(c) Jack Ballard
Home to the first plant of golden trout (native to the Sierra Mountains of California) in Montana, Sylvan Lake has provided brood stock for numerous other lakes in the Treasure State that now have their own self-sustaining populations of goldens. Whether by chance or design, the goldens plunked into Sylvan Lake remain one of the healthiest fisheries of this species in the state, and is probably the easiest place to catch a specimen of the onchorhynchus aguabonita species. The only downside of Sylvan Lake is the uphill climb to get there. The trail to this winsome, timberline tarn winds some five or six miles, depending on the guidebook or mapping software you choose to believe. From the trailhead near East Rosebud Lake to Sylvan, the path gains about 2,800 feet of elevation.
Though a strenuous hike, numerous local anglers fish Sylvan as a one-day trip. Starting early in the morning in midsummer, it’s possible to reach the shoreline by noon, fish for a few hours, then descend the trail in the evening. The hike proffers its own rewards. On a recent trek to tempt the goldens, my party of three spotted mule deer, a mother blue grouse with a young brood and dozens of different wildflower species along the way. In short, there’s enough distractions along the trail to measure your pace and provide a plethora of excuses for a breather.
Once at the lake, you’ll typically find the goldens very cooperative, even at midday. They readily gulp a variety of dry flies. I’ve hooked them on Elk Hair Caddis, yellow and red Humpies, Parachute Adams, black ants and small hoppers. From nearly any place on the shoreline it’s possible to spot rising trout. If they’re out of range, wait a few minutes and you’ll usually spot the telltale, concentric ripples of a rising golden within casting distance. Though I’ve never attempted to catch them with anything but dry flies, I once met a youthful angler at the lake who was finding excellent success with a tiny, bright pink fly that roughly mimics the shape of a sowbug fished just above the lake’s rocky bottom.
To reach the trail to Sylvan Lake, take Highway 78 south from Columbus to the tiny hamlet of Roscoe. From Roscoe, veer west on the well-signed road to East Rosebud Lake. Arriving at the lake, turn into the small, primitive Forest Service campground on the left side of the road. The trailhead to Sylvan Lake is found at the end of the campground. From there, aim your boots uphill and prepare for a memorable adventure in prospecting for gold.