California Golden Trout

“The fish was fairly molten. It did not glitter in gaudy burnishment, as does our aquarium gold-fish, for example, but gleamed and melted and glowed as though fresh from the mould. One would almost expect that on cutting the flesh it would be found golden through all its substance.”

The California Golden Trout has captured the admiration of many for decades. Search YouTube and you’ll find scores of videos of fishermen making the pilgrimage to search for these illustrious fish. For many, as described above in Edward White’s excerpt of his book, “The Mountain,” it is nearly a religious experience. Why are we so enraptured by a slimy, six inch salmonid? Is it because it truly is a pilgrimage to reach them? Are we just attracted to shiny things? Or might it be because the air is so thin on the hike up there that you just might meet your Maker in the journey (what a way to go, amirite?)

California Golden Trout are classified as a subspecies of rainbow trout, O. mykiss aguabonita. Aguabonita translates appropriately to “beautiful water” after the name of the cascade on Volcano Creek, a tributary to Golden Trout Creek. CGT are small fish mostly because they are in high elevation (over 7500 ft) streams, in their native range. These streams experience a short growing season and low productivity, so most (stream) specimens will not grow bigger than 8 inches with a maximum life span of 9 years. As it goes, fish are normally 3 inches at the end of their second summer and 4 inches at the end of their third. There on, they will grow 1-2 cm a year.

CGT colorations have been described often and with great poetry, so I’ve quoted Benke (2002) here: “The color of the back is brassy or copper, becoming bright golden yellow just above the lateral line. A deep red stripe runs along the lateral line and the golden yellow body color intensifies below. A deep crimson color suffuses the ventral region from the anal fin to beneath the lower jaw.” The young and most adults exhibit around 10 parr marks along the lateral line, although larger fish from lake populations are not likely to have them. Dorsal and caudal fins show large spots. The pectoral, pelvic and anal fins are orange to yellow. Anal, dorsal and pelvic are rimmed in white preceded by a black band. Many accounts claim fish from Golden Trout Creek specifically to be the most brightly colored. Fish transplanted to low elevation streams or lakes may lose their brightness and pale, often becoming silvery.

California Golden Trout are truly native to only two areas, the south fork of the Kern and golden trout creek (and the tributary to GTC, Volcano Creek). Golden Trout Creek is thought to have once been the headwaters of the south fork but due to volcanic activity, diverted and now flows into the main stem of the Kern. According to a newspaper account, in 1872, fish were taken from Golden Trout Creek and transplanted in the headwaters of Mulkey Creek, previously thought fishless due to stream barriers. Then in 1876, 13 fish were transported in coffee cans over the divide to stock Cottonwood Creek. This population was later used to establish a population in Cottonwood Lakes. From these regions the golden trout has been widely transplanted to more than 300 high mountain lakes and 1100 km of streams outside their native watershed. Unfortunately, most of these populations are hybridized with rainbow trout, including the population in Cottonwood Lakes that was formerly used for brood stock for these transplants. Genetic testing confirms that even most of the golden trout in the south fork are highly introgressed with rainbows, although purity increases as you near the headwaters. In most of Golden Trout Creek, introgression is low, sometimes bordering on undetectable. One to two fish out of 40 may have low levels of introgression, making Golden Trout Creek fish the purest genetic strain existing.

Principle threats to California Golden Trout are grazing (mostly along the South Fork) and interaction with alien species (browns and rainbows) again, mostly along the south fork. Golden Trout Creek, due to its isolation is relatively secure. But degradation of stream in some areas by cattle have reduced riparian vegetation, collapsed banks, and reduced depth of the stream and bank undercutting. Interestingly, when it comes time to spawn, these areas serve well for spawning due to the decomposed granite substrate. There are several meadow restoration and monitoring projects going on along the south fork to assess golden trout and improve habitat.

Techniques do not differ greatly from those listed in my previous blog on Little Kern Goldens. Especially in Golden Trout Creek, fish are plentiful and eagerly take the fly. Dries and terrestrials of smaller sizes will catch you fish if presented correctly. 0-3 weight rods are most useful as casting can be confined. These buggers are hard to get to, both a blessing and a curse. Golden Trout Creek can only be accessed by extensive backpacking or by horse back ride into the Golden Trout Wilderness. Want to catch one? Golden Trout Wilderness Packtrains offers several options for fishing Golden Trout Creek. Join our heritage trout challenge trip and catch all three native fish in their historic range (California Goldens, Little Kern Goldens, Kern River Rainbows). Or call today and plan your own trip to Golden Trout Creek. Visit our website for more info on these trips and find us on Instagram and facebook! As always, feel free to comment.

Until then,