goldens are found in a handful of lakes in the Uinta Mountains.
- Wyoming: you’ll catch golden trout in the Wind River, Bighorn, Absaroka, and Snowy Mountains.
- Idaho: goldens inhabit high alpine lakes of the Bitterroot, Sawtooth, and Lemhi mountains.
- Montana: goldens are in only 20 lakes throughout Montana, in the western and southcentral part of the state.
- Washington: goldens are found in Yakima, Whatcom, Snohomish, Skamania, Skagit, Okanogan, Lewis, Kittitas, King, Jefferson, Grays Harbor, and Chelan counties.
Part of the allure of golden trout is that they live in far-flung, remote locations. While some golden trout lakes and streams are easy to access, the majority involve a lot of hiking in difficult, rugged terrain. In keeping with the spirit of fishing for goldens, we’re not going to give out exact locations for these fish. Doing the homework to find them is part of the fun of fishing for golden trout.
How big do they get?
Goldens aren’t typically large trout, especially in their native range in California, where a fish over 12 inches is considered big.
The world record golden, however, was an 11-pound brute taken from Cooks Lake, Wyoming in 1948. That record may never be beaten, but there are fish over 20 inches caught regularly from the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming. Most goldens will be about 8-12 inches in length throughout Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.
How do I identify a golden trout?
Unless you’re fishing in water that has exclusively golden trout, it can be a bit tough to identify this fish if you’ve never seen it before. Generally, there are a few major characteristics that will help you differentiate golden trout from their close cousins, the rainbow and cutthroat.
- Very bright coloring
- Red coloring on the belly and lateral line
- Bright gold coloring on the flanks
- Most of the spots concentrated towards the tail
- Very few, if any, spots below the lateral line
How do I catch golden trout?
The tactics for catching goldens depend largely on where you’re fishing for them. In their native range, for example, they’ll readily take dry flies off the top of the river. In Wyoming, plenty of anglers swear by fishing small midge and leech patterns on long leaders, in the deeper sections of lakes.
Let’s take a look at both the recommended flies and places to fish for goldens.
For the most part, though, the typical tackle you’d take for any backcountry fishing trip will put goldens in the net. If you’re chasing a trophy fish, then you’ll want an assortment of both dry flies and nymphs. Goldens are known to stay deep and eat microscopic bugs, so small midges and leeches fished on long leaders is a great tactic to use if you’re not getting any action on the surface.
In my own experience fishing for goldens in Utah and Wyoming, I’ve found a size 12 olive micro leech and size 14 red Ice Cream Cone chironomid to be the best-producing flies. In some lakes and streams, I’ve been lucky enough to catch goldens on dry flies, but those fish were much smaller. All my biggest goldens have come on nymphs, as have the biggest fish I’ve seen caught by my fishing buddies.
To recap, the flies you should have ready for golden trout are:
- Standard backcountry/high country dry flies
- Micro leeches
Again, we’re not going to give out GPS coordinates for some nice goldens. Often, the populations of these fish are very sensitive to overfishing. And, most of that information exists online, anyways. It might take some digging or phone calls to local fishery biologists, but finding good areas to fish for golden trout isn’t impossible. In fact, researching where to fish for them is part of the fun.
What we will discuss, though, is where you should fish when targeting these fish in a lake.
Generally, fish cruise the shallows of high country lakes, looking for food. That food can be in the form of bugs blown onto the water’s surface, but it’s often aquatic insects whose growth is spurred on by the sunlight in shallow water.
However, not all goldens will cruise the shallows looking for food. If you’re at a lake and don’t see any fish cruising, then it’s time to look in deeper water.
Drop-offs are the first place to look. These are easy to spot, since there will be a line where the water goes from shallow to deep very suddenly. Fish tend to hang just on the deep side of the drop-off.
Other areas to fish around include any bit of structure in the water that might provide a good hiding place for trout. Rock piles, sunken logs, and areas of the shore that point far out into the water are ideal spots.
So, to recap, you should target these areas in a lake when looking for goldens:
- Shallow areas near the bank
- Structure, like rock piles or sunken logs
Golden trout are among the most beautiful, and most sought-after trout in North America. Their relative scarcity, and their remote living situation, make them uniquely difficult to catch. They may not grow to huge proportions, but what they lack in size they make up for in splendor. You’ll never regret the time you spend fishing for them.
Do you have any stories of fishing for golden trout you’d like to share? We’d love to hear them in the comments!