Habitat pits ranchers against Golden Trout in the Eastern Sierra
Last summer, a friend and I caught dozens, and dozens, and dozens of Golden Trout, all in one glorious day. Some days on the water produce memories akin to what used to be called a “Polaroid moment,” living for a long while in one’s memory. That was one of those days, when the weather is perfect, the company, just right, and the fishing, downright fantastic.
So it was with keen interest I read Louis Sahagun’s recent piece in the Los Angeles Times about ranchers rights within the Golden Trout Wilderness and the fate of our state fish. The GTW is a massive 300,000-acre area that sits on the Kern Plateau and is accessible from at least three directions. On its eastern edge from Lone Pine, off Hwy. 395; from the south, accessible from the Sequoia National Park around Mineral King, itself a 30-plus mile adventure on a one-lane, dead-end road; or going north from Kernville.
Remarkably, three of the trout native to the state’s waters are within the area. Besides the California Golden (technically known as the Golden Trout Creek golden trout), there’s also the Little Kern Golden Trout and Kern River Rainbow.
“Common names abound for the golden trout of the Kern River drainage,” writes Robert J. Behnke in his authoritative “Trout and Salmon of North America.” “This can be confusing because they tend to either pinpoint a fish to a particular stream, such as ‘Volcano Creek golden trout,’ or encompass a diversity of forms under one name, such as ‘California golden trout.’ The dozen or so common names for what are really two subspecies (aguabonita and whitei) of rainbow trout reflects the passion that so many have for this pair of jewel-like fish.”
The goldens my friend and I were stalking end up on many a fly-fisher’s bucket list for good reason: their jewel-like beauty. And, although they were once transported to Cottonwood Lakes, then to Arizona and beyond, the only place they naturally occur is right here, where they evolved in isolation from other trout
Size does matter, of course, but a 10-inch fish here is a monster, with the average running around 5-to-7 inches. They are a feast for the eye, with two red stripes, one on the belly, the other along the lateral line, running to the mouth and under the gill. Also, look for large black spots – up to 10 – that run laterally as well. Put these together with a predominately yellow-gold color and there’s little reason for their cousins to enter the beauty contest.
This general description will also come in handy when trying to decided if you’ve landed a pure golden or a hybrid, created through breeding with hatchery rainbows. Remember, these very distinct markings mean you’ve got a golden in your net.
David Lentz, who is California Department of Fish and Game’s native trout conservation coordinator, said that the small size is because of 140 years of habitat degradation. “Continued livestock use results in shallower, wider, warmer water,” he said. Waters in their natural state would be both narrower and deeper, which, in turn, would mean fewer goldens that were bigger. The largest section of interconnected meadows for grazing lies in the South Fork of the Kern area. Sections are now being rested for eight-to-nine years at a time to regain this natural habitat. Some environmentalists have argued that the best way to prevent lifestock from grazing in the upper South Fork watershed is to get goldens listed on the Endangered Species Act, according to Behnke.
Meanwhile, you can volunteer for hands on projects to restore this fragile habitat through the Golden Trout Project.
See you on the river, Jim Burns