The Golden Trout Wilderness is golden, after all

NO PHOTOSHOP HERE: That’s the actual color of Golden Trout … spectacular! (Jim Burns)

Author Thomas McGuane describes fly fishing better than most, and he certainly got it right with his musings about “20-fish days” in “The Longest Silence.” Of course, he wrote about stripper bass in Atlantic Ocean boils, yet the sentiment for all fisherman — from stream, to river, to broad-horizon ocean — remains the same: longing to catch lots and lots.

It’s a wonderfully greedy obsession and one my son and I tested last week over a couple of days in California’s Golden Trout Wilderness. First, topo map in hand,  we plied the eastern approach. From Lone Pine off the 395, you take a left at the only stoplight in town, then watch for signs (virtually non-existent) to Horsehoe Meadow Road, drive up the dreaded “Z” (don’t slip off the edge …), park and walk. From town to your destination is probably two-to-three hours.

By the way, speaking of signs, you won’t see one anywhere in town to announce the GTW, which doesn’t open until July. Very strange. And most of the locals seemed bent on driving tourists (many French and Austrians there to hike nearby Mt. Whitney) away. Seriously, Lone Piners, what’s up?

Sounds much worse than it actually was, however, because once we arrived at 10,000 feet,  our reward was 50 goldens over the day.

“Take one on your first cast,” I said to Will, and sure enough his grin as he pulled the first one out of the water said the rest. I was lucky enough to nab No. 50 in late afternoon, exhausted from the day’s hiking and catching.

The next day, we approached from the south, bunking in Kernville. This was essentially car fishing, with no topo map required. We quit after a couple of hours with only 27 caught and released.  Low water in each spot didn’t deter us. After a scant rain year, you can’t expect the flows you crave.

Nope, they’re not big fish, so if any of you want to laugh, go ahead. The biggest fish was  around 12 inches, which is a whopper by golden standards. But, I ask you, isn’t this one of the most beautiful species on the planet?

With the right rod in hand, small fish become bigger fish. On a dry, they run, fight, dive and try to get your flouro tied multiple times around that poorly placed log or shock of river vegetation. With the wrong rod, you’ll think you’re pulling up sardines from the party boat. I used my 2-weight Orvis full flex, matched to a small Battenkill reel, overlined with a 3-weight line.

Any attractor pattern does the trick with these seemingly starving fish, but don’t forget your terrestrials. Grasshoppers float for days and were a blast to fish. They also proved a great way to keep the tiniest fish off the hook.

The  massive 300,000-acre GTW 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.

In other words, if you are in reasonably good shape, you can day-trip to some great waters and be home in time for a steak dinner at McNally’s Lodge, north of Kernville on M-99.

The Golden Trout is considered a heritage fish, and by catching six different forms of California native trout from their historic drainages and photographing them in situ, you can receive a colorful, personalized certificate featuring the art of fish illustrator Joseph Tomelleri, according to the DFG Web site. The certificate will show six full-color images representing the trout you caught, along with their dates and locations. So far, the DFG has sent out about 150 certificates.

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 drainable,” writes Robert J. Behnke in is 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.”

Certificate aside, the Goldens we were after 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.

My son’s a big guy, but it’s still true, most are small fish. (Jim Burns)

As I said, 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 from livestock.

“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.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

3 thoughts on “The Golden Trout Wilderness is golden, after all”

  1. Congrats on a great trip, good fishing, and time well spent with your son.
    I look forward to sharing those waters!

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