He was holding towards the front, at the base of a series of small drops from the pool above. There were several other significantly smaller fish scattered around him, giving him a wide berth but still vying for a seat at the proverbial table. I tossed my fly into the top pool and watched it drop from waterfall to waterfall, fully expecting to hook a little guy quick enough to snatch it from the bully. When my fly hit the final pool, the rush of the water submerged it, long enough to smear it right in front of the bully, and convince him that he wouldn’t have to work for this one. Hooked.
Interestingly, though that was a giant fish for a Little Kern Golden (pictured below), what I remember about that day was the allure of that part of the river. Deep, narrow channels and step pools spill into beautiful holes just begging to be swum. Colors of rock reminiscent of a southwestern landscape palette. And water adorned with these jewels of fish. There’s more to the story than a pretty fish; though LKG’s have a unique history and have developed an army of ardent admirers, their future is uncertain.
Taxonomic classification of the Little Kern Golden is a tepidly debated topic due to the complex evolutionary history, constant advances of genetic tools used to map organisms and the relative genetic plasticity of these fish (according to DFG DP Christenson, fish within the same closed population were actually found to have different numbers of chromosomes-a genetic anomaly!). California Dept. of Fish and Game declares Little Kern Goldens, California Goldens and Kern River Rainbows to all be subspecies of golden trout. However, M. Stephens in a 2007 paper, using “improved” genetic tools determined both Little Kern Goldens and California Goldens to have “independent evolutionary lineages derived from coastal Rainbow Trout.” That being said, I know that most of us would rather be catching goldens than standing in as armchair experts contesting the merits of one taxonomic classification over another, so I digress.
I will include that their accepted scientific name is O. mykiss whitei , named after naturalist Steward Edward White who often wrote about Golden Trout (this seemed a useful detail to include should it ever arise on trivia night). They are vibrant fish with a brightly colored red-orange lateral band and several parr marks that exist typically into adulthood. The back is an olive green with spots extending from nose to tail and bright red to red-orange belly and gill plates. Pectoral, pelvic and anal fins are rimmed in white. There are two common threads of thought as to why Goldies developed such striking coloration. The first theory suggests that it was a predator escape mechanism to blend in to the brightly colored volcanic rock that make up much of the creek bottoms. Seems logical, right? However, they are not really in a predator-dense environment and they can still be found, dazzling as ever, in creek bottoms that are not of orange and red hues. This leads us to theory number 2: the fish evolved this cryptic coloration in order to increase mate success (Moyle et al. 2002), aka fickle lady fishes were more likely to mate only with the most braggadociously colored skinsuits out there. This is a concept I feel explains a lot in sapiens current mating rituals! Provided that these fish were experiencing a “bottleneck effect” in an environment with very few predators, you might conceivably get a population of fish that are golden year round. Really though, who the heck knows? It just adds to the mystery. We’ve practically got a ‘Nessie on our hands.
Although it varies by account, The Little Kern Golden was “discovered” in 1904 by fisheries biologist Barton Warren (Christenson, 1994). By 1945, it was determined the Little Kern Goldens were becoming hybridized with planted rainbows and outcompeted by introduced brook trout. Planting was halted ten years later and in 1965, Fish and Game took it upon themselves to determine the status of the Little Kern Golden. After surveying the Little Kern and it’s tributaries there was only one population found in Soda Springs Creek in the Sequoia National Park that closely matched Warren’s description. In 1971, they blasted a bedrock stream section of Soda Creek to protect migration of non natives into this tributary. Continued genetic testing confirmed there were a handful of pure genetic populations spanning only about 10 miles of the river and holding less than 5,000 trout. The Little Kern Golden then received listing as an Endangered Species in 1978, with a special 4(d) ruling permitting continued angling. CDFG conducted nearly 100 chemical treatments of areas with non-native or introgressed populations; transplanted approximately 80,000 hatchery-reared Little Kern Goldens in streams chemically treated and constructed 27 barriers on Little Kern River and tributaries to protect restored populations (Lusardi, 2015). This resulted in the recovery of the species to nearly 70% of its historic range by the late 90’s. It’s estimated that numbers hover around 15,000 but that largely depends on what level of introgression you include in your estimate ie only 15,000 of the purest purity pureness Little Kern Goldens. Hybridization with rainbows remains an immediate threat to their success, but most of the tributaries and upper portions of the Little Kern River have been confirmed to have very low levels of introgression. Despite the relative restoration of the population, it seems regular maintenance is necessary in order to keep levels increasing, which may lend to their continued status as endangered (Lusardi, 2015).
What’s all this information good for if you can’t catch one though? Quick tips for catching Little Kern Goldilocks- break out your 0-3 weight rods; LKG’s typically don’t get bigger than 8 inches (emphasis on typically). Use short leaders and small flies; be stealthy and get ready for simple casts. Think bow and arrow casts, steeple casts and whatever other methods you can devise on a cramped creek with spooky fish and a swarm of mosquitoes at your temple. Trust that all will be worth it when you “strike gold!” and confirm that “thars gold in these hills!” (Gold jokes in California? Really, Savanna?)
They are a featured fish by Western Native Trout Initiative (http://westernnativetrout.org), an organisation dedicated to seeing an “increase in healthy, fishable western native trout, char and kokanee populations resulting from sharper focus and commitment to action on common conservation needs of western native trout.”
They are also designated by California Department of Fish and Game as a Heritage Trout (a native trout in its heritage drainage). Through CDFG Heritage Trout Challenge you can catch 6 different heritage trout and receive a personalized plaque with the species you caught! A link to the CDFG’s Heritage Trout Challenge can be found here: (https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Fishing/Inland/HTC ). Or, go on our Heritage Trout Challenge Roving Packtrip and catch all three heritage trout in the Golden Trout Wilderness! (https://goldentroutpacktrains.com/heritage-trout-challenge-roving-trips). Or, if pack trips are not in your taste, go on a half day or full day ride with us and land your own Little Kern Golden (https://goldentroutpacktrains.com/trail-rides ) Or, find us on instagram and facebook @goldentroutpacktrains for pretty pictures of fish, horses, mules, wildflowers, the Golden Trout Wilderness, the Kern River and so much more!
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Angler’s Guide to the California Heritage Trout Challenge, pp 68-91, California Dept. Fish & Game
California Golden Trout Assessment Strategy, 2004.
CalTrout SOS Report (https://caltrout.org/sos/native-species/trout/little-kern-golden-trout-2/)
Christenson, DP. 1994. Article in Outdoor California.
1984 Revised Fishery Management Plan for the Little Kern Golden Trout
Lusardi et al. 2015. Threat evolution: negative feedbacks between management action and species recovery in threatened trout.
Moyle et al. 2002. Inland fishes of California
Stephens, MR. 2007. Systematics, genetics and conservation of golden trout.