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I've come to Cave Lake to catch one. Why here? Because in the summer of 2000 this Crazy Mountain puddle happened to produce the state record for the species.
Two days later, Gabe and I mince back down the Milly Creek drainage on tender feet. I've learned some things about golden trout. The ones inhabiting the lake seem to enjoy sulking in its depths, tough to reach with fishing tackle, nearly impossible to incite to bite. The fish in the creek's pools below the lake are somewhat easier to catch. I find modest success fooling them with standard spinning tackle: Mepps and Panther Martin spinners, small gold and silver spoons.
Two summers after the first trek, I again ascend to Cave Lake, this time in the company of a friend who also happens to be an accomplished trout guide on the Bighorn River. We have no dog. Gabe hid under a bunk bed when he spotted the Crazy Mountain topo map amidst my gear.
Instead of spinning tackle, there's a fly rod lashed to my backpack. If anyone can catch those finicky goldens on a fly rod, I reckon Carl can do it. Just in case, I also have a Styrofoam container of nightcrawlers wrapped in a rain jacket in the bottom of my pack, though I don't divulge their presence to Carl.
We leave Billings at an ungodly hour of the morning, hitting the trailhead not long after dawn. I'm hoping to beat the heat. My second ascent to the lake is arduous, though markedly easier than the first. It's nice to be in the company of a being who communicates verbally rather than in licks and barks.
I've found a better path for much of the off-trail segment of the route, including an old trail on the east side of Milly Creek that winds from Sweet Grass Creek to a narrow gap in the mountains some 650 feet higher, which marks a natural divide between the two drainages. Nonetheless, Carl's enthusiasm for the trek seems as vaporous as the wispy tendrils of white in the blue above us by the time we reach the series of cascades on Milly Creek marking the final, short ascent to the lake.
The next morning finds him in much finer spirits. From one large pool in the creek, we coax a dozen trout to our flies. Some fall for standard dry flies: Parachute Adams, Elk Hair Caddis and small Joe's Hoppers. Others gobble nymph patterns drifted into the current. After enticing an extraordinarily beautiful specimen with buttery sides splotched in olive and a bold band of crimson running from gill-plates to tail, I've had enough trout fishing for the day.
"Think I'll take my camera and go for a hike," I inform Carl.
Intent on changing flies, he grunts in acknowledgement. There are larger fish in the Cave Lake waterscape than any we've caught and the trout guide is determined to find them. By nightfall, he's landed two very impressive goldens, though by questionable means to any fly angling purist. Remember those nightcrawlers in my backpack?
As we motor south on Highway 191 toward Big Timber the following evening, cool air rushes through the pickup from the open windows. The eastern flank of the Crazies lies in shadow, the peaks aflame with a glowing halo, a lingering farewell from the sun. Black cattle graze placidly in the pastures of the foothills. Stalks of barley are ripening to yellow in the fields. I'm tired, but feeling strong and very much alive.
"Do you think we should try it a little earlier next year, or wait until September?" I query my passenger.
"Uh, look Jack. That was incredible. I'll never forget it as long as I live. But I don't think I want to go back."
Six years pass. In the company of my girlfriend, an accomplished hiker and backpacker, an author of several hiking guidebooks and numerous articles for Backpacker magazine, I'm once again grinding my way across the seemingly ceaseless fields of scree on the north side of Milly Creek. Cave Lake lies a mile up the drainage.
Along the way, we've browsed a couple of handfuls of plump, almost-ripe huckleberries from low-lying bushes in the timber and dropped our packs to glean deliciously juicy wild raspberries from bushes poking from the rockslides. We spied a shaggy mountain goat across the creek at lunch and paused to mark a raven's arcing passage down the drainage, a creature appearing as an Olympian sledding recklessly down a luge-run of thin air.