Recently one of my good friends from university realized a long-time dream of finally getting the sportscar he’s always dreamed of and it was awesome seeing him accomplish one of his life goals.  When we were back in school, I too had a goal of a once in a lifetime car and that was something we shared.  While our lives have taken different paths than those we laid out in our early twenties, and the dream car in my twenties being something that’s low on my priority list now, but I was able to accomplish a goal that I’ve been wanting to check off my list for about 15 years, and that goal was backpacking into the Cottonwood lakes for Golden trout.

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Cottonwood Lake 3

The elusive Golden Trout (Oncorhynchus Aquabonita) is widely regarded as the most beautiful trout in the world is the California state freshwater fish and is native to the southern Sierra Mountains. 

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Oncorhynchus Aquabonita

Before the world even knew about a novel small spiked protein (Covid-19) that would literally change our social-economic-political landscape, plans were being hatched to explore the cotton wood lakes.  There was a group of us; Andrew, Kevin, Lesley and myself committed to the adventure and the planning began.  Andrew was able to secure a permit for the area for the fourth of July weekend, which turns out to be the opening weekend of the cottonwood lakes basin. 

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Feisty golden

The trip’s destiny was at stake during this early stage of the pandemic, but the group held steadfast in our faith that the mountain would open, and we’d get to go on our trip.  We all utilized the downtime to prepare by going on hikes, tying flies and checking our gear to make sure we had all the necessities. A week before the trip, a large 5+ magnitude quake hit the area, closing the roads, leaving the trailhead gate and campsite closed and it left us wondering if this trip was doomed before it ever started. A few days before we were scheduled to leave, they still had the gate closed to the trailhead.

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John Muir Wilderness on the trail to the Cottonwood Lakes

Rolling the dice, we decided that we were going to make this trip happen, and headed north, knowing we’d be parking on the side of the road and adding an extra mile and half each way to the hike.  Lesley and I headed out together and Kevin and Andrew carpooled up to minimize the number of cars.  To our utter surprise, as we got to the top of horseshoe meadow road, the trailhead gate and campsite were open.  We quickly set up our tents, claiming an open spot in the trailhead campsite and then eager to get fishing, we rigged up our fly rods.  We hopped back into the cars and drove and then walked for what seemed like forever to get to a high-altitude (10,000’) meadow.  The creek was tiny, no more than a few feet at it’s widest, but it was full of small, spooky golden trout.  We spent the afternoon sneaking up on them, and softly casting dry flies, hoping for a strike.  Utilizing some small caddis, and ant patterns we were able to coax quite a few small goldens, with the largest being about 8”. 

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Biggest Golden from the Creek on an ant pattern

Heading back to camp, the altitude started to hit us hard, and I was wondering how I’d be able to make the 6 mile, 1,000’ vertical hike with 35 pound back pack the next day. 

We got back to the trail camp, and the once empty campground, was a bustling area with families, kids and dogs setting up camp and preparing dinner.  After dinner a group of hikers came looking for a campsite, and since the campground was full, we offered to share our site.  Turns out they were also fly anglers, and they shared some of the beer with us (since we weren’t prepared and ran out early). 

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Fly box ready for battle

The next day we woke up, cleaned up camp, and started along the trail.  The first half of the trail was an easy stroll through pine forests, across streams and was a mix of hardpack dirt and soft sand.   The halfway point is marked with a nice meadow with a gin clear stream running through it.  We decided to forgo fishing the stream to make it to the cottonwood lakes.  The second half of the trail rose from the meadow floor at around 10,000 feet to over 11,000 feet.  The trail is much steeper, with boulders and rocks.  The last ½ mile of the trail is a switchback, but when you make the summit, you’re welcomed by a majestic site of a giant blue lake, surrounded by a vibrant green meadow and flanked by granite peaks with Mount Langley the centerpiece in the distance. 

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The amazing meadow at the halfway point

As soon as we got to the lake, the flyrods came out and the feathers and dubbing started to fly.  We were able to find some goldens that were willing to play straight away.  After about 30 mins of fishing, we relegated to finding and setting up our camp site.

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Kevin getting into the Fish straight away!

We hit up cottonwood lake number three, armed with streamers and floating lines.  This lake had a well-defined weed bed, that at first glance appeared to be a deep drop off.  We estimated the lake to be about 7-8 feet deep.  

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Cottonwood lakes are breathtaking

Fishing two flies, with them about 4’ apart, I send a cast deep into the lake, count to 10 and started stripping.  To my surprise, I had no takes, until the fly was about to pass the weed bed line, then suddenly three good sized golden trout darted out to attack the fly.  I missed the strike, so I quickly casted back out, and nabbed a 12” golden trout! For the next few hours, it was steady streamer action as we worked the lake.  After a quick dinner of freeze-dried food, and an hour before dark, the lake lit up with rising fish.  There were so many rises, it appears as a group of kids were throwing pebbles into the lake.  Armed with our dry fly rods, we successfully matched the hatch of emergers and caddis, and had a blast catching these amazing fish on dries.  Being exhausted from a long hike and countless fish, we turned in for the night. 

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Dave and Lesley Setting up Camp

The next day we hiked to lakes 4 and 5, which were about a mile and 200 vertical feet away.  We made it to lake four and the fish were schooled up at the outlet and they were good sized fish.  My first cast out, strip set on a solid 14” golden trout that wasn’t afraid to show it’s colors.  After a couple more fish, I worked my way up to Lake 5 and I was shocked by what I saw.  The close bank was full of anglers, with one about ever 20’ that spanned about half way around the lake.  The lake appeared like a local lake after they stocked rainbow trout.  The numbers of anglers that made the hike in was surprising, but we guessed the popularity of this lake was due to being the only lake you are legally allowed to harvest golden trout. 

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Lesley Bent on a nice golden

We then hiked back down the valley to fish lakes 1 and 2.  Lake 1 was a difficult lake to fish, due to the entire shoreline being surrounded by reeds.  We were able to find a few rocks that we could cast over the reeds.  The fish weren’t interested in chasing streamers, so I switched over to a foam hopper and hung a squirmy wormie about 2.5’ below the hopper.  This proved to be a deadly combination, as I landed nice sized goldens one after another, with them taking both the hopper and the squirmy. 

Golden-Trout

Those white tips!

With only another couple hours before the nighttime took hold, we moved to lake 2.  Lesley found a great spot on top of a rock, while Kevin Andrew and I moved down the shoreline.  Lesley immediately found success, while the three of us struggled.  I switched to a pine squirrel leech and a Beadhead Tactical Red N Ready, and then I was into the action!  Lesley was able to land a Golden double, two goldens on one cast! 

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Lesley’s Double

We retired back to camp once the sun set for some more freeze dried food.  The rest of the evening was spent hanging out, drinking Whiskey and sharing stories of Golden trout.

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This one asked for a close up…..

The next morning, we leisurely packed up camp and started on the hike back to the trailhead.  Walking downhill was much easier and about 2 hours later we arrived at the trucks.  The adventure was over, but the experience was one not to be forgotten.  It felt great to check a goal off the list, while spending time in the wilderness with some quality people and forgetting about the “real” world for a weekend. 

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The Golden Crew

(From left to Right: Dave, Lesley, Andrew, Kevin)

By Dave Smith

Dave Smith Fly Fishing

Ca Licensed Fly Fishing Guide

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