California’s golden trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita) was first described by Dr. David Starr Jordan in 1893 as a species of trout of unusual beauty. Native to the South Fork Kern River and Golden Trout Creek and its tributaries, their narrow distribution has been threatened by human impact for more than a century.
In the 1960s, the State of California embarked on an intense conservation program to conserve the species and their habitat. In 1978, the Golden Trout Wilderness was established within the Inyo and Sequoia National Forests, protecting the upper watersheds of the Kern and South Fork Kern Rivers.
In 2004, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife signed an agreement with federal agencies to work on restoring backcountry habitat as part of a comprehensive conservation strategy. In that document, genetic introgression from other species is listed as the present greatest threat to golden trout within their native distribution.
While threatened in their native range, golden trout have been transplanted throughout backcountry habitats in numerous western states to include a plethora of alpine lakes in the High Sierras. As early as the late 1800s, golden trout were transplanted from Golden Trout Creek or its tributaries into nearby Cottonwood Creek, and then Cottonwood Lakes. Decades later, fish from Cottonwood Lakes would serve as the founding population for transplants.
A number of high Sierra lakes presently offer remarkable angling opportunity for this captivating species among breathtaking wilderness views and elevation. Traditional tenkara and fixed-line fly fishing can be quite productive in the shallows for cruising fish, but the often-overlooked cracks draining and feeding golden trout lakes offer unique challenge for their shy residents.
Thirty minutes of channeling my inner mountain goat, teetering and hopping up, over, and across jagged granite perched me 11,300 feet above sea-level. With burning thighs and short breath, I gazed back at Long Lake about a mile and hundreds of feet below.
The journey to landing a California golden trout on the fly in the Sierra Nevada was by far my most thrilling bucket-list adventure yet. What you need to know to make it happen is contained within the pages of the May 2019 edition of California Game and Fish Magazine.
Honestly, I have no legitimate excuse for having not returned. The experience still calls like a siren song playing softly in the background. Snow-capped peaks and glaciers. Expansive vistas of low-country lakes surrounded by ghostly granite, golden grasses and solemn conifers. Hot springs and chapparal scrublands. Mountain quail. And honest-to-God golden trout. The jewel of California’s Sierra Nevada Range.
It was a bucket-list trip. One I had dreamed of, for how many years, I am unsure. We had “golden trout” in Appalachia, but they were rainbow trout genetically selected and bred in a hatchery to have a golden color. “Palomino trout” is another name for them, although some like to attempt a distinction between the various mutants. Of all the years I fished stocked trout in my Virginia youth, I never caught one. To tell the truth, I was unimpressed.
It must have been Sports Afield or Field and Stream stacked on the stone fireplace hearth in my grandfather’s cabin room where I read of California’s legendary state fish. The California golden trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita) is a rainbow trout subspecies native to only two watersheds draining the Kern Plateau of the southern Sierra Nevada Range: Golden Trout Creek and the South Fork Kern River. Even late in my single-digit years, I knew that one day I would cast a fly to the authentic finned bullion of the far west. The non-imposter is now sprinkled throughout the high elevation lakes and streams of the Sierras and Wyoming’s Wind River drainage. Even a few alpine lakes in Washington’s Cascades support the aguabonita.
Catching my breath from the miles of ascent and vertical boulder-hopping, carving new quad muscle on the ascent, I stood surrounded by the cluster of four known as the Treasure Lakes in the John Muir Wilderness. Thirteen-thousand-foot Mt. Dade peak loomed overhead to the south. A permanently shadowed, remnant snow pack, dusted pewter by the wind, was feeding the lakes. Below the shimmering surface of the crystal-clear depths lurked the paragon.
The journey itself in the frigid, pre-dawn frost, giving way to the golden rays and 60 degrees in such scenic country, made for an unforgettable moment. As the wind laid, a floating fly line followed, terminated with a size 12 “cherry limeade”, which is really just a Royal Wulf tied with pink wings rather than traditional white.
As the hostile water warmed into 40-something degrees, golden trout began to appear in the shallows, cruising carefully and targeting small flies. Sight-casting to a larger shape as it glided over a sandy shoal, the fish turned to inspect the fly and engulfed it nonchalantly.
A moment of panic overwhelmed me as I realized I was playing a trout I had obsessed over for somewhere upward of two decades. Kneeling on a flat boulder at water’s edge, I softly cradled my first golden trout in the frigid alpine waters. An awesome spectacle in a small package with a rich auburn belly, buttery yellow flanks, and olive-sized parr marks. A trophy in its own right and a rare dream realized.
While harvest is allowed on most lakes in the Sierra Nevada, I had no intention of bonking the most beautiful trout I had ever laid eyes on. Luckily, the one and only immaculate image my old cell phone would ever capture happened to be of this incredible fish as it approached shore.
I was witnessing utter perfection. An image simply wouldn’t do the memory justice. Sitting against a house-size slab of bister stone, I pondered the options as the trout disappeared past the sandy shallows into the emerald depths. How to memorialize the experience in three dimensions? Then it hit me.
Dayton’s own Tom Schirm is a master carver of fin and scale. A renowned artist in the realm of hand-carved fish replicas, whose artistry is viewable at http://www.tomschirmfishcarvings.com/. An estimated length and a few photos of the fish were all that he needed to get started.
Understanding that an artist needs time to achieve perfection, I left Tom to find his muse. Wanting the fish on a free-standing pedestal, we shared a few calls to talk details. Marble or wood and stone? Either way it would be carved from wood, per the rules of the World Fish Carving Championship, in which Tom has placed well in the past.
Standing by the folding table in my makeshift home office, every glance at the precisely proportioned and painted specimen puts me right back at the top of the crag, short of breath from the climb and elevation. Sun rays glistening atop the lake surface like they were cast from a disco ball. And the goldens are rising.