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A Week in the Winds

Trip Report by Paul Vertrees
Photos by Paul Vertrees, Eric Lynn, and Shawn Larson

“I am me because I grew up in this celestial 2 ¼-million-acre Wind River Range while the land also grew on me. It is a true sanctum and retreat of mountains, glaciers, streams and lakes.”

Finis Mitchell, in a letter to me, 1984

I’m sitting next to a hot wood stove on a snowy day, writing this article and poring over a stack of letters Finis Mitchell wrote to me in 1983 and 1984. I was 20 and he was in his early 80s. It was an unlikely friendship. I was a young soldier, stationed overseas five thousand miles from my home state of Colorado. He was an aging wilderness champion, lecturer, and photographer living in Rock Springs, Wyoming. We had mutual acquaintances that were devoted to wilderness preservation, and we soon began writing letters to each other. Each letter he wrote to me took about 2-3 weeks to arrive in Europe from Wyoming, and mine took just a long going back to him. It was always a special treat to get a letter or card from Finis.

In those letters, he told me all about his wonderful Wind River Range in west-central Wyoming. Finis had migrated west to Wyoming from Missouri in 1906, and in 1930 he and his wife started up Mitchell’s Fishing Camp, located at the Big Sandy Openings, on the west side of the Continental Divide.

In the early years, Finis and his family stocked some 314 high lakes on the west flank of the divide, packing in huge milk cans full of trout, two cans per horse. The milk cans were covered with burlap to prevent most of the water and the all of the trout from sloshing out while the pack train made its way up to the lakes. All of the jostling of the pack train kept the water in the cans aerated, keeping the fish alive until they could be released into the mostly barren lakes. These barren lakes had been void of trout until the Mitchells stocked them, and much of the fishing we enjoy today in the Winds is a direct result of Finis’ backbreaking work, love of trout and wilderness, and vision.

This was my connection to The Winds. Serendipity had gifted me the long-distance friendship with Finis. The whirlwind of my return from a deployment in December 1984, and the subsequent early years of my Army career kept me from going up to Rock Springs, Wyoming, to meet Finis and his lifelong wife, Emma, although he had offered me an open-ended invitation to do so.

From the mid-1980s up until 2017 I spent my time and effort fly fishing in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, backpacking and visiting streams and high lakes in most of my home state’s wilderness areas. During those decades I had also taken my tenkara rods to the wonderful Driftless in southwest Wisconsin, the interior and southwest corner of Alaska, and beyond. However, the thought of visiting the Wind River Range was always in the back of my mind, especially when I would leaf through my well-worn copy of Finis’ venerable little book, “Wind River Trails”.

In August 2018, all that changed. The people, circumstances, and events of my life up to that point in time all converged to make a trip to The Winds a reality. It’s interesting that during the span of our lives we really never know exactly when such things will happen. I’ve learned that when they do offer the opportunity, it’s always best to jump on them hard, and I have never regretted doing so. Our tenancy on this planet is brief and time waits for no man.

I have a handful of close friends with whom I’ve shared many backcountry adventures. Two of them joined me on the trip to The Winds, and between the three of us we made quite a team. I had been backpacking, fly fishing, and big game hunting with Eric for many years. It was with Eric that I burro-packed deep into Colorado wilderness, clambered to the top of a 12,000-foot ridge, and killed the biggest cow elk of my life, with one of the longest shots I had ever taken on an elk with a rifle. We are both retired military, and lifelong patriots.

The third member of the Wind River team, Shawn, is also a fellow backcountry adventurer. I actually met Shawn when he booked a guided tenkara trip with me in southwest Colorado back in 2013. We quickly found that we had many shared interests, and most of them were centered on wilderness fishing and backpacking. In the ensuing years, Shawn ceased being my client, and became a frequent partner on numerous mountain adventures. Shawn accompanied me to interior Alaska in 2016 to scout for trophy arctic grayling with tenkara, and he returned to Alaska with me again in 2017 as a client on my annual hosted trip to Intricate Bay Lodge in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska. Together we’ve fished for wilderness cutthroats in Colorado and many trophy rainbow trout and arctic grayling in the Last Frontier.

Having two great friends, rock-solid outdoorsmen, and fellow tenkara anglers in my company for my first trip to the wilderness of the Winds was a godsend.

Our trip began the evening of August 4th. I drove the hundred or so miles northeast to Eric’s place, arriving just before dinner. Shawn had already arrived and was rummaging through a pile of gear in Eric’s shop building. After passing a mason jar of apple cinnamon moonshine back and forth on Eric’s front porch, and watching wild turkeys scratch in the pine needles next to his house, we ate a huge dinner. After dinner we returned to our piles of gear, sorted things out, and decided to rise early the next morning for the trip to west-central Wyoming. Shawn and I sacked out on cots and sleeping bags in Eric’s shop, and between the moonshine and the dinner, I really don’t remember my head hitting the pillow.

Day 1, August 5th

Eric Lynn is a burro man. He has a small herd of various sized burros, some of which spent their early years running wild in the Arizona desert until the Bureau of Land Management rounded them up and shipped them to Colorado penitentiaries where inmates tamed them and offered them for adoption through the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program. Eric adopted others from friends and acquaintances. He’s also added a big 15-hand sorrel mule named Duncan.

Eric’s fascination with all things equus asinas resulted in his start-up of Mountain Ridge Gear in 2009, and the development of his Original ATV line of specialty mule and burro packing equipment, including pack saddles, tack, and panniers. We would be taking four of Eric’s pack stock on our trip to The Winds, enabling us to take better food, beer, bigger shelters, and more creature comforts than we would if we were backpacking. Eric was recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, so he would ride one of the animals, and the other three would carry packsaddles. Shawn and I would hike with full daypacks. We had a 50-plus-mile trip planned over a span of five days on the trail.

After a huge breakfast at Eric’s the morning of August 5th, and an hour or so spent loading gear into Eric’s truck and pack animals into the horse trailer, we pulled out and headed north through Denver, Fort Collins, Laramie, Rawlins, and the stark beauty of the Great Divide Basin. As with traveling west across the Great Plains of western Kansas and eastern Colorado, the Wind River Mountains were a welcome sight as we arrived in Lander and stopped for diesel. Lander was our jumping-off point, and was the nearest town to Worthen Meadows trailhead. We drove straight uphill from Lander, past Frye Lake, and turned west to the campground. This US Forest Service campground has handy hitching posts and corrals for horse and mule packers, and we camped overnight there, sleeping in my ultralight tipi.

Day 2, August 6th

We rose at dawn the morning of August 6th, wondering why we hadn’t assembled and lit our portable wood stove. It was near freezing as we watched the sun rise over Worthen Meadow Reservoir. After eating breakfast on the fenders of the horse trailer, loading and weighing six panniers (we had a total of 406 pounds of gear on three burros), saddling the donkeys and mule, and shouldering backpacks, we signed the register at the Worthen Meadows trailhead and headed up Stough Creek Lakes Trail and into the 101,870-acre Popo Agie Wilderness.

At the beginning of Stough Creek Lakes Trail there are several low boardwalks designed to keep hikers and pack stock out of marshy low spots. Eric’s animals had seen few, if any, of these in the Colorado backcountry. We moved less than a mile in the first hour, and in that hour was spent coaxing, pushing, pulling, and swearing at our long-eared friends. Burros are slow to trust, but once they do, it’s easy. They figured out they wouldn’t die if they walked on those boardwalks, and after that we had very little problems with boardwalks. We did, however, have a problem with bear spray.

We were traveling in grizzly bear country, and all three of us were carrying bear spray canisters on our belts. Eric’s canister has somehow leaked during one of the wrestling matches with the burros, and he had gotten some of the noxious liquid on his hand and then onto his face. Eric spent most of the day with tears and snot running down his face as the spray worked its magic and eventually wore out over time. Numerous high log bridges were another story, but again once the burros trusted both the bridges, and us we moved much faster. Eric is a firm, patient burro wrangler, and watching him work is to see a man completely in his element, spending time doing what he loves.

Nine miles of rocky trail led us to the Middle Fork Popo Agie River and Tayo Park, which would serve as our basecamp for the week. Shawn and I felt great after spending most of the day hiking with 20-pound packs, and we had plenty of energy left to set up camp and get settled in. With burros corralled with a portable electric fence in lush grass, and our own bellies full, we turned in for the night.

It’s a weird feeling, going to bed in grizzly bear country. We fell asleep with our “bear radar” on, somehow keeping one ear tuned to any strange noises on the other size of the paper-tin fabric of the tipi. After spending nearly half my life in the Army, I’ve developed the ability to both get good night’s sleep and also awake at an instant when I hear something out of place. It’s this ability that’s kept me safe and out of trouble for many years.

After about an hour or so of sleep, I snapped awake, hearing something banging against the bear-proof food panniers that were stashed about a hundred yards away. Eric and Shawn tell me I yelled something to the effect of “boys, we’ve got noise!”, but I honestly don’t remember what I said. Springing out of my sleeping bag, I grabbed my headlamp and bear spray and leapt out of the tipi and into the blackness, with Eric and Shawn right on my heels, doing the same. Waking two retired military veterans and one salty backwoods adventurer with “bear noise” in the middle of the night is not an experience I would want if I were a bear!

After scanning our camp and those food-laden panniers with our headlamps, we discovered it wasn’t a bear at all, but a mule deer standing in the middle of camp making the most unnatural coughing sounds, which interestingly enough sound just like something thumping against a bear-proof pannier! After a good laugh and saying goodnight to the deer, we went slithered back into our sleeping bags and enjoyed a sound night’s sleep.

Day 3, August 7th

We had come to The Winds in search of gold…golden trout that is. Shawn and I had both caught some rare goldens in secret backcountry spots in Colorado, but when it comes to golden trout, Wyoming is king. I had spent some long phone calls with Rich Osthoff, author of the excellent guidebook, “Fly Fishing the Rocky Mountain Backcountry”. I’ve had Rich’s book for nearly 20 years, and I had just about memorized the lengthy chapter about The Winds. Rich shared his extensive experience in The Winds with me, as well as some of his most productive fly patterns. Rich had also recommended some streams and lakes to Shawn, and Eric, me and I had planned our trip around those.

On August 7th, Eric rode his burro, DarLynn, and Shawn and I hiked all the way up to Coon Lake, which is nestled in a 10,600-foot basin right up against the east side of Continental Divide. Eric’s knee was feeling much better, so he hiked while I rode DarLynn for a couple of miles. DarLynn and I have a special friendship, for it was she who saved me from a charging bull moose in Colorado a few years earlier. Several miles due west of us, on the other side of the divide, was the Big Sandy Openings, Finis Mitchell’s stomping grounds. On the way up to Coon Lake, we stopped to fish the Tayo Creek, and caught so many brook trout that we lost count. This would happen daily during our week in The Winds!

As we topped out the climb to Coon Lake, we found it surrounded by a nearly treeless shoreline that was lined with boulders and willows. On the western skyline loomed the divide ridge and beyond that the squared-off dome of an 11,500-foot unnamed peak west of Little Sandy Creek. It was a calm, sunny day on an alpine golden trout lake!

All three of us deployed our tenkara rods and split up into different directions. I had taken a 13 ½-foot tip flex rod to Coon Lake, knowing full well I would need to cast a long line in windy conditions. This wasn’t my first rodeo on a high lake.

Rich Osthoff had tied me up a dozen #12 Fast Sinking Scuds, his famous go-to pattern for goldens in The Winds. I rigged up one of the custom-length 13-foot Tactical Tenkara Nymphing lines I had recently designed, added about six feet of 5X fluorocarbon tippet, and tied on the scud. Since the water I intended to start fishing dropped off quickly and looked quite deep, I attached one BB split shot about a foot above the scud. After about an hour of fishing, and disheartened that I hadn’t even see one single fish, I sat down for a break. At that moment a trout broke the surface about 50 feet out. Game on!

Since I hadn’t seen a fish within the range of my tenkara rod, and hadn’t had any takes on my weighted scud, I switched it up and deployed my 9-foot 5-weight western rod. My reel had a 5-weight weight-forward floating line on it; so I attached one of my Skagit sink tips, and a 9’ fluorocarbon leader, along with the scud and weight. I was standing right next to a deep trough in the bottom of the lake, so I cast about 50 feet to the far end of the trough and let the scud sink. As soon as the scud sank I felt a strong take through the rod and strip set the hook. Five minutes later Shawn netted the trout for me, and I was holding my first-ever 14-inch Wyoming golden trout!

I was disappointed that I hadn’t caught it with my tenkara rod, but that was eclipsed by the experience of catching it and marveling at the beauty of such a fish.

We spent the rest of the day fishing Coon Lake, but mine was the only golden caught that day. We did see a few trout break the surface, but they were always just out of tenkara rod range, and none were seen cruising the shoreline the way our Colorado cutthroats often do in high lakes. Happy to have spent a good day in the high country on a beautiful lake, we left Coon Lake in time to arrive back at our Tayo Park camp for supper.

Day 4, August 8th

Eric decided to stay in camp to take care of some of his donkey-related chores, and even talked about scouting Squirrel Lake, which sat in a small wooded basin directly upslope and north of our Tayo Park camp. Shawn and I hiked west of camp past Poison Lake, following Tayo Creek until it met the outlet from Mountain Sheep Lake. We bushwhacked upstream, following the outlet until we found a well-used game trail that led us to the spectacular basin where Mountain Sheep Lake sits at an elevation of 10,250 feet.

We spent the morning fishing the north end of the lake from huge boulders, catching dozens of 10 to 12 inch brook trout. Mountain Sheep Lake is strictly a brook trout lake, but you can go there and catch as many as you want! The scenery at the lake is second to none, and there are even more hidden gems you can’t see from the shore. Secluded above Mountain Sheep Lake is another, smaller tarn, and Shawn and I promised each other that we would return on another trip and climb up to it to see if any fish live there.

After we enjoyed lunch while stretched out in the warm sun on a house-sized boulder, we dropped back down to Tayo Creek and fished our way downstream to Poison Lake. I fished the entire day with a triple zoom tenkara rod, fully extended out to its relatively short length of 10’8”. The short length of the rod made casting in overhanging water birch and willows much easier. I’m not a fish counter, clicker in hand, tallying up the day’s total, but by all estimates Shawn and I caught well over a hundred fish between the two of us, all on mostly traditional Japanese tenkara fly patterns using simple level line and about 4 feet of 6X tippet. At the end of the day, Shawn and I returned to camp to find that Eric’s scouting of Squirrel Lake resulted in no fish seen or caught.

Day 5, August 9th

Up early, Shawn and I loaded backpacks while Eric saddled DarLynn for the ride up to Tayo Lake, the largest lake within a day’s hike from our basecamp. At the trail junction at the turnoff to Coon Lake, we stopped and spent about an hour fishing Tayo Creek, catching over a dozen feisty brook trout. Once we finished the climb up to Tayo Lake, we were treated to an awesome view of the lake and the peaks and ridges surrounding it, including a couple of hanging glaciers clinging to the granite cliffs of the Continental Divide. The shores of Tayo Lake are completely treeless, and boulders and tundra surround the lake. With plenty of casting room and a vast expanse of shoreline to fish from, we split up and started fishing.

As with Coon Lake, the goldens were just out of reach with our tenkara rods. I had a couple of solid hits with my tenkara rod, fishing Rich Osthoff’s Fast Sinking Scud, but didn’t land any trout until I had switched over to my western 5-weight rod, casting at least 50 feet out into the lake. In contrast to Coon Lake, Tayo Lake presented us with cruising golden trout and golden-rainbow hybrids, but they weren’t inclined to take a fly until they were out farther in the lake. While Eric and I were shooting a video for his company on the slope above the lake, Shawn could be heard at least a quarter mile away, whooping it up as he caught several nice goldens. The three of us were at yet another high lake in The Winds that we vowed to return to on another trip!

Day 6, August 10th

August 10th was the day we would pack up our Tayo Park Camp and head back downstream along the Middle Fork Popo Agie River to Three Forks Park for our final overnight before heading back to the original trailhead. As with all adventures like this, the days go fast, and the last day in basecamp is bittersweet. I think we could have spent another week on the east side of the Continental Divide in The Winds on the south end of the range, and still not have been able to visit all of the lakes worth fishing. There’s just that much water in The Winds, and it’s a big range.

Our trail miles on Day 6 took us downriver through thick timber and marshy meadows along the Middle Fork. We arrived at Three Forks Park in time to do some fishing for brook trout. During our week up to this point we hadn’t taken any brook trout out of the streams for a meal, but on this last night on the trail we kept a half-dozen brookies from the 50 or so we caught before supper. Shawn cooked up those trout on his backpacking stove, and I mixed them in with some lemon pepper rice I had in my pack. I was a wonderful meal!

We kept our camp simple that night, sleeping under the stars. It was such a treat to face the black starry sky, nestled warmly in my down sleeping bag, watching meteors and satellites track across the black summer sky.

Day 7, August 11th

This would be our final day on the trail, and we spent most of the day following the trail downstream through the hottest and driest part of our trip. In the lower reaches of the trail, just before Sheep Bridge, we crossed a few openings covered with sparse sagebrush, dusty trails, and hot temperatures. Sheep Bridge was the ultimate test for Eric’s mule and burros. The iron and wood bridge towers some 25 feet over the Middle Fork, which is much larger on this end of the drainage. It’s wide enough for pack stock carrying full panniers, but has little margin for error if one of the animals panics. Shawn and I clambered down below the bridge to do some fishing while Eric worked with his animals on the approach to the bridge. After some coaxing, he crossed with all of the pack burros, while riding…

Not one to be satisfied with quick success, Eric turned the whole pack string around, crossed back over the Middle Fork the way he had come, and rode back up the trail away from Shawn and I. Eric then turned the whole line around a second time and crossed Sheep Bridge a third time without a hitch. I was very proud of Eric’s diligence, as well as the solid performance of his pack string. While all of this burro-wrangling was going on, Shawn and I enjoyed some really good fishing under the bridge and just upstream from it, catching one of only a couple of rainbow trout from the Middle Fork during the entire trip.

A few more miles of mostly uphill hiking and riding up the Sheep Bridge Trail brought us back to our original starting point at the Worthen Meadows Campground. I always start hiking more slowly toward the end of any backpacking trip, wanting to savor every step before I have to stop. This trip was no different, and although I was happy to get back to civilization, I was also sad to have to say goodbye to the Popo Agie Wilderness and all of that wonderful fishing in the Wyoming backcountry.

Our last evening in Wyoming was spent relaxing at Worthen Meadows Campground and pre-packing some of our gear for the return trip home to Colorado. Once again, we cooked on the fenders of Eric’s horse trailer, and drank the remains of a twelve pack of warm beer we had locked in the trailer during the week. We dispensed with a shelter, and spent our second night sleeping under the stars, snug in our feathered cocoons, staring up at the star-filled sky. Before we drifted off to sleep, we had already started planning our return trip to The Winds the next year, with another goal of catching an elusive golden trout with our tenkara rods.

Paul Vertrees was one of the first professional tenkara guides in the US and works as a guide for Royal Gorge Anglers in Cañon City, Colorado. He writes on his personal blog, Tenkara Tracks, as well as various online and print publications.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2018-19 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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